Concepts of Politeness
A few years ago I went to a bookstore in Italy to buy a book for a lecture at my university, in Trieste, a city close to Venice. The shop had two counters, one for normal books, which was to the right of the entrance, and the other only for university books, which was at the end of the store, opposite the main door. As usual, there were many people in the queue. We were all students except for a man who looked very old (Trieste is known for having one of the oldest population in Italy). He was very tall, haggard and hunchbacked, and he wore a dark-green suit. For some reason, he kept on smiling all the time.
The man told the shop assistant – a young, bold guy who looked like an emaciated version of Mike Stipe – what book he was looking for. The shop assistant shot at him a furious glance, “You are in the wrong section,” he said angrily, “this counter is only for students. Don’t you see?” and he pointed at the big sign that said “University Books”.
The man thanked and, still smiling, turned around. At that moment, the shop assistant made a vulgar gesture with his arm and said: “Ma vaffanculo!” – which in Italian means “fuck off.” I was absolutely shocked. I already knew that shop assistant, everyone knew him because he was probably the rudest shop clerk in town. I had been to that bookstore many times and had already noticed his complete lack of manners and respect. But insulting an elder man simply because of a small mistake – well, that was really too much. I protested and said he could not talk to customers that way. As a response, the shop clerk shouted at me. I said to him that he was extremely rude and walked away. I never went to that store again.
This kind of experience is not totally uncommon in Europe. Customer service can be extremely low. Not that every shop assistant or shop keeper were like that, but such things happen and not entirely unusual. I’ll give one more example.
There was a secretary at Humboldt University who was famous for being extremely moody. She worked – and probably still works – at the International Office and was in charge of the enrollment of foreign students (I wish I knew what genius gave her that job; unless it was a scheme to frighten foreign students, it just makes no sense). One morning she came out of her office, asking in an angry tone each of the students who were lining up: “What do you want?” She was in an awful mood. An Italian girl, after spending a few minutes in the office, got out in tears. The secretary had shouted at her, and we could hear her screaming from the corridor.
Though these two cases are extreme, they show the extent to which rudeness seems to be tolerated in Europe.
A characteristic that people often consider very “Western” is directness. In the West – some say – people are straightforward, individualistic, tend to discuss things openly and don’t shun confrontation. Germany is a country where straightforwardness is quite common. Overall, I rarely met people in Europe who explicitly regarded politeness as a key value.
Before I came to Asia, if one had asked me what was in my perception one of the biggest differences between East and West, I would undoubtedly replied: “politeness”. I believed that East Asian people were more polite, respectful and that they cared more about each other’s feelings than Westerners. After spending a year in Asia, however, I have a different perspective on this subject.
Before coming to Taiwan, what Taiwanese told me about politeness impressed me: “Taiwanese are very polite and nice“, “They like foreigners,” “They help foreigners“, “The group is more important than the individual,” “Taiwanese care about other,” etc. (read also my post about the myth of collectivism and Asian values).
Another thing I’d often heard was that customer service is much better than in Europe. Given these premises, I expected a lot when I came here. And for some time, I tried to make these prejudices fit into the reality I was living every day. Until I finally had to admit to myself that these myths didn’t seem to make much sense. I’m not arguing that Taiwan is worse than Europe, only that many of the things I’d heard were way too idealistic and created in me too high expectations.
Politeness in Stores: Is it All about Money?
As far as I have experienced, the saying that “The customer is God” doesn’t seem to have much to do with the reality. Of course, it depends on what you consider polite or not. Is good customer service based on honest friendliness, or is it just a formal act? Is it an attitude that comes from a real respect for the customer, or is it a ritual that has to be performed mechanically by someone who wants your money?
In general, I would say that, in most cases, Asian politeness in stores is either a ritualized, ceremonious performance, or it doesn’t exist altogether. That doesn’t mean that you won’t find truly friendly staff, but in my experience, true friendliness depends – like in Europe – on the individual shop clerk, while now I am talking about the average phenomenon of politeness.
Japanese restaurants are the ones where “ritualized politeness” is commonest. Waiters bow and say standard phrases. You can see their lips and bodies move, but their soul seems not to be taking part in the process. They are simply performing a play.
The other extreme are places like 7-11 and other convenience stores, where you can feel that the staff is tired and not well-paid. They seldom smile, often don’t say “thanks” and look terribly bored or annoyed.
Between these two extremes there are all sorts of nuances.
Once I went to a Western-style fast food restaurant called Evan’s Burger. The staff there wasn’t very friendly. One of the girls who worked there almost threw the bill on our table without saying a word or even looking at us. I mean, it’s not that bad, but I definitely didn’t feel as though I’d been treated like a God.
The worst experience was in a small dumpling restaurant near Zhongshan MRT station. It is a very famous, crowded place where you have to share the table with other people because there are way more customers than available seats. The staff was pretty rude. I was there with a Taiwanese friend. I asked her why they behaved like that. She said that their shop is famous that they don’t need to be polite to attract more customers.
However, what will definitely never happen in Taiwan is that the staff in a shop will quarrel with you. This is, in my opinion, the real difference between Europe and Taiwan. In Asia in general, people avoid as much as possible confrontation with strangers, so I have never been shouted at or reprimanded in a shop. In this respect I indeed think that customer service is better than in Europe.
I will shortly add something about public offices: they seem to be far better than in Europe. I am indeed thankful and relieved that when I go to renew my visa civil servants are respectful. I heard from foreigners a lot of bad things about Immigration Offices in Germany and Italy, so I think it’s fair to praise Taiwan in this respect. While in my home country going to an office was a true adventure, in Taiwan bureaucracy seems to be relatively simple and fast.
Standing Someone Up Is Not a Big Deal
I have talked about customer service, but what about politeness in other situations? In my experience, people here are not as polite as they often believe themselves.
One thing that really upset me so many times in Taiwan is that a lot of people seem not to respect each other’s time. I’ll give you a few examples.
I’d arranged an appointment with a friend of mine at the beginning of the week. We decided to meet on Friday. Then, a few hours before we were supposed to meet, she sent me an sms and said something like: “It’s raining. Let’s meet another day.” I was really annoyed. I had already planned my evening, and now I had nothing to do. For me, it was a waste of time. But I said nothing. What can you actually say in such a situation? I didn’t want to start quarreling, so I just tried to be nice.
Had it happened just once, it would have been fine. But I had a lot of appointments cancelled this way. “It’s raining,” “I’m tired,”, “Btw, I realized I don’t have time,” – I don’t know how many times I heard sentences like this. At the beginning, I didn’t mind, but then I realized that for some people it’s normal to do this, and I began getting impatient.
Just a few days ago I heard a story from an American friend of mine. On a Saturday night, a Taiwanese girl invited him to go with her and some friends of hers to a pub. He got into a cab and a couple of minutes later she sent him an sms, telling him that she and her friends had already arrived but there were not enough seats, so he couldn’t join them. She added that he could join them later, at around 3 am. But what could he have done for about four hours alone? He thought her behaviour was very inconsiderate.
What’s more, politeness seems to depend on social roles and closeness. For example, no one expects one’s boss to be polite, and in fact, Asian countries boast some of the most ill-tempered bosses one can imagine. Parents are not expected to be polite to their children, neither close friends to each other. I will talk about this in a future post.
“What? You have a Samsung Laptop?”
I used to go to Yamazaki on the NTU campus. A Taiwanese guy used to have language exchange there with a girl from Australia. Since the guy spoke loudly I couldn’t help hearing what they were saying. For some reason, every time he and the girl met he would talk about politics. His favourite topic was China, which he obviously hated. The thing is that the girl had been to China and seemed annoyed by his continuous, long soliloquies about this subject. He wanted her to listen to him, but he didn’t seem to expect her to disagree.
One day, she timidly tried to tell her opinion and praised China. The guy got angry and said something to her in a quite rude tone. Then he said impatiently: “Okay, let’s go back to the previous topic.” The girl just smiled. She was clearly upset by his rudeness. I never saw them again. I guess that the girl was just tired of him.
This anecdote shows one thing: when people say that Asians are not direct, it isn’t always true. In fact, people here can be extremely direct, it’s just that this happens in situations that Westerners do not expect.
I was in a restaurant with a Taiwanese language exchange partner. I wanted to check a word I couldn’t remember so I took out my laptop. When she saw it, she exclaimed: “What? You have a Samsung laptop?” I was taken aback and looked at her in surprise. “What’s wrong with it?” I asked.
“Samsung is from Korea!” she answered. Then she started to explain to me that she hates Korea, that Koreans are cheaters and that I’d better buy another computer, either from Apple or from a Taiwanese brand.
I said that I know a lot of nice Koreans and that when I spend my money I don’t care where the product comes from but it’s only quality that matters. I said I had bought a laptop from Asus but didn’t like it, but I was very happy with the quality of my Samsung laptop. She was kind of upset.
Another example I want to give are the comments people make about others’ appearance. Parents say to their children: “Your eyes are too small,” “You’re too fat,” and things like that. Friends, too, make remarks about each others’ appearance: “Why are you so fat?” “If you don’t change your looks you’ll never find a boyfriend”, “Your shoes are so ugly, you should buy new ones!” etc. I find this very direct, and to be honest, extremely rude. However, it seems to be considered perfectly normal in Taiwan among very close friends. It’s really a question of cultural difference.
Politeness Is For Strangers
One of the big misunderstandings I had when I came to Taiwan was based on the assumption that politeness, respect and friendliness had the same meaning they have for me. By my standards, the closer you come to a person, the nicer, the friendlier and the more respectful you should get. If Taiwanese are nice to strangers – I thought – they will be even much nicer to their friends and family. After some time, I began doubting whether this assumption was true.
Imagine the following scene. A married, middle-aged couple and their child are driving to a friend’s house. The husband gets lost and the mother starts yelling at him: “How can you be so stupid?” When they arrive, she tells their friends in a mocking tone that they were late because her husband got lost.
Well, I would regard the wife’s behaviour as unacceptable. First of all, yelling at each other for a petty thing such as this seems to me very disrespectful. I think she should have rather tried to help him find the way.
I have seen wives and girlfriends treating their husbands or boyfriends in a way that would make me really furious, especially if they did that in front of other people. I’ve also seen men treating women badly, but much less often, I don’t know why. I know of cases of domestic violence by husbands which, of course, I am not likely to witness in person, though one day I actually saw a man hitting a woman on the street (but that was the only case).
I’ve never heard my parents talk to each other like that, especially not in front of me or their friends. Sure, all families have quarrels and arguments, but I would consider that kind of behaviour very mean. People in the West talk so much about “the loss of face” in Asian culture. But where is the “face” in this case? Doesn’t the husband feel humiliated in front of his child and his friends? My mother would never shout at my father like that. I’d assume they would argue about a very serious problem, but definitely not because my father got lost.
Besides, I wonder: what if the wife were driving and her husband yelled at her? Wouldn’t she get angry?
I have seldom be shouted at by my friends in Europe. If someone is rude to me, they’re not likely to become my friends anyway, and the ones who are, usually show to me “respect”. But in Taiwan, if you are really close to someone, you will rarely hear the word “thanks”, your friends might complain about a lot of things, cancel meetings in the last minute, even get angry very easily. Which they consider normal because “we are friends and don’t need to pretend”. The idea is: because we are so close, we don’t need to put on a mask, we don’t need to be polite, we don’t need to be afraid to lose each other because you’ll always be my friend and I’ll always be your friend, no matter what happens, no matter how much we unnerve or upset each other right now.
Let me add that I also met a lot of people who were really kind and gentle, but I also met quite a lot who weren’t.
This concept of friendship was one of the most challenging things for me in Taiwan. Something I’ve never been able to get used to. In my view, friendship has to be deserved. You cannot just get angry and criticize and expect I’ll always be there and endure this day after day. If you hurt your friends, if you make them feel uncomfortable, what sort of friend are you?
What would you do if a friend of yours often comes late and you just say nothing because you want to avoid quarreling, but when you come late she or he gets angry? That happened to me with a few people, and I feel it’s very unfair. No one likes to wait, so if they don’t want to wait I stop coming late. But if my friends come late I will be annoyed. And then they get angry.
And here comes the problem. For many Taiwanese, strangers or acquaintances deserve politeness, but dealing with friends, family members or people hierarchically inferior is a different story. The funny thing is that in Europe, at least in my own experience, strangers tend not to be as nice as in Taiwan, but people who are very close tend to be nicer than in Taiwan. It seems to be the exact opposite!