Friday, February 16, 2007

Politeness - nature, culture or etiquette?

I'm starting to wonder if being polite and helpful to strangers and acquaintances (i.e. not family, workmates or friends) is something that is no longer permitted in our society gone gaga on political correctness and equality for women. Or if it doesn't cross cultural boundaries well or even if human nature varies from society to society.

Last week, coming out of a cornershop onto the very icy street I held the shop door open for an old lady with a walking stick, because I could see she was having trouble keeping upright on the ice and that she was coming into the shop.

Now some Swedes are famous for not being able to say a straightforward thank you. And some are also famous for being unable to say a straightforward, you're welcome, when someone thanks them. Instead they say thank you in terms that praise your good nature, while saying it is too good. And they say, you're welcome, by putting down the service they've just offered or by turning down your thank you.

Well anway, being a non-Swede I was just about to say you're welcome to the expected "thank you" I was sure was on its way, when the old lady looked at me and said "you're far too polite" not offensively but not too kindly either. I mean a simple thank you would have sufficed you old bag!

Then a couple of days later, having dropped my youngest son off at nursery school, I had just come out of the building and was walking away when I saw one of the nursery teachers coming across the ice, carrying, with both hands, the heavy breakfast porridge kettle. Well naturally I walked back the 5 yards and opened the door, but before I even got the door fully open she says
"I can do it myself" Well of course I open the door for her anyway. Again a simple thank you would have sufficed missus!

Am I in a country where politeness is now considered rude because of some strange interpretation of political correctness and female equality? Or is it true that Swedes simply have trouble saying "thank you"? Or do human nature, politeness and etiquette differ so greatly from country to country?

On more than one occasion different Swedes have said to me that the population of Sweden still have the mentality and rough manners of argricultural workers and farmers, because Sweden was still very much an agrarian society right up to the 1970s. The only difference now being that these "farmers" are middle class, live in urban settings and have office jobs.

Now I don't know if that's true or even if I agree with it, but I'm starting to wonder after 10 years of mumbled semi-rude "Thank yous" and non-existent "Your welcomes"

Well like the Irish saying goes "You can take the boy out of the sod, but you can't take the sod
out of the boy" In other words rural manners and customs stay with rural people, regardless of location or job.
I'm sure there's an equivalent saying for urban people, but I've yet to hear it.

And woe betide the next person who's rude to me while I'm helping them!

Thank you

James, civil servant, city dweller


Liam G said...

You really lost it on this one mate. They'll be interviewing you on grumpy old men next:-) I think the point is that one's own politeness is the only defence against the rudeness of others, whatever the sociological explanations for their boorishness.

James B said...

You're right of course, I shouldn't be looking for an explanation, just accept that people like that will remain like that.
But I was for a while seriously thinking of naming the blog "Grumpy Old Man in Sweden" ;)

After all, a blog is the ideal place, as you know, for having a bit of a whinge and a moan about the ails of society.

What we used to write on paper pre-Blog and usually keep to ourselves, we can now share with the world! ;)

Megan Lynch said...

Interesting. Tonight I've been googling various questions about nations and politeness/civility. The growing incivility of my own country (or at least the area I live in) is driving me crazy. I get pretty worked up about it and it adds to my stress level.

Yet my first-ever visit to the British Isles let me know that it's easy to idealize a nation from afar. I've studied Swedish and hope one day to be able to live there long enough to get my low intermediate level up to fluency. I've often thought that my idea of politeness and the Swedish idea of it would jibe well, but I can see from your post that it sure wouldn't fit 100%. The idea of not thanking people for courtesies rankles.

It's hard to get over one's upbringing on such issues. I know that my visit to Ireland felt miserable because of the cold attitudes of the people I interacted with (largely bus/train personnel, shop personnel, etc... Unfortunately, I had no Irish friends to show me a different side of things), particularly after having spent time in the UK where most people are polite and friendly. The effect it all had on my morale was devastating. So all that cultural training about what's polite and what's not hits us on a very elementary level that doesn't always respond to rationalizations.