Tag Archives: politeness

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.

Life in Japan: Fitting In or Giving Up?

Japan has a far different culture than what I grew up with in Canada. There are so many things that are interesting, yet not always easy to understand or deal with. This week’s question comes from barnraised:

Do you ever find yourself just “tired”? Of trying to fit in, to please?

Occasionally. It’s not often, though. There are times that I get frustrated with procedures, but who doesn’t? That happened in Canada (government procedures, long wait times). But remarkably, I found it rather easy to fit in in many ways. My personality type is a good match for Japan, as I am an introvert who tends to enjoy being quiet. On the train, apart from being a foreigner, I look like everyone else with my nose in a book or looking at my phone. I have no trouble shopping, no trouble with work, and I even have no trouble getting my annual health checkup (I know the procedure). I can’t say I’ve become tired of much of anything, except for a few small things.

One is the politeness level in shops. I find the constant “Irasshaimase (welcome)” kind of tiring. But what I was used in Canada was that everyone said thank you, including the customer. In Japan, customers treat the employees without any kind of respect. No thank yous at all. The staff are incredibly polite, but the customers are not. They’re just totally indifferent.

On the trains, I get tired of how some people can be so impatient that they’ll push people out of the way or stand in the middle of an open train door while many others are trying to get out. And then there are the people who hog the priority seats and don’t give them up to pregnant or elderly passengers. This is not Japanese culture, this is commute-induced laziness and rudeness.

Although this is nothing about fitting in, I find it somewhat baffling how so many people in Japan seem to think only Japan has four seasons. And the “We Japanese” phrase that many people use give the Japanese culture a kind of Borg hive mind mentality that I just can’t get myself into. I’m an individual, and I don’t think or even want to say “We Canadians.”  And I actually find that most Japanese are very individual. It’s part of their education that they’re told to just go with what the majority say and don’t think for yourselves.  Creativity and innovation are suffering in Japan because of this.

But there’s one thing I have to say about living in Japan. No matter how long I live here, or even if I became a citizen, I would never actually fit in. Japanese culture won’t allow me to. Everyone will always say I’m just a visitor, and I’ll never understand what it’s like to be Japanese, or that I’ll never understand anything about Japan or Japanese culture. I could become the greatest expert of Japan, know the language and culture better than anyone else, live it exactly how the Japanese do, and yet, I will still be called an outsider who doesn’t understand anything. Also, my daughter, a Japanese citizen, will never be fully accepted by Japan as Japanese. She’ll always be considered a foreigner, even though she is Japanese! Miss Universe Japan Ariana Miyamoto has the same difficulties.

I hope that answers your question. It wasn’t easy to think of how I was tired of anything in Japan, but there were some things I just would not be able to do to fit in.

Have a question about life in Japan? Go here and ask in the comments.