Wednesday, June 21, 2006

The incredible lightness of being rude

Sometimes, when I'm busy with work, I feel just like our President George W. Bush: I don't have time to read the papers, so I have someone else read them and then give me the gist. Courtesy Lost Nomad, I have discovered that Seoul ranked 32nd out of 35 on the list of most polite cities. Ahem, that would make Seoul the fourth rudest major metropolis, I suppose (fifth if you count the metropolis in the film Metropolis).

As others have mentioned at Lost Nomad's, there is certainly some cultural bias in the Reader's Digest survey, particularly in how they chose to measure politeness and hospitality. Seoulites screwed the pooch on the "door test" (whether anyone hold the door open for them), "document drops" (whether someone would help them retrieve a pile of dropped papers), and "service tests" (how many salesclerks would thank them for a purchase).

Now, had they had conducted a "walking-you-to-your-destination-when-you-ask-for-directions test," Seoul would have come out on top.

Let's face it, Seoul (and many other East Asian cities) run on a different dynamic than most North American cities. In Seoul, Hong Kong, and even Tokyo, you don't say "Excuse me," to every person you bump shoulders with. You'd never get anywhere!

Also, you don't say hello or nod to every person you walk past, which is how we do it in the Big Orange (frankly, it gets annoying).

Also, Seoulites tend not to mug people. That should count for something. Some of these "hospitable" cities are known for high crimes and misdemeanors; they should be impeached from the survey on that basis alone.

Poor Seoul. Our fair city digging new rivers and planting new parks right and left, but it just can't get a break.

Still, maybe this news will shame a few people into holding open the door next time (and I suspect that's why the Korean media is running with this). 30% is an abysmal rate.

A slightly (only slightly) tongue-in-cheek comment I wrote on this can be found here.


  1. willy said:
    If they didn't walk outside and point around in order to tell you how to get somewhere... you'd never figure it out on your own.

    That's often true. But to make clear to my readers who have not been in Korea, what I was referring to was the very real phenomenon of many Koreans to actually walk you to your destination — even if it's over a kilometer away — when you ask directions.

    But this is almost always in a case where the person you ask is already out and about themselves. I don't think shopkeepers would do this, since they have to attend to their store (would Reader's Digest consider those shopkeepers inhospitable?).

    These people who do this are people who are NOT necessarily going in your direction. I used to think this only happened to me, but I've heard many other people tell me about the same thing.

    direction giver: Neither has anyone else - but the city gov't spent several billion won naming all the streets and giving them signs... might as well start using them.

    I don't know anyone who uses the new street names. I think it will take the government threatening not to deliver mail that has the old addresses for this to become commonplace.

  2. mr chips wrote:
    I beg to differ on the issue that people in Tokyo don't say excuse me for bumping into you.

    Ahem, for the record, I said: In Seoul, Hong Kong, and even Tokyo, you don't say "Excuse me," to every person you bump shoulders with.

    There are plenty of people in all three cities I met who do say something or acknowledge bumping someone, even in crowded areas.

    I lived there for roughly 4 almost 5 years. In some places where the crowds make it unavoidable that may be the case but overwhelmingly people there make an effort to apologize.

    Far be it from me to disparage the good manners of many of the people in Japan. I've been bumped and apologized to plenty of times in Tokyo (ditto with Seoul and Hong Kong).

    But there where more than a few times where I wasn't acknowledged either. In Shinjuku Station last October, with my parents, my mother was practically knocked down by someone who banged into her bag (this was in an area where the limousine buses to the hotels and Narita are, so it's not as if her bag was in a place it shouldn't be) with nary a word or a look-back. I mention this particular incident because it was particularly bad.

    The people of Hiroshima seemed very polite. And Fukuoka, a place I always thought was very courteous, seems to be getting less so, which I find a little unsettling (it's my favorite city in Asia, for various reasons, and I want it to stay nice).

    In Myongdong, in central Seoul, bumping is a way of life, and I can't expect people to say "Excuse me" to everyone, but in similarly crowded places in Tokyo, such as Shinjuku Station, I haven't noticed a great deal more of acknowledgement. I seemed to be saying it more than people in both areas.

    Now, the one thing that really bugged me about Tokyo, where it compared very poorly to Seoul, was with offering seats on the metro. My mother is in her sixties and my father just turned seventy. He looks old. Yet 80% of the time we were on long subway rides in Tokyo, particularly those starting from Shinjuku (we were staying at the Hilton, not far from there), nobody offered a seat to my very elderly looking father.

    Such an oversight would simply NOT happen in Seoul; sure, some younger people will avoid making eye contact with the older person, but almost always someone will get up and offer a seat, regardless of where and what time of day.

    That situation on the subway stood in sharp contrast to the general courtesy I've experienced just about everywhere else in Japan.

    My experience in Korea has not been so gracious as people sometimes "seem" to make it a point to get in your way, and rarely have I had anyone even acknowledge a "bump" let alone say excuse me.

    This may be a case of your mileage may vary. I do get "Excuse me" or a polite nod/bow, and I've never had anyone seem to make it a point of getting in my way. I've run into people who cluelessly acted as if they were the only ones on the sidewalk, though.

    2. the car in an ally that always waits until you are right up on it to nudge forward slightly, or

    Too many drivers are self-absorbed assholes here, that's for sure.

    3. those damn heavy doors at kyobo being dropped right on your nose even though your are right behind,

    There does need to be an open-the-door campaign or something. Well, there are, but they don't get a lot of play.

    these all seem to abound as if they are taught as cultural requirements in school.

    Well, I think it's just that people here traveling from point A to point B are often in their own little bubble.

    Nevertheless, you are right, Sir Kush, that politeness must be granted its cultural measuring stick,

    Of course I'm right. And the sooner everybody realizes it, the better the off the world will be.

    and I have never had a person in the US hold anything for me on public transportation nor seen that take place there.

    I would be leery of any stranger who wanted to hold my stuff on public transport in America.

    Sadly, though, the practice of 맡겨주세요 was dying out, although it seems to be making something of a comeback.


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