Who's rude ?

Hi Mr Tall,

I've just read your "rudeness" piece http://www.batgung.com/articles/rudenessreconsidered.htm. Don't you think that a lot of the "people here are so rude" complaints are just cultural misunderstandings ? Not the pushing & shoving rudeness, but those other little habits ?

I hate sitting at the table where people are eating noisily with their mouth open - but it's hard to prove any real impact on my well-being. I think that somewhere at the back of my brain there is a recording of my mum playing : "CLOSE YOUR MOUTH WHEN YOU EAT!", and that's what's really making me uncomfortable !

Another dinnertime example - I got a gentle reprimand from MrsB after one dinner with her family, telling me it wasn't polite to reach across the serving bowl with my chopsticks. Instead I should only take from the side nearest me. My protests that I was just being polite by picking up the smallest piece of food fell on deaf ears.

One of our friends who's a BBC tells a similar story of her sister bringing a western boyfriend to their home in the UK for Sunday lunch. As dinner wound down, her dad offered the serving bowl with last roast potato towards the guest. Although he was feeling full he thought he'd better be polite, took the potato and carried on in blissful ignorance. Meanwhile a silence fell upon the rest of the family because they knew that was dad's potato, and the offering was done out of Chinese politeness with the full expectation that the offer would be refused !

So who's rude in these cases ? A lot of it seems to depend on which side of the dinner table you are sitting.


who's rude?

That's a great question, Mr B, i.e. who is it who's really being rude in these 'cultural misunderstanding' situations?

In the latter case you've mentioned (which is a classic, by the way -- *everybody* knows which potato is Dad's!) I think it's the family who's been rude. There's simply no way for their guest to know about this 'custom', which you have to admit is pretty counterintuitive.

But that story happened in the UK. Once you've moved to another culture, a lot of people (especially those who haven't really tried it) will argue that it's up to you to learn your new culture's definitions for polite behavior. But those of us are expats -- and who actually worry about whether our behavior is considered polite or not -- know that 'learning the culture' is far easier said than done.

I try to stick to a kind of 'golden rule', i.e. to put myself in the place of the other person. If what he's done could reasonably be expected to offend him if I had done it (and vice versa, of course), then it's probably just plain rude by any definition (e.g. elbowing somebody out of the way when boarding a bus; you can't convince me that anybody finds that pleasant). But the corollary is that if there's no way he could have known about something -- e.g. eating rituals where you're expected to refuse a direct offer of more food -- he's off the hook.

The problem is, this isn't easy to put into practice, because petty irritation frequently overrides rational analysis in cross-cultural situation.

I'll give one example, which is a HK standard: when you get a wrong number on your phone, and reply in English, which for most HK callers is a pretty clear indication they've misdialed, instead of a 'sorry, I dialed the wrong number', or an enquiry about who they're talking to, what you usually get is a brief pause, then an escalating, ear-abusing series of 'WEIs', as if your mistaken identity could be bludgeoned into the proper reality by the force of these 'greetings'. Even saying 'Da cho' i.e. 'you've got the wrong number' in Cantonese, sometimes doesn't shut off the Wei machine. I find it very hard to stay polite when this happens -- I usually just hang up and then say bad words -- but getting obstinate wrong number callers doesn't seem to bother Mrs Tall all that much, and she thinks I always overreact.

So again, who's rude?

Re:Who's rude ?

Being in HK is great because it challenges our view of what is right/wrong concerning customs and attitudes, because really, if we are here the local way is the 'right' way.

That said, there are some things that annoy me that are bad manners and go beyond cultural practices because they show a lack of consideration for others, eg, getting into a lift before people have left it, bus queues, getting on a train and my pet hate, not holding a door open for others and worse, not looking to see if there is anyone behind, before closing a door.

Sure, all of these may be cultural, though I do think they are bad manners. Don't get me started on those who snort and sniff whilst not blowing their nose, now thats cultural.