Rudeness and cultural differences

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I came across a new story the other day about two men in the USA, both in their late 30s, who got into an argument about the rules for the baseball league their sons played in. It started with harsh words, escalated to fisticuffs, and culminated in the two of them taking turns whacking each other with, appropriately enough, a baseball bat. But at least they were sharing!

Anyway, the story brought to mind any number of similar incidents that have called into question the health of the civil society in America. I've seen very similar articles about 'Rude Britannia', too.

Here in Hong Kong, things often seem no better, but for different reasons. I've tried over my years here to understand Hong Kong-style rudeness, and I've made a couple of observations. They're based to some degree on things I've read about Chinese culture, but they're mostly the products of long and irritating experience.

As a general rule of thumb, I've noticed that Chinese people are nice enough indoors, but put them out in the open air, and you'd better watch your toes, your back, and any other body part that could be stepped on, elbowed, poked with an umbrella, or possibly set afire, assuming the weather's not too wet.

Actually, it's a public/private thing. Chinese culture seems to encourage elaborate politeness when people are known to each other, whether by family, business or other formal organization. Conversely, there's little value placed on public politeness, i.e. being nice to strangers, who at best are treated with detached indifference. This distinction is, I believe, what lies behind so many complaints about 'Hong Kong rudeness' from tourists and expats arriving in Hong Kong. Many of us come from cultures where even strangers smile and say 'Have a nice day!' to each other; this practice is no doubt very shallow, but it's nevertheless expected.

So getting used to indifference is crucial to living peacefully in Hong Kong. But sometimes, of course, it's much worse. As in any big city, Hong Kong provides its residents with plenty of examples of much more aggressive rudeness. There are some unique features to Hong Kong's brand of rudeness, however.

First, there are some cultural differences a non-Hong Konger will note pretty quickly. One such area comprises, to put it bluntly, people openly belching, explosively yawning and engaging in deep, mystical nose-picking. It's not uncommon to see lavish displays of each of these in almost any public place, although Mr Tall is convinced you get the best performances on buses, where the perpetrators really have time to concentrate on their technique. To be fair, these body-function-oriented displays are usually associated with older people, but belches in particular seem to, ummm, rise up all over: Mrs Tall, for example, tells a story of a training seminar she was leading in which one of the participants -- a young woman -- punctuated every few minutes with deep, resonant, soul-satisfying burps, seemingly with no self-consciousness whatever.

On the whole, though, Hong Kong rudeness varies directly with age: older Hong Kong people are, on average, much ruder than younger ones. This is the dead opposite of most western countries, in which you still frequently encounter courtly old gentlemen and refined dames of a certain age, but where the youth have devolved into troglodytes.

No, the working model for Rude Hong Kong is a late-middle-aged housewife. Watch her at the bus queue, as she lurks on the pavement just off to the side, and then, the moment the door opens, as she barges into the bus ahead of those waiting in line. Once inside, see her settle her ample posterior precisely across the crevasse between two seats, fortifying her territory against all pretenders to sitting down. Now hear her on her mobile phone, as she bawls out a running report of her block-by-block location to the poor sod on the other end, as well as to every other sentient life-form on that bus. And then see her in action at a fruit stall in the wet market -- or feel her, to be more accurate -- as she relentlessly shoves you out the way in order to get right up front so she can fondle the mangoes with both hands.

Well, you get the idea.