I mentioned in the previous article that sometimes I heard Taiwanese and Chinese say that they are ‘too nice to foreigners’ (‘foreigners’ meaning in this context ‘Westerners’). I can feel a certain anger in such words, an anger which is neither too direct nor violent, but which nevertheless reveals frictions and misunderstandings. What is behind these tensions?
Nice Asians vs Rude Westerners? A Different Approach
Polite Appearance, Polite Sincerity and Hypocrisy
The evaluations of the Book of Rites differ greatly. Some people interpret it as a text that empowers the elites and creates social oppression, others as a text that propagates egalitarian, harmonious virtues (see Nylan 2001, p. 186), and in between there are many more opinions. But since I am trying to explain why Westerners may not think that Taiwanese or Asians in general are polite, I will focus on the aspects of Asian politeness that are truly different from those in the West: hierarchy and ritualism.
Sons and sons’ wives, who are filial and reverential, when they receive an order from their parents should not refuse, nor be dilatory, to execute it. When (their parents) give them anything to eat or drink, which they do not like, they will notwithstanding taste it and wait (for their further orders); when they give them clothes, which are not to their mind, they will put them on, and wait (in the same way). If (their parents) give them anything to do, and then employ another to take their place, although they do not like the arrangement, they will in the meantime give it into his hands and let him do it, doing it again, if it be not done well. [my emphasis]
When the sons and their wives are engaged with laborious tasks, although (their parents) very much love them, yet they should let them go on with them for the time;–it is better that they take other occasions frequently to give them ease. When sons and their wives have not been filial and reverential, (the parents) should not be angry and resentful with them, but endeavour to instruct them. If they will not receive instruction, they should then be angry with them. If that anger do no good, they can then drive out the son, and send the wife away, yet not publicly showing why they have so treated them (source link; see also Nylan 2001, p. 186) .
Under the generous idea of being the Emperor’s guests, we were not allowed to purchase any thing. He alone was to supply our wants, but his officers took the liberty of judging what these wants should consist in (Barrow, chapter VII).
I myself had such problems several times. Once I went to a Mid-Autumn Festival party organized by a delegation of Communist cadres in Berlin. They were drinking 白酒 (báijiǔ, a spirit usually distilled from sorghum or maize), and they asked me to drink with them. Actually, I did not want to drink, but they insisted so much that in order to avoid offending them I gave in. They could clearly see that I was reluctant, but that didn’t seem to bother them. They even thought they were doing me a great honour. One of them said to me, smiling: “In China it’s young people who are expected to ask older people to join them drinking. We are older than you, but we ask you to drink, so you can’t refuse.”
As we could see in the example from the Book of Rites, not being honest about one’s own feelings is part of the system of Asian politeness. When children are warned not to refuse the food or clothes their parents offer them, even if they dislike them, it is assumed that not showing one’s true feelings is a filial duty. It is a filial duty to lie in order not to make one’s parents unhappy. At the same time, this system creates a tendency for not caring about true feelings, but about the form in which social relationships are expressed. In fact, parents may simply not wish to know what their children really want or need, but demand from them compliance, and compliance is what makes parents happy and satisfied with heir children. In the same way, the Emperor or the Taiwanese company do not bother to understand what their guests really want, so they offer them something the guests view as superfluous. At the same time, guests are not permitted to do what they really want and have no choice at all but to comply, because if they refused they would be considered rude. So, polite behaviour in these examples is a ritualised act, detached from true feelings (though not necessarily).
Parents want to get involved in your relationship as much as they can. When you date they want to know, where did you go and what did you do? They want details about how the relationship is going and they try to offer you advice. Girls especially value what their parents think of their boyfriends, and if they do not approve the girl may not be happy. I don’t have a boyfriend now and my parents are going crazy, so they’re telling me everyday, ‘You’re almost 24, you should be going out to find a boyfriend. Your career is secondary to your marriage.’ They think I should prioritize my goals in life and make finding a boyfriend my first priority. It’s annoying for me to hear them talk like that because I want to get a degree. Their intentions are good, but they’re based on their own judgement and experience and they are trying to force their ideas on me and prove my own ideas are wrong. I try not to discuss this issue with them. Still, it’s much different than in the countryside, where the marriage is usually arranged and the girl only meets the boy once or twice before they get married (Burger 2012, pp. 35-36).
Let us now talk briefly about the Western understanding of politeness.
This doesn’t mean that there was no hierarchy or no collectivism in the West, on the contrary. Religions or political ideologies such as nationalism were per definition collectivist; European medieval societies were extremely hierarchical, perhaps even more than China ever was; political regimes like fascism or Communism, too, were hierarchical. The real difference is that the West never had a hierarchy and social roles based on clans and social ritualism. Western families were way more fluid than their Chinese counterparts, they changed rapidly through the centuries, and they never had such a strong codified submission of parents to children, filial duties or family rituals as was the case in the Confucian tradition.
Therefore, in Western societies politeness and social rules usually did not go beyond the function of showing well-breeding and refinement. The purpose of politeness in the West was to distinguish individuals, to show their refinement, well-breeding and moral principles. Chinese politeness creates a code of behaviour that unifies society in the observance of rituals; Western politeness is a standard by which an individual can distinguish him- or herself from others by showing through manners the goodness of his or her character. However, politeness was never unanimously accepted exactly because of its vagueness. “How can one express his or her true self through a set of standardised rules?” – from a Western point of view, this has always been a major concern regarding politeness because such set of rules often risks to lead to insincerity.
In recent times the importance of politeness further diminished. I would argue that in contemporary Western societies, politeness is not considered a key value, mostly because it is associated with negative characteristics such as ‘hypocrisy’ or ‘fakeness’. Therefore, politeness does not enjoy a unanimously accepted status as a core social value:
Some people feel that polite behaviour is equivalent to socially ‘correct’ or appropriate behaviour; others consider it to be the hallmark of the cultivated man or woman. Some might characterise a polite person as always been considerate towards other people; others might suggest that a polite person is self-effacing. There are even people who classify polite behaviour negatively, characterising it with such terms as ‘standoffish’, ‘haughty’, ‘insincere’ etc. (see Watts 2003).
Remember […] “once a gentleman always a gentleman,” and be sure that you can so carry out the rule, that in your most careless, joyous moments, when freest from the restraints of etiquette, you can still be recognizable as a gentleman by every act, word, or look. Avoid too great a restraint of manner. Stiffness is not politeness, and, while you observe every rule, you may appear to heed none. To make your politeness part of yourself, inseparable from every action, is the height of gentlemanly elegance and finish of manner (Cecil B. Hartley. The Gentlemen’s Book of Etiquette and Manual of Politeness, Introduction).
Real politeness is the outward expression of the most generous impulses of the heart. It enforces unselfishness, benevolence, kindness, and the golden rule, “Do unto others as you would others should do unto you.” Thus its first principle is love for the neighbor, loving him as yourself. When in society it would often be exceedingly difficult to decide how to treat those who are personally disagreeable to us, if it were not for the rules of politeness, and the little formalities and points of etiquette which these rules enforce. These evidences of polite breeding do not prove hypocrisy, as you may treat your most bitter enemy with perfect courtesy, and yet make no protestations of friendship.
If politeness is but a mask, as many philosophers tell us, it is a mask which will win love and admiration, and is better worn than cast aside. If you wear it with the sincere desire to give pleasure to others, and make all the little meetings of life pass off smoothly and agreeably, it will soon cease to be a mask, but you will find that the manner which you at first put on to give pleasure, has become natural to you, and wherever you have assumed a virtue to please others, you will find the virtue becoming habitual and finally natural, and part of yourself. Do not look upon the rules of etiquette as deceptions. They are just as often vehicles for the expression of sincere feeling, as they are the mask to conceal a want of it […].
While a favor may be doubled in value, by a frankly courteous manner of granting it, a refusal will lose half its bitterness if your manner shows polite regret at your inability to oblige him who asks the favor at your hand. Politeness may be extended to the lowest and meanest, and you will never by thus extending it detract from your own dignity. A gentleman may and will treat his washerwoman with respect and courtesy, and his boot-black with pleasant affability, yet preserve perfectly his own position. To really merit the name of a polite, finished gentleman, you must be polite at all times and under all circumstances (ibid. Chapter II; my emphasis).
We can see that the purpose of politeness was not to be fake, or to comply with social roles, but to show one’s true heart through a refined and courteous attitude that would inspire respect. One can even show to an enemy one’s dislike and be polite at the same time. Accordingly, the author stresses the need that politeness should become an integral part of an individual, and not just a formal act. Furthermore, the author makes clear that a polite person must always be polite, and that a polite person should not act impolitely even with people hierarchically inferior. The lack of a hierarchical understanding of politeness and the emphasis on a connection between true feelings and polite manners seem to me to be a major difference between Western and Eastern thought.
As a consequence, it is true that Asian people may be polite in certain situations. It is also true that one can hardly find anyone in Asia who will be rude to strangers. On the other hand, politeness in Asia can hardly be seen as a reflection of a person’s inner feelings, of a person’s true heart. On the contrary, there might be, on average, more impolite people in the West. However, in the West politeness or impoliteness are a result of a person’s character. Consequently, a polite Westerner will probably tend to be like that in all situations of life. As far as I am concerned, when I was in Europe it was easier for me to distinguish the people who I thought I could truly get along with or not, because their behaviour at least hinted at who they really were.
In Asia many if not all people are polite in certain situations, above all when they are not close to someone, but politeness does not necessarily show their true self. This makes it hard to see through them and understand what character they really have.
Certainly, Chinese politeness also aims at sincerity, but in my view, to a far lesser extent. Chinese politeness seems to me rather role-specific. A customer can be extremely coarse to a shop assistant, yet be very polite to a stranger; a mother can be rude and aggressive to her children, but submissive with her parents-in-law; a girl may be sweet and friendly with her employer, but mean to her boyfriend etc. I’m not saying that everybody is like this. What I am saying is that Western politeness is supposed to reveal the true heart of a person; Asian politeness is not supposed to reveal true feelings, but the wisdom of someone who understands social roles properly and acts according to them.
Because of this difference, the sensibilities of Westerners and Asians differ, as well, and they might involuntarily hurt each other because they do not deeply understand each other’s standards and values.