According to the BBC, during a garden party at Buckingham Palace, ‘the Queen has been filmed saying Chinese officials were “very rude” during last year’s state visit by President Xi Jinping.’ This information has come to light a day after Mr Cameron’s comments on corruption in Algeria and Afghanistan. It’s been a week full of cultural pitfalls!
While driving my car, I had a chance to listen to a debate on rudeness (or rather politeness) on BBC Radio 2 and became quite intrigued. In my attempt to understanding British people better, I’ve been watching and analysing the behaviour of my British friends, family, colleagues and neighbours for a decade now. My ears pricked up and I turned the radio up. My favourite comment undoubtedly came from a gentleman who claimed that in a way, being polite in Britain is a sign of rudeness, because at the end of the day, here in Britain, people don’t say what they mean anyway. Now, unless you’re British, this could really puzzle you. We Poles are by default only nice to people when we really mean it.
Understanding British people can be rather challenging. Being Polish, I have always admired the British diplomacy when handling conflicts and their ease in talking to strangers. And I’m not alone. The stereotype of the British gentleman earned the Brits the job of a police officer in the European heaven (Germans would be car mechanics and Poles the plumbers). British people are nice, they are the nicest Europeans. They can queue properly, are world champions in small talk, and always smile.
So what’s the other side of the European coin? In Poland or Germany, the British ways could be confusing. By being nice to strangers you might be sending unintentional signals, such as admiration, especially when it comes to encounters with the opposite sex. I sometimes struggle with the effects of the ‘reverse culture shock’ myself, when on my visits back home I’m overpolite to my neighbours and the shop assistants, automatically saying ‘thank yous’ and ‘sorrys’ to everyone. The looks I get say more than words. I believe that you shouldn’t try to impose the rules of politeness to other cultures, because it simply doesn’t work.
Norms of politeness are deeply embedded in our culture, so without the cultural knowhow we will always perceive people from other countries as either rude (because they don’t play our game) or very polite (because they are smiling, which can sometimes be a sign of arrogance – if you in the know). Let’s take Poland. Although you can certainly forget hand kissing, holding doors for the ladies is still common practice. Slam the door in your female colleague’s face and you will most likely face disapprobation. But holding the door in the UK or Germany can be seen as old fashioned and sexist. So what about Germany? For many English native speakers learning German, the use of the ‘formal you’ sounds stiff and creates distance. But it’s a social norm and you have to stick to it, especially in the business context. Although the rules get more relaxed when dealing with young people and among students, you will come across some regional differences. I was once told that addressing people by ‘du’ in former East Germany might cause discomfort in the person you are talking to because in the past, nonparty members would be addressed in such way, which was socially degrading.
Politeness is the ‘social glue’, the key element of our daily interaction. We might be trying our best, but can sometimes upset people, and that’s the last thing we want to do. It is essential to get it right. It would therefore be recommended that everyone living or working across cultures familiarise themselves with the social norms of the culture they interact with. A training course such as Understanding British People will help expatriates and their families, students and jobseekers to feel more comfortable when interacting with British people, integrate faster and make the most of their stay in the UK.