The Culture of Politeness

Canadians are known around the world for their politeness. So are Japanese. And the British (to some extent).

Americans are not known for politeness. Neither are Chinese. Or French.

320px-Flag_of_Canada.svgIt’s interesting to notice attitudes about these people. As a Canadian, I can confirm that Canadian society is polite, in general. There are rude people, as in any place you may visit. But Canadians are more likely to help a stranger who’s in distress. They’re more likely to run to the aid of a person who has fallen in the street. They’re more likely to smile at a stranger on the street and say hello. There’s a genuine warmth there. There’s a joke that if someone steps on another person’s foot accidentally, both people apologise. One apologises for being the one at fault, while the other apologises for the situation existing in the first place. Canada’s a society that says sorry whether it’s an actual apology or a way to relieve whatever tensions there may be.

320px-Flag_of_Japan.svgIn Japan, customer service is incredibly polite. The customer is always right. The customer is not always polite, though. I have witnessed outraged customers shouting at staff who are only following procedures, yet they continue to apologise for the inconvenience, even if they’re not at fault. Whenever there’s a problem, there’s always an apology. If there’s an accident, there’s an apology, repeatedly. Japan likes its efficient train system. If it’s disrupted even by thirty seconds, there’s an apology. Like Canada, Japan apologises, but it tends to be one way. People are generally polite to each other, but that’s to maintain harmony. It’s not because of genuine concern for one another. I have seen elderly people fall in the middle of the street while every single person walks past ignoring them. That’s to prevent the elderly person from being embarrassed. In Tokyo, people ignore each other. It’s crowded, and they just want to get where they’re going. Eye contact is not polite and avoided. But most people I have met are wonderful people. Very kind and friendly. But there’s one thing you’ll find about Japanese people. They’re not direct. They take a minute to say something that would normally take a North American ten seconds to say. Politeness is how they communicate, how they maintain the peace, not how they feel.

320px-Flag_of_the_United_Kingdom.svgThe British are a curious case. The image outside of the UK is of a country that is cultured and polite. But then speak with someone from the UK, and you’ll notice that they may be friendly, but many can swear like a sailor. And don’t get me started on hooliganism. I know people from both sides of the coin. There are those who are incredibly polite and friendly. And then there are those who are incredibly blunt and show a large amount of confidence.

320px-Flag_of_the_United_States.svgAmericans get a bad rap, mostly because of the foreign policy of the government. They’re viewed as the police of the world, and thanks to some bad apples, the tourists are viewed as boorish, loud, and self-centred. There’s a sense of self-entitlement. However, I find that it depends on where they’re from and their background. Most Americans I’ve met are pretty much just like Canadians. Friendly, open, and polite. But thanks to the image and some tourists, all the stories you hear about are of Americans who say, “I’m ‘murican! Why don’t you speak ‘murican? We saved your ass in the war. You should give us what we want. Why are there so many Mexican-speaking people in Spain? Go back to Mexico!” Okay, so maybe that’s an exaggeration, but there are some people who have that attitude. You can thank Donald Trump for making this stereotype even stronger. But really, if you go to the United States, you’re bound to be greeted by friendly, polite people who will go out of their way to help you if you’re lost. At least outside the big cities.

Flag_of_the_People's_Republic_of_China.svgThe Chinese are notorious for being bad tourists. But it’s not entirely the people’s fault. The government actively tried to get people to stop being polite because they view it as too western. From what I’ve heard, before the revolution, the Chinese were very polite, hardworking people. But when the revolution happened, things changed. There seems to be an attitude of defying everything that is not Chinese. There are territorial disputes with nearly every neighbouring country. They don’t back down, even if they really have no claim to the territory. There’s an image of Chinese people always being angry, speaking angrily, and always shouting. I’ve heard about how drivers will run over people on the road, then run back over them to make sure they’re dead so that they don’t get sued by an injured victim. Dead people don’t sue. I’m sure that’s not always the case, though. From what students have told me, they’ve met some wonderful, polite people in China. I have known very friendly and nice people from China. Again, you can’t assume a group of people isn’t polite based on a stereotype. There are genuinely good people in China.

Flag_of_France.svgThe French are very well-known for their food, the beautiful landscape, amazing cities, and an incredibly strong pride in their language and heritage. This pride can come across as being rude, especially if you try to speak English first while you’re in France. But from what I’ve been told, if you try to use French, they’ll appreciate it and then try to help you out in English. Doesn’t seem that bad, does it? But sometimes it goes too far. And this is actually a French Canadian example. This is an unconfirmed story about some French Canadians criticising French pilots of a French airline in France using English to speak to air traffic control. They said something along the lines of, “If they’re in France, they should speak French!” Sorry, my fellow Canadians, but it’s international aviation law that requires them to speak English. It’s to prevent unnecessary deaths and destruction. But to be honest, I haven’t met a French (or French Canadian) who was rude. They’ve all been polite, normal people.

It doesn’t really matter where a person is from. I’ve heard people in Saudi Arabia are extremely generous and hospitable with guests. The idea that Germans are unsmiling robotic people is shattered by Oktoberfest. The lingering impression that the southern United States is racist is destroyed by stories of incredible hospitality. The opposite can be true for anywhere, as well. You find all kinds of people, rude or polite, friendly or angry, reserved or brash. Every place has every kind of person. I think we need to drop the stereotypes and actually meet people from other countries. Then we will know what the world is really like.

Have you had your stereotypes shattered? Or have they been confirmed? Share your stories in the comments below.

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59 thoughts on “The Culture of Politeness”

  1. I remember going to France with my parents when I was 14. I was studying French and when I spoke to them (admittedly not brilliantly) they were so gracious and helpful. Many years later traveling by myself in Italy it was the same. If we all make an effort to be understood barriers break down. Sometimes even simple hand gestures make a difference. Politeness is universal. Often it’s just the way we perceive the world. Great post Jay Dee.

    1. Absolutely. Even though I was terrible at Japanese when I came to Japan, I tried. I’m still not great at the language now, but I can use it when I need to talk to people in stores or in a taxi or somewhere else.

  2. I enjoyed this article. I am very big on politeness and being kind, and talking to just about anyone…In some areas of the US where I have tried to chat with store clerks or others I get odd stares. The mid-west where I live, Ohio specifically, we tend to be more friendly. The South is also very friendly. I agree with you about Canadians, my experience with them has always been positive…it is hard to distinguish between them and people around here.

      1. yes, they say we have the least-accented speech in the US, and we are often mistaken for Canadians while traveling…we look like them, and they are like us. In fact two of my first cousins are Canadian, and have been since they were teenagers…they are in their 70s now.

        1. It’s interesting how the accents can be similar. West coast Canada is similar to Pacific Northwest USA. But I don’t think anything matches New York, New Jersey, Boston, Nova Scotia, or Newfoundland accents.

          1. My son lived in Washington and traveled (by car) to Vancouver a lot at one time. They also lived in Boston … and when in Boston I always felt like I was in a foreign country because of the accents. πŸ™‚ Except for Canadians saying “eh/aye” a lot, its hard to tell them from northern Ohioans. Its only 30 miles by ferry accross the lake (Erie)

            1. Western Canadians don’t use “eh” much, other than people who live in the countryside. City people don’t, usually. But out in the east, it’s much more common.

            2. oh no…I have “flown over” prairies and the mountain ranges headed to Seattle when my son lived out there. They now live in Minnesota, which is still pretty much “developing.” My son’s granddaughters are natives of Minnesota, 8 and 9 years old, and there is NO WAY he would move from there now!

            3. I can’t say the same, although the Detroit experience was amazing…I wouldn’t be able to do it all now. It involved customs and a rain storm and emergency stop in Cleveland…which was my ultimate destination…quite traumatic! πŸ™‚

            4. Sounds exciting. While I did get to sleep in Minneapolis’ airport, it wasn’t the best sleep. The mattresses they provided smelled sweaty.

            5. absolutely. last time I got stranded in a hotel I felt so sorry for myself that I had a nice filet mignon and couple glasses of merlot… my compensation.

            6. well you know what they say about great minds…we went to Chipotle for burritos the other day…SO GOOD! And so big I cut it in three sections….lasted longer that way.

            7. I like Mexican food, but not love. Actually, I prefer the Mexican style of tacos, using soft shell tortillas. The hard shelled ones are too messy.

            8. I like the soft flour tortillas too. Burritos are not as messy IF they are folded correctly. Once when we came back from Tucson I brought still-warm tortillas from a local bakery…almost had to share them with the airport security people. Ha! Now it probably would have made for a CNN special!

            9. I’m hungry. I need to buy an Old El Paso taco kit, but instead of using the taco shells, get soft tortillas. So good!

              I don’t think I’ve ever shared anything with airport security πŸ™‚

            10. there are a lot of Mexicans in our area, so all the supermarkets carry soft tortillas, and restaurants of course. In our area men used to come up from Mexico to work in the steel mills, then brought their families. They typically insisted that their children NOT learn Spanish, so they grew up and eventually started taking lessons to learn Spanish. At least here in Lorain Ohio area.

            11. My area has a lot of Indians, so there’s a lot of Indian food in the supermarkets. And many Indian restaurants. Good thing I love curry.

            12. come to think of it, we DO have all the stuff we need for tacos, even down to the soft tortillas and the Old El Paso. We even have a tomato…slightly like cardboard, but still red. πŸ™‚

            13. hot house, imported tomatoes that just seem to last forever…ripe red…and have no taste to speak of. I refused to eat tomatoes until I was like 42…so it never mattered to me, but tomato-lovers like my late-husband used to disdain “cardboard tomatoes.” πŸ™‚

            14. I’m surrounded by tomato-lovers. However, my mom is allergic to them, and I’m one of those people who find a certain chemical in tomatoes absolutely disgusting. It actually results in a physical reaction.

            15. yum…followed your lead about the tacos. I had an Old El Paso kit that someone had taken the meat-mix out, and some suspiciously old hard tacos. But we found the soft tortillas, and … well it was very good.

            16. I think ya either love it or hate it…I tried to grow some one but my cats ate it… πŸ™‚ My late husband used to grow anything that would cooperate…even tobacco and cotton. It didn’t do well here in northern Ohio.

  3. Having now lived in both the US and Canada I can see a few differences in politeness. But only in the form of apologies. I would say the majority of ‘Muricans are willing to help. You often hear of “Southern Hospitality” where people basically open their doors to you if you are in need and will give you what you need be it food, water, clothes, etc… They’ll treat you as family. Here in Canada it’s the same way with added bonus of “I’m sorry” from both parties no matter who’s at fault. I’m sorry I stepped on your foot. I’m sorry my foot was where you were stepping.

  4. My travel is unfortunately very limited. I would love to go to Europe one day, but I will say that I try very hard not to be an American stereotype even in America. I tend to fall into the “apologize first” routine just because it tends to disarm a bad situation.

    For people I’ve met from other countries, I notice that they’re much more direct than Americans. We tend to beat around the bush with things, and some don’t want to say something to blunt because that will come off as rude. One of my former coworkers and still friend is Indian, and one of the things I love about her is how direct she is. Like there’s no pretense whatsoever.

    1. I think Indians are pretty direct. As are Chinese. Sometimes, I’ve been a bit frustrated by how indirect people are in Japan. I can’t really get a straight answer for some things. But I know a no when I hear it. When they talk about something for a while, and say that it may be difficult, but it’s okay, that actually is a cue for you to accept defeat and agree that it’s a burden and say no.

  5. The British are a curious case …. I love this line. Just watch out for the sarcasm, you may think we’re being rude but we think we’re being funny. I like being a curious case. Hehehe….. The French are lovely (they’ll hate hearing that from a Brit) but speak your French well or they will give you a hard time. The Canadians & the Chinese you have on the button. Thanks for the smiles this morning.

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