Holmes Report Blog

The Holmes Report blog focuses on news and issues of interest to public relations professionals. Our main site can be found at www.holmesreport.com.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Rudeness is Relative: A recent survey by Reader’s Digest to find the world’s most polite—and impolite—cities seems to have sparked controversy around the world. Most of the New Yorkers I know are outraged to learn that their city has been named the most polite (and horrified at the prospect that the news will attract even more tourists), while in India residents of Mumbai are denouncing—with some justification—the survey’s clear cultural bias.

Essentially, the problem is that the test of politeness is a uniquely American one. Three tests were employed: dropping papers in a busy street to see if anyone would help, checking how often shop assistants said “thank you”; and counting how often someone held a door open. Speaking as a Brit who has lived in New York for nearly 20 years, I can say that a conversation with a shop assistant in New York routinely consists of at least three “thank yous” each—a repetition that is annoying rather than polite.

One Indian newspaper article asks, not unreasonably, whether “these ritual forms of politeness [are] more important than the real thing? In which city would people go out of their way to help an outsider? The Reader’s Digest people, in fact, should have been in Mumbai on 26th July, last year. Did people loot and shoot as they did in New Orleans when Katrina hit that city? Or did they rescue people in danger, form human chains to save lives, give shelter and meals to stranded strangers even when it pinched their meager resources to do so?”

At worldpress,org, meanwhile, Prem Lal Joshi, raises several good points about the survey sample before pointing out the absurdity of the methodology and suggesting that the researchers “should had experimented its observations at the airports and then examined how the arriving passengers are given treatment, for example, in London, New York, Berlin, and other cities in Europe…. It seems to me that this may be a manipulated survey that was carried out purely from a Western/Caucasian perspective, with a faulty methodology, designed by Western minds for Western cities.”

I see this all the time, particularly in surveys that purport to demonstrate the superiority of the American economic system. They unfailingly measure success in terms that matter to Americans: usually disposable income or purchasing power. It is hardly surprising that the American system, which is designed almost exclusively with the objective of enhancing individual purchasing power, does so more successfully than the French.

But that’s not because the French system has failed to do what it is designed to do; it’s because the French system is consciously designed to achieve a different objective—one that includes a financial security net, more leisure time, superior access to healthcare, etc. And the French system is far more successful at achieving those objectives than the American system.
When you build your (often unconscious) biases into the questions you ask, don’t be surprised if the answers reinforce those biases.


  • At 1:54 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    In my own experience, Americans are far more polite and friendly than Europeans - until you are in trouble, when they don't want to know.

    Brits and Germans are much less matey. People think they are cold. But when you need some help - gosh, they are there for you, at almost any personal cost. It's a matter of what they believe is honourable.

    Here's an example. My British parents got lost in their car on a vacation in the Black Forest. It was pitch-dark and raining. A German pulled up and asked if he could help. They told him where they were heading for, and he said: 'No problem. Follow me.' Nearly an hour later they arrived at their destination. Their guide wished them a pleasant holiday and turned round in the road. He had clearly spent the better art of two hours going out of his way to assist these British visitors.

    As a very broad generalisation, I would suggest that Europeans are cool acqaintances but surprisingly active allies when you need something. Americans, by contrast, will shower you with favours when you appear to be on the up - but foregt you when you appear to be down. A bit like a bank.

    I have no moral comment to make, although it's obvious which I prefer. As a Lancastrian, you - Mr Holmes - are a classic example of the European tradition. You behaviour on 7/7 was a paradigm case.

    Adrian Wheeler


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