How did China forget its good manners?

After five thousand years of civilisation, "Sorry" seems to be the hardest word
March 24, 2016
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One thing I have to remind myself each time I return to London—as soon as I hit the Underground from Heathrow—is that in this city, it’s essential to remember my manners. Having been back in China for a few years, I find that social etiquette and the words “please,” “sorry” and “thank you” that used to stream from my mouth with little effort don’t come so easily anymore. Good manners are easily forgotten. In an environment like modern China where everyday politeness towards strangers has a low currency rate, it seems to lose its viability. Just take pushing in, for example: when I was a teenager in Beijing, whoever stretched their hand out as close to the ticket officer got their ticket first, not those who waited in line.

Queuing in China is a lot better today than it used to be, partly because barriers, ropes and people enforce the lines, and also the fact that we have been made acutely aware what a national embarrassment the whole thing is (Try Googling “rude Chinese tourists abroad”).

Busy public spaces in particular are breeding grounds for brash culture that can turn hostile. Stand on the right of the escalator, the sign says at the subway station. So some people stand on the left, which isn’t so bad, but then some stand in the middle. Why? I think with annoyance as I’m late for work. The slight dig with my elbow I give as I push past makes me feels good and self-righteous. It’s even better when the action is accompanied by “Can you move to one side like you’re supposed to?” So who is is ruder: the man blocking everyone’s path, or the one nudging him out of the way?

Becky, an American friend of mine, recounted how she had done something similar recently in Beijing, before realising it was in fact a “white lady” she had offended. Appalled by her actions—which the lady clearly was too—it made her stop and think about how she had been treating strangers in public.

“I think it’s about being assimilated into a culture of callousness. When other people are rude towards you, you internalise it and then find yourself doing it back,” Becky said. “Plus, It’s also just the way that things get done here—if you didn’t push so hard on a bus, you’d never get on.”

There is also the sense that being considerate is wasted when people don’t appreciate it as much as you would hope. I found this out when I lived in a university dorm in Beijing a couple of years ago. I would pull the lobby door open and someone would walk straight through from the other side, often followed by a stream of people. They paid no attention to me, let alone ever thanked me for the gesture; nor did anyone pause to let me through. (This is why the announcement “Let passengers off first before you get on” plays on a loop in the Beijing subway.)

After a while, I realised that those holding doors didn’t expect to be thanked either, as they stood there waiting, emotionless. The process had evolved from an algorithm devoid of human interactions. It worked because at some point, you walked first—you would only lose out if you were polite.

Surrounded by such behaviour every day desensitises you to intuitive reciprocation, as well as saying thank you when thanks is due. Being too grateful can actually make you stand out as someone who doesn’t know the protocol. Being indifferent towards strangers—particularly ones that don’t matter—makes you fit in.
"The widespread, self-centred psyche in the Chinese mainstream reflects the changing priorities of recent decades"
“If you thanked the waiter a few too many times, people would think you’re a bit strange,” said a Beijing friend of mine who had just returned from a year in Vancouver. She said that in Canada, thanking the bus driver when you got off was basic etiquette; here, those who serve you don’t even hold such expectations.

Rapid urbanisation may go some way to explaining these behaviours. China still has an urban-rural divide that manifests itself in huge differences in education, customs and even interpretation of public and private space. Yet the rapid influx of migrants into cities as well as the fast development of rural areas has meant a mash-up of social expectations, understandings and prevailing rules.

From a historical perspective, the Cultural Revolution had no small part to play in breaking down the thousands-of-years-old traditions that placed great emphasis on etiquette. From 1966-1976, its violent activism completely toppled social order and shattered the baseline of human respectful behaviour. Much of the social malaises of modern China can be traced back to this tragic period. “There’s no doubt skipping queues began during the Cultural Revolution when the public realm was in utter chaos,” a Chinese historian told me.

But the self-centred psyche in the Chinese mainstream which will see an open door and immediately dart through it also reflects the changing priorities of recent decades. The economic reforms of the 1970s in many ways forced people to fend for themselves as competition grew inside a socialist structure. Commonly held attitudes, such as “if I don’t get there first, someone else will,” are as applicable to empty bus seats today as to opportunities to make money. How you get there is irrelevant; it is everybody for themselves in an age of individual prosperity and ambition.

It used to annoy me when people played their phone messages out loud on the subway. How selfish, I thought. But today, I often find myself doing the same. I’ve become desensitised to its impact both as a bystander and as the noise maker. No one even looks up when it happens so I surely can’t be harming anyone. For those around me, they’ve learnt to drown out the racket long ago and hear only what they wish to.

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