Asians Lack Politeness in Survey of World Cities

Onlookers watch as an egg deliveryman, trying to save some of his daily wages, salvages unbroken eggs after crashing his bicycle in Mumbai. (Photo: Ralphson David / AFP-Getty Images)

It seems that interest in research on "politeness" has been receiving considerable attention in recent years and different researchers have favored politeness in different senses. The standard acceptable meaning of politeness may have three dimensions: (1) polite as civil or socially correct, (2) polite as kind or friendly, and (3) polite as tactful or diplomatic. In the opinion of some scholars, politeness may be a matter of social adequacy, which may be dependent upon cultural-specific norms. However, when is the politeness relevant? Is it relevant when it is ostensibly communicated or when it has contextual effects? In my opinion, politeness may be relevant when it is communicated as well as expressed with some emotions. Therefore, this article provides a polemic view on the findings of a recent politeness survey, which tagged Asian cities as the rudest in comparison to Western cities.

The Reader's Digest (R.D.) survey made world headlines on June 21, 2006. The survey concluded that New Yorkers are the most polite and civilized people in the world while Mumbaikars are the rudest on the earth. For Mumbaikars this was an awakening to start behaving well, otherwise they will be tagged as uncivilized folks. Newspaper headlines read "New York the politest city, London half courteous," "N.Y. very polite, Asia quite rude" and "If in Mumbai, learn to be rude."

The survey findings surprised me, as they were unbelievable. Certainly, the survey was greeted with disdain on the streets of Mumbai. By calling Mumbai the "rudest city," newspapers came under fire from expatriates and tourists (see this Gulf News article for an example). In other words, four out of five New Yorkers passed the courtesy test, while only one and half Mumbaikars passed it. In Europe, Moscow and Bucharest ranked as rudest among the lot.

R.D. sent reporters into the principal city of each of the 35 countries in which it is published to conduct a survey on local politeness. Three tests were employed: (1) dropping papers in a busy street to see if anyone would help, (2) checking how often shop assistants said "thank you" and (3) counting how often someone held a door open.

According to Wikipedia, "Rudeness is the (apparent) disrespect and failure to behave within the context of a society or a group of people's social laws or etiquettes. These laws have already unspoken been established as the essential boundaries of normally accepted behavior. To be unable to align one's behavior with these laws known to the general population of what is socially acceptable would be considered rude."

As an intellectual, a researcher, and a sagacious Indian, following the cannon of Indian cultural courtesy, I "thank" the R.D. team for telling Mumbaikars about their findings. However, I have concerns and doubts about the findings.

1. The survey suffers from many flaws. On what basis were only 35 countries selected? Why not other countries? (Even though R.D. is only published in these 35 countries, its readers are global!) As can be seen from Exhibit–1 (below), no country from the Middle East region is on the list. Why was Dubai not selected? It is a city known for financial and technology businesses. Why were cities like Shanghai in China not chosen? Why was South Africa the only African country selected whereas nine countries/cities were selected from Asia? Why was Nairobi not selected?

I am not able to understand this pick and choose policy of R.D.'s survey team. Which scientific survey technique was used? What were the criteria used in the selection of the cities and countries? Why was only Mumbai selected (because R.D. is published from Mumbai) and not New Delhi or Bangalore, which are also the principal cities of India? How can R.D.'s team use only their gut feeling in this selection? By not including cities like Dubai or Shanghai, did the R.D.'s team assume that they are the worst cities in the world in terms of behavior?

Furthermore, it seems that R.D.'s team tried to compare apples and oranges since most of the people in New York, London, Toronto, Paris, etc. are highly educated whereas in Mumbai 35 percent of the population live in slums and may not be considered well educated. Therefore, where is the matching sample? They should have chosen Bangalore, or Chandigarh, where a majority of people are well educated. Then the results would have been different.

Exhibit–1: Ranking of  World Cities and Score on Rudeness

City Rank (scores) City Rank (scores)
New York 1 (80) Paris 15 (57)
Zurich 2 (77) Amsterdam 20 (52)
Toronto 3 (70) Helsinki 21 (48)
Berlin 4 (68) Manila 21 (48)
São Paulo 4 (68) Milan 23 (47)
Zagreb 4 (68) Sydney 23 (47)
Auckland 7 (67) Bangkok 25 (45)
Warsaw 7 (67) Hong Kong 25 (45)
Mexico City 9 (65) Ljubljana 25 (45)
Stockholm 10 (63) Jakarta 28 (43)
Budapest 11 (60) Taipei 28 (43)
Madrid 11 (60) Moscow 30 (42)
Prague 11 (60) Singapore 30 (42)
Vienna 11 (60) Seoul 32 (40)
Buenos Aires 15 (57) Kuala Lumpur 33 (37)
Johannesburg 15 (57) Bucharest 34 (35)
Lisbon 15 (57) Bombay 35 (32)
London 15 (57)    

Source: "Uncommon Courtesy," Reader's Digest.

2. As Exhibit–1 shows, there is an indication that the R.D.'s team ranked Western cities as the most polite and Asian cities as the rudest. If any conclusion may be derived from the survey scores, does it mean that people living in lower ranked cities, mostly Asian, are less likely to speak English and be less interactive with English speaking people? Over 65 percent of world's population lives in Asia and yet all the cities surveyed in Asia are ranked lowest in the list (categorized as rude), does it mean that two-thirds of the world's population behave very rudely? Can anyone believe these findings?

3. It looks to me that the three criteria chosen to measure politeness were trivial things. For example, saying "thank you" or "please" is not the only measure of politeness or kindness. Every country or city has its own traditions and customs. In different religions and languages, there are various ways of expressing politeness or kindness. Some people may not say "thank you" but rather nod his or her head with a smile. Someone remarked that the social criteria for rude and polite behavior in India are not the same as in Western cultures. We are not accustomed to saying "thank you" to strangers.

The survey team should had experimented its observations at the airports and then examined how the arriving passengers are given treatment, for example, in London, New York, Berlin, and other cities in Europe. Then, one may see the height of rudeness. How can one forget New York's taxi drivers? The team might have had a biased mind while observing people in Asian cities because of their built in perceptions about them.

"Interesting that Readers' Digest (headquartered in a N.Y. suburb) just happened to pick three things that New Yorkers tend to be good at as their measure of politeness. I, like many Americans, who have spent time in that city, have always found it to be rude, cold shouldered, and uncaring about what goes on around them," one commentator said in the TheTimes of London.

Another remarked, "New York is a mixed bag — excessive courteous in shops and restaurants but a brutal attitude in the streets."

Furthermore, the Sixth Annual Gift Giving and Etiquette Survey in 2005 showed that respondents rating of American manners were down by 46 percent from 2004, therefore, they were less polite. Denise Dinyon, gift giving and etiquette expert said, "It appears that the fast-face, high-tech existence may have taken a toll on the civility in today's society." Consequently, there is often little time to impart the basics of politeness.

4. The team should have considered the cultural characteristics of the people in the particular city and country being surveyed. The questions designed to rank politeness is skewed as different cultures have different ways to say or suggest, "thank you." If we don't feel an emotion in our heart, we don't utter words to express politeness or gratitude. For example, will a shopkeeper in New York say "thank you" to a customer who is unable to pay even if one is a regular customer? In Mumbai, one can find several such shopkeepers showing some politeness if a regular customer does not have sufficient money to pay. And the shopkeeper may say "no problem," next time you can pay or send it later.

It depends on how we define the term "rude." For people living in suburbs and semi-urban areas, if they do not say a cheery "thank you" (Shukiriya or Dhanyabad) to known people or shopkeepers, it is an indication of rudeness. On the contrary, in cosmopolitan cities like Mumbai and New Delhi, which are highly crowded, people rushing to catch a bus or train are under work stress and may not have time to bother about these things. It is the city's environment and the culture that also dictate the degree of politeness.

At the same time, rudeness seems to exist unevenly across the places surveyed. In Mumbai, people may be rude to strangers but it ranks high in family values. People do not say hello to or pick up a dropped paper for a stranger, but that does not mean that they are very rude. On the other hand, it also depends on how one is brought up in a particular environment. Maybe it is "the rudest city" in the world, but it also welcomes a variety of people who migrate from different parts of India without much discrimination.

The politeness and spirit of Mumbai comes to the fore at times of crisis. This could be seen in July 2005, when more than half of Mumbai was under floodwaters for 10 days due to unprecedented rains, completely paralyzing normal life. During this difficult time, when government machinery turned out to be a complete failure, it was the Mumbaikars who demonstrated to the world their exemplary patience and politeness, saving thousands of families from this natural disaster. Everyone went out of their way to help each other. Therefore, it is said that if one has managed to survive in Mumbai, he or she can survive anywhere in the world under any situation.

5. To Asians, Koreans are considered the most polite people in Asia. However, they may not be used to saying "thank you" when a door is held open. There are other examples, like when Seoul's citizens say "hello" to foreigners in shops, and when they stop to help someone if he or she is lost.

There are also cultural differences between East and West. Also in The Times, Kek Kuat Kong from Malaysia remarked:

"Asians tend to have less eye contact and more physical distance between two bodies compared with Westerners. We do not look someone in the eye for too long if we are not confronting him or her. So, for the Balkans or Turks, Vienna is like heaven and the Viennese to them are highly civilized; but for a Malaysian like me, and a few of my friends who have visited this historic city, the Viennese are plain rude. Even Parisians are better than Viennese. I find London to be the most civilized place. But whichever city it is in this world, I can safely say that the civility one as a foreigner faces is directly linked to how much respect, or 'intellectual flexibility,' the city's inhabitants have toward foreigners."

6. If the people in Asian cities are so rude in their behavior, how come the largest number of tourists in the world visits these cities every year?

7. R.D.'s survey fails to tell us under which three dimensions of politeness (as explained above) the cities were ranked?


It seems to me that this may be a manipulated survey that was carried out purely from a Western/Caucasian perspective, with a faulty methodology, designed by Western minds for Western cities. And so the Mumbaikars became the victims, tagged as rude. It also emerges that there may be a cultural bias in the minds of the survey team toward Asian cities. They failed to consider that what is rude or not, depends entirely on the perception of a person developed in the environment in which he or she lives in. Therefore, the theory or conceptual framework and methods of measuring politeness or rudeness used in this survey are subject to serious doubts and may be challenged. Hence, it may be untenable.

The survey has failed to consider the cultural dimensions prevalent in Asian societies as explained by G. Hofestede. Asian societies are generally more conservative and shy. For example, Japanese society is rigid owing to its long history of feudal states, and has many rules of etiquette to follow. What may seem normal in Western countries is actually a faux pas.

Even if we believe that R.D.'s findings may be correct with some margin of error, Mumbai's rudeness may be a hundred times better than the racial discrimination and hatred often shown by people in many Western cities. One may not deny the fact that courtesy is less prevalent among the new young generation.

I strongly feel that this type of survey was not warranted. It classifies cities and their people into polite vs. rude clusters. This may create serious cultural conflicts of East versus West, which is undesirable at a time when the world is moving toward globalization.

Prem Lal Joshi is a professor of accounting at the University of Bahrain. He is editor-in-chief of the International Journal of Accounting Auditing and Performance Evaluation and magaging editor of the Afro-Asian Journal of Finance and Accounting.

The opinions expressed in this article are the personal viewpoints of the author and not of the institutions to which he is affiliated.

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Prem Lal Joshi.