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27 June 2006

The world's rudest cities?

How rude! Image source: FreeRangeStock.comASIA'S LANDS have cultivated strong traditions of hospitality throughout history, from serving tea to greeting namaskar or sawasdee with the courteous bow. But a global courtesy test by Reader's Digest sees a flip side to this.

The magazine administered three politeness tests in the main cities of 35 countries where it is published: dropping papers in a street to check helpfulness, counting how often shopkeepers said “thank you”, and testing how often someone held a door open for others.

The results were released last week, and they are surprising. New York City emerged as the most polite city and Mumbai as the least!

Here are other findings:

  • Asia is the least gracious continent on earth: eight of nine Asian countries rank lowest. Manila's manners rated best in this region.

  • English manners are as good as French: London and Paris shared the same score. Berlin, though, is better bred than both.

  • Those younger than 40 are the most courteous; those over 60 are the least.

  • The worldwide level of politeness stands at 55 per cent.

Here in Mumbai, citizens have been quick to dispute the results. Over the weekend, newspapers took the city's politeness quotient by interviewing celebrities and common folk. The universal response: you have to live here to understand its graciousness. Scriptwriter Salim Khan offered: “The people who did the survey should have worked harder to know Mumbai better.”

Well, true: Mumbai grows on you, although slowly. And I am glad that my fellow Filipinos were being their usual mannerful selves during the candid tests. But the one question I have about the whole survey regards the methodology designed for it. How appropriate are the parameters designed by Western minds for non-Western cities?

I have to wonder how valuable a survey about global courtesy is when differences in cultural dimensions are not taken into accountMy experiences in Bangkok, Phnom Penh, and Mumbai have shown me that common courtesies are all relative. A Thai would show gratitude with the bowing, palms-closed gesture called wai. In India, most languages have no specific word for “please”, so politeness is used in the way that the request is worded. Also, the act of giving is considered to be such a reward that it becomes bizarre to thank the giver! The Indian, however, may express gratitude with a phrase like “May you live a hundred years”. And in the conservative Buddhist, Muslim, and Catholic societies of Southeast Asia, a well-bred lady is not expected to pick up a newspaper dropped by a man!

So I have to wonder how valuable a survey about global courtesy is when differences in cultural dimensions are not taken into account. Perhaps the good news is this: the Reader’s Digest survey reminds us of the reality of human diversity and shows us more reasons to celebrate it.

For all its worth, here is the final tally:

The most courteous cities. Image source: ReadersDigest.ca

The least courteous cities. Image source: ReadersDigest.ca

Image source: ReadersDigest.ca

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