How Politeness Can Be Seen As Rudeness

Many outsiders, particularly from the West, tend find Chinese to be too direct and terse, interpreting this as rudeness. But as an article in The Atlantic reveals, the opposite is true: in China, too many pleasantries are seen as denoting a lack of familiarity and closeness (a sentiment that applies to other cultures as well, such as India).

…among good friends, the contrasts between the politesse of what you do and the bluntness of what you say can seem baffling. At a restaurant with friends, a delicate choreography will have one person carefully select a few choice morsels from the common bowl and place them on a neighbor’s plate. It is a small, perfect gesture. Another person will pour tea or beer for everyone else before even considering pouring his own. And then another will announce “Gei wǒ yan!”, literally “Give me salt!” with no sign of a please or thank you involved. I’m always taken a little aback and bite my tongue to stifle a “Say please!” after so many years of training children in Western table manners.

My Chinese friends say they notice that Westerners use lots of pleases (qǐng) and thank yous (xiexie) when speaking Chinese. And actually, they say, we use way too many of them for Chinese taste. A Chinese linguist, Kaidi Zhan, says that using a please, as in “Please pass the salt”, actually has the opposite effect of politeness here in China. The Chinese way of being polite to each other with words is to shorten the social distance between you. And saying please serves to insert a kind of buffer or space that says, in effect, that we need some formality between us here.

It makes some intuitive sense: compare how you interact with your closest loved ones versus distant relatives, acquaintances, or strangers. Though some cultures and societies are more imbued by this logic than others — hence the comparative dearth of niceties in their languages — the foundations of it seem intuitive.

This is important to keep in mind whenever you find your interactions with someone of another culture to be awkward or abrasive. It might simply be that they are coming from a totally different worldview shaped by language and custom. It might be an obvious point, especially in this increasingly globalized world, but it is still commonly overlooked.

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