Thursday, 8 September 2011


Politeness, a word that describes all manner of actions undertaken by one individual to another, a series of gestures, words or actions that establish respect and mutual recognition or appreciation. It’s a strange concept, one that divides us from animals and ensures our position as a higher intelligence, borne from decades of cultural development and a view that we are all equal. It was something that as a child I would have drilled into me by parents and grandparents; 'only speak when your spoken to', 'always say please and thank you', 'mind your manners', 'don't speak with your mouth full' and so on. They did this to me, as their parents had done to them, and so the journey goes. My children tire of me reminding them to say thank you to restaurant waiters or hotel porters, but still they do it, and even for my heavy metal loving, anarchist supporting, long haired teenage son, he understands the reasons behind being polite and rarely forgets.

 So given all of this and believing I had a very 'normal' upbringing - Why does it seem to have gone the way of the Dodo? As someone who travels the world and interacts with literally thousands of people from all walks of life, colour, creed, intellect and 'social standing', I would like to think that I am a good gauge of society and I have come to the conclusion that politeness it dying quicker than the Nokia mobile phone. I can’t put it down to anyone country, type of person, or even situation, it just seems that generally people have forgotten that we all need to get along and being polite to one another makes the whole world better for all.

Of course some people stand out more than others, the Chinese for instance don't have a word for 'please' (Yes I know they do - but they don't, trust me), and the word for 'sorry' was made up to appease foreigners who couldn't manage a whole day without apologising for something - you will rarely hear either of these words used in general conversation, unless of course its a Laowei talking to someone Chinese. I have worked in Chinese offices varying between 10 and 200 people, and I have never, heard people who have worked together for up to 10 years say good morning or good bye - trust me, people come in, sit down and get on with their work, communicate all day, and then at the end of the shift they pack up, turn the commuter off and walk out. I force everyone in my office to come and say 'good morning' and 'good evening' to me everyday, petty? maybe - but I thought it may rub off and install some 'politeness' into the office, however they do it to me as I am the Loa Ban and I told them to - to each other? You must be joking.

The Chinese are not alone of course, the times I have stood at a building entrance recognising that there is someone either wanting to come in, or follow me out, I will open the door and keep it open for the other person to pass through first - do I get a 'thank you'?, do I fu*k. I normally stand there and shout something like "Do I look like the fu*king doorman?", or the killer one (outside of China) is the slowing down of your car and flashing your headlights to allow someone to turn right into a junction, and despite going out of your way to erode your perfectly good brake pads, and waste a minute of your valuable time, the driver of the turning vehicle looks at you as if your an idiot and fails to acknowledge your kind gesture. Words cannot express how much these simple ignorant acts (please excuse my French) piss me off, I become enraged and want to beat the living daylights out of the offender, I scream at myself that this would be the last time I offer any kind of gesture. But of course the next time an opportunity to 'do a good dead' or be 'polite' there I am holding a door open or allowing a car to turn, always with a voice in my head saying 'one good turn deserves another' or 'do onto others as you would want done to yourself'.

Sometimes I put this down to language barriers, and its obvious in some situations this may be true, but if I accidentally bumped into a visitor from the planet Zarg, or got served by a orang-utan in MacDonald’s, I am sure we would all know that I had apologised or said thank you, 90% of language is unspoken, and the body language you use to apologise or say thank you is probably the strongest and easiest to read. People do not acknowledge your deed, words or actions because they didn't understand - it simply that they can’t be bothered or simply don't care. I guess its fairly self perpetuating, when we first arrived in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province we would go weeks without seeing another western face, so as soon as you did, you would dive on them by saying 'Hi" or 'Hello", after about the 30th rejection and blank expression delivered by the foreigner abroad, you fall into the trap of simply 'not bothering' the next time you encounter a westerner, at this point it is almost always the time that you bump into someone almost normal and they quickly acknowledge your existence, just as you decide to look the other way and pretend you only understand Swahili, and so the pattern continues. Exprats are the worlds worse, the competition to have lived in the country the longest, to have endured to harshest winter/summer and been through more maids than Berlusconi at a bunga bunga party, leads them to deny all other westerners as mere tourists and also runs.

So why don't I just stop being polite? If the fact that other people not reciprocating my politeness makes me so angry, then surely if I just stop making kind gestures, offering words of gratitude or simply acknowledging another human beings exist, it would mean that I wouldn't have to get angry anymore? Well the problem here is twofold, firstly I wouldn't be able to sleep at night knowing that I treated an individual badly by not acknowledging them and secondly, the delight you do get when another human being acknowledges you, lets you take a parking space, says please/thank you, or simply gives you a big smile in recognition, way far and above the opposite discomfort it causes when they don’t. Try it, give a complete stranger passing you on the street a big smile, wave a person into the space you had designated yours or hold a door open for someone you don't know - if they acknowledge your kind gesture you will feel great. Of course if they ignore it, you will feel like shit, but at least bask in the fact that you’re better than them!

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