The Culture of Courtesy

Thank you

Why is it so hard for Asians to be courteous? After observing so many overseas students here in Adelaide and other Asian travellers when I am on the plane or overseas, I came to a conclusion that Asians can be considered the rudest and discourteous group of people.

People may think that I’m being racist by making such statements and disagree with my opinion vehemently – but as you know, I am an Asian myself. As an example, I was waiting for a bus today at the local stop with (presumably) an Asian overseas student. When the bus came, it stopped closer to her than where I stood, so I made the gesture for her to get into the bus first even though I was there earlier. She didn’t say thank you, nor even acknowledged the kindness. I know that it is a poor example, but I find it frustrating when Asians fail to say “please” or “thank you”. On numerous occasions in an airplane, I had been very tempted to add “please” after a fellow passenger just responded with “Chicken!” when the stewardess enquired on what he or she wanted to eat. Even after the food was presented, it would be a rare occasion if a “Thank you” was muttered.

At home, Asians can be the most courteous and obedient people that you have ever encountered. Children are told not to talk back to their parents. Asian children are often praised for their docile and calm demeanour in the presence of their relatives or friends. Then how come when they deal with service providers, such courtesy seems to fly out of the window?

My hypothesis is that Asians tend to be class-conscious because of the culture and their upbringing. Shop attendants, waiters, bus drivers are often considered of a lower class, thus not requiring the courtesy that is reserved for people of the same or higher stature in life. Of course I disagree with such sentiment. In an egalitarian society, such attitude will only invite hostility, as people – regardless of their profession or background – still expect courtesy and acknowledgement. I have heard the locals grumbling that Asians are rude and discourteous. How embarassing …

Another reason why Asians don’t say ‘Thank you’ or ‘Please’ as much is that when such dialogue is translated into the local language, saying those words seems so superfluous. The following example is in colloquial Indonesian: if a shopkeeper asks, “Mau pake sambel?” (Do you want to put chilli sauce on it), an answer of “Nggak usah” (Not needed) is already sufficient. Saying “Nggak usah, terima kasih” (Not needed, thank you) will seem strange – it’s as if you had just walked out of the Standard Indonesian Dictionary.

Courtesy is linked to culture – whatever is acceptable in one culture may be considered totally rude by others. However, I believe that saying thank you or please goes beyond cultural boundaries. It’s your way of saying that you respect the other person and that you acknowledge the service or goods given. Everywhere I go on my journeys, one of the things that I always do is to say thank you in the local language. Whether it’s Danke schön, Aciu, Tusen takk, Xie-xie ni or Aiita, I try to show my appreciation in ways they can relate the most. In most cases, if not all, people will appreciate the gesture. As mentioned in my previous blog entry, I had a delightful exchange of pronounciations when I tried to say ‘Köszönöm’ in Budapest to a café owner. She gently corrected my pronounciation whilst smiling, obviously feeling amused that an Asian traveller tried to speak Hungarian. I was once in a taxi in Adelaide as well, being driven by a turbaned Indian – when I arrived at the destination, I thanked him by saying ‘Shukriya’ – the Hindi word for ‘Thank you’. He looked at me and said, “You don’t know how much that means to me”.

I didn’t do anything noble – I just said thank you.


Published by fuzz

I've finally relented to the lures of blogging - and for those who care, well, I'm a self-confessed geek who's a wanderer at heart, who thinks and analyses too much, and who's trying hard to hold on to his 7-year old inner persona.

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