India Uncut

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Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Reader's Digest tries to measure rudeness

Reader's Digest has done a survey of 36 cities around a world to "measure courtesy" and has concluded that Mumbai is the rudest of the cities surveyed. Hmm. And how did it determine this?

AP reports:
In its admittedly unscientific survey, the magazine's politeness-police gave three types of tests to more than 2,000 unwitting participants.

The reporters walked into buildings to see if the people in front of them would hold the door open; bought small items in stores and recorded whether the salespeople said "thank you"; and dropped a folder full of papers in busy locations to see if anyone would help pick them up.
What I find rather strange is that people are defining rudeness here not by things that people do, but by what people don't do: they don't hold open doors, they don't say thank you, they don't help people who drop things. They don't actually harm anyone -- they simply don't conform to certain norms of social bevaviour.

Those norms, of course, are from the West. That explains the following line:
The rudest continent is Asia. Eight out of nine cities tested there, including Mumbai, finished in the bottom 11.
Rubbish. If by Western social norms Asia is rude, I'm sure by Asian norms the West would be madly rude as well. I'm sure many more people in Mumbai touch elders' feet at weddings than they do in New York, which topped this trivial survey. (And I'm not saying that's a good thing; I generally don't touch feet, certainly never for non-erotic reasons.) If Sakal did a similar survey, no doubt the rudest continent would be America or Europe.

I don't mean to say that the West is ruder than the East, or something like that. All I mean is that measuring things like rudeness is rather silly, and it's doubly silly when we judge it by what people don't do. And it's a waste of time to blog about such surveys.

Update (June 22): Confused points out, correctly, that the survey itself doesn't measure rudeness, but courtesy. Fair point -- I'd been misled by all the headlines about Mumbai being the rudest city, an approach not just the Indian papers took, but even the BBC did. (This link via email from Sanjeev.)

A number of readers wrote in to say that in their experience, the West was, indeed, more polite. Vikram wrote:
You also say that the survey defines rudeness by what people DON'T do. Ok, so if the survey said that people are more polite in the Western countries because they DO do certain acceptable traits that define politness, like holding open doors, saying thank you etc, then it would be correct?
Good point. Jitendra Mohan writes:
I was in Mumbai for a day sometime in 2004. I was waiting to catch a local train when I saw that a lady dropped her wallet (unknowingly, of course). There were around 10 guys around who saw exactly what happened and they started laughing. None of them cared to move a soul. I was at a distance and had to run to return her wallet. Contrast this with a similar situation where my wallet fell on a street in the US without my knowledge, and two hours later a gentleman went out of his way to find my address and return my wallet.

The point is, such a simple gesture like returning someone's wallet is not culture-dependent. Ditto for holding a door open for someone who is following.
Vimalanand Prabhu writes in:
I think that in India, we do not say thank you to the cashier at the grocery who gives back our change. I guess, we do take the cashier for granted but the cashier also takes us for granted and doesn't say "Thank you for shopping with us". Sometimes, even they will just hurl the change back, especially if the customer is a kid. In fact, if I say thank you to my friends in India, they tell me to give them a break and tease me for being polite. In the US, you hold a door open for people, but in India, there are hardly any doors that automatically shut themselves off.

But at the same time, in the US, it is OK to drink coke when you are in the classroom in front of your teachers, or even to have a mild snack. You call professor by his first name. You can keep your feet on the chair or sometimes even on the desk. You do not refer to elders as uncle or aunty but just by the first name. If a survey included these questions, I am sure that the west will turn out to be rude.
Hmm. I won't take a stand here on Mumbai's politeness, if such generalisations can be made at all. Speaking for myself, I don't care much if people aren't polite to me, as long as they don't get in my way. (Do they not know who I am?) Politeness, the way I see, is nice, but not necessary. And Mumbai's been good to me.
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