Get any two world travelers bored enough and they’ll start trading war stories about the rudest cities they’ve ever visited. This, of course, is a classic exercise in one-upmanship. The first guy will make his obligatory point about the obnoxious Parisian shop keeper he met: “he spoke English perfectly but wouldn’t help me.”
The fellow traveler will counter with some horror story about being cut off right by the turnstiles for the Hong Kong MTR (Mass Transit Railway), getting elbowed while boarding her train and then pickpocketed – all on a simple two-stop trip to Kowloon Station to catch her airport connection: “They even stole my ticket!!” The back and forth can continue for huge stretches of time.
I wanted to get past the hearsay and the anecdotes so I was intrigued when I came across a Reader’s Digest (Canada) article titled “How Polite Are We?”. Reader’s Digest tested people’s politeness by sending undercover reporters, 50% men, 50% women into 36 cities for the following three tests:
“• We walked into public buildings 20 times behind people to see if they would hold the door open for us.
• We bought small items from 20 stores and recorded whether the sales assistants said thank you.
• We dropped a folder full of papers in 20 busy locations to see if anyone would help pick them up.”
A full scientific test was not attempted by the study but it was the largest of its kind ever attempted. Every positive outcome was awarded a point and negative outcomes got no points. A city could score a maximum of 60 points. Here were the five lowest scoring cities:
Reporters had stories to illustrate rudeness in the low-scoring cities. In Mumbai: “When our female reporter bought a pair of plastic hair clips at a convenience store, sales assistant Shivlal Kumavat turned his back on her as soon as she had paid. Asked why, the 31-year-old was unapologetic. ‘Madam, I am not an educated guy. I hand goods over to the customers, and that’s it.’ ”
“When an affluent-looking lady in her 40s failed to hold a door in Moscow’s Prospekt Vernadskogo, she chided us: ‘I’m not a doorman. It’s not my job to hold doors. If someone gets hurt, they should be quicker on their feet.’ ”
There were, of course, other stories, but even more interesting were the top scorers:
Looking suspect yet? I would suggest that the rationale behind this survey is the same that leads to tourists thinking that a city is rude and obnoxious: a foreign set of cultural expectations are applied to the local scene to determine politeness. Case in point: the door-holding test is unreliable as there are parts of the world, particularly parts of Asia, where holding the door for others is not necessarily considered a sign of politeness. It is no surprise then, that Western cities like New York and Toronto scored highly and cities like Mumbai and Kuala Lumpur fared far worse.
Want to have positive experience in a new city? Do your homework and know what to expect. Just because your own cultural niceties are not commonplace doesn’t mean that people are intentionally being rude to you. So take courage, hop on the subway and throw some elbows.
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