Never Say Please To Mother

My lovely Chinese wife came to Sweden with her family at age seven and grew up here. This has given her an unusual level of bicultural competence. I like to quip, lewdly, that she’s a dual boot machine with two operating systems and the most awesome hardware, man. She’s like this typical bright Swedish middle-class chick who somehow happens to know everything about China and looks like an Imperial princess.

So I can’t really say that we have grappled with and overcome our cultural differences. She pretty much does that for me on her own. But there are some details where our different upbringings do show. Having read Vinlusen’s recent blog entry, my wife encouraged me to write a few words about manners in the home.

An American acquaintance with a Chinese wife once complained to us, “I really wish she would quit ordering me around”. That made me laugh. What this is really about is that the Chinese don’t use polite figures of speech with their families. Indeed, they may be offended by them as such phrases mark an unwanted distance. You don’t say “Please pass me the salt” to your mom, you say “Pass the salt”. My wife does that all the time with me, straight imperatives, and I often complete the sentence for her with a joke to soften the impact of what I can’t help but perceive as rudeness. She’ll say “Pass the salt” and I’ll pass it, replying “…or I will cut your balls off”. Then we’ll laugh.

My wife once made the mistake of translating a Swedish figure of polite speech when talking to her mom in Chinese. She said, “Could you pass me the salt?” (OK, maybe it wasn’t the salt that one time.) Her mother reacted really badly, as the connotations of such a question in Chinese, when directed at your mom, is basically “Tell me, are you at all capable of passing me the salt, or are you an invalid?”.

In the kitchen, my wife really doesn’t like it when I apologise for pushing her to the side when I need to get something out of the sauce pan cupboard. The correct way to do this in the intimacy of a Chinese family situation is to shove her gently out of the way without as much as a grunt. Apologising puts her on the level of a cleaning lady.

But she tries to remember my Swedish manners, and usually she gets it right. She knows I really need to hear please, thanks and sorry sometimes or I’ll feel mistreated. But every now and then she gets it backwards to comic effect. Once she tried a half-remembered “Would you be so good as to pass me the salt?”. It came out as “You may pass me the salt…” Then she hesitated, clearly feeling that she’d dropped some part of the phrase. So she finished it, ” … if you’re good”.

Update 26 january: And a shoutout to Miss Cellania at Mental Floss and Neatorama with thanks for the links!


  1. #1 Richard Simons
    January 24, 2009

    That might be why my daughter-in-law sometimes seems to be a little abrupt. An Algonquian person told me they do not say ‘please’ because of course if the person could do it, they will.

    A difference in manners that I came across was that in many parts of Africa it is considered rude to meet a visitor at the door because it implies you do not want them to come any farther. Instead, they are supposed to just call out and walk in. Similarly, when a guest leaves you do not accompany them to the door (or worse still, the garden gate) because you are making sure that they really are going.

  2. #2 Janne
    January 24, 2009

    In Japanese too, “polite language” is perhaps better termed “distant language”. You use it towards people you do not know well, especially people at a different social level from yourself.

    As I’ve learned from my wife, close family may indeed use polite or formal language towards each other – but it means you’re really, really angry at the person and don’t want to be close, emotionally or socially, to them. People who start studying Japanese sometimes think it’s best to be safe rather than sorry and always use very polite language towards others, but being too polite really is worse than being too familiar.

    On the other hand, Japanese do use excuses in a similar way to Swedes, which I guess makes for less misunderstandings than in your case. Of course, thinking about it it’s a little strange: if I grunt a quick “gomen” to my wife when I push her aside in the kitchen, what I’m really saying is “I’m not oblivious to you being there and it wasn’t a mistake; I pushed you aside on purpose”. Which doesn’t feel like the most friendly thing you could to after all.

  3. #3 michael merren
    January 24, 2009

    I’ve got to tell you some Chinese familial manners would be a welcome change in my home. I feel like I have to apologize for breathing sometimes. With a mother who was, “moody” I grew up with every other word coming out of my mouth being sorry. In the monastery I was the only American in an otherwise Slavic community and I found myself always apologizing for Bill Clinton’s indiscretions or American fast food chains popping up all over Europe or for the EU / UN’s demands on Poland… Now I am married and my wife comes out of a very liberal feminist college; with her I often feel like I should apologize for having testicles. Pool those histories which make me who I am together and you get one frustrated, apologizing, please this please that schizoid.

  4. #4 j s
    January 24, 2009

    Interesting. I am a Chinese woman who grew up in Taiwan and came to USA to pursue a graduate degree. My family and I are not at all as described. However, I do understand what you are saying though.

    “I really wish she would quit ordering me around.”
    I think that many men probably feel the same way about their wives, Chinese or not.

  5. #5 Julie Stahlhut
    January 24, 2009

    There are some regional/class differences regarding this kind of thing in the U.S. as well. While most kids are brought up to always say “please” when asking for things, the enforcement is, shall we say, more lax in some parts of the culture.

    When we were first married, my husband joked that he “civilized” me by getting me out of the habit of saying “I’ll have one of those” while pointing at the tray of cookies at the other end of the table. In his white-collar Midwestern U.S. family, that would have earned a stern look from parents and the admonishment “Say please.” In my working-class Northeastern family, the eagerness of my request would have been a compliment to my mother’s cooking.

  6. #6 Martin R
    January 24, 2009

    I’m always slightly mortified when friends say to restaurant waiters, “I’ll have a hamburger” or “Give me a piece of cheesecake”. The worst way to say it in Swedish is not quite translatable: “Jag ska ha en hamburgare”.

  7. #7 DianaGainer
    January 24, 2009

    Regional differences should be underlined in Julie Stahlhut’s remark, above. Here in Texas, a hubby can merely rattle the ice in his empty glass and wifey should run from across the house to refill it with tea on a hot day, apparently. My son was 9 years old when he finally figured out, though, that I wasn’t really asking a question by saying, “Would you do such-and-such?” No, that was a command.

    In teaching English, my Spanish-speaking students always remarked that the local yokels would tell them, “Vamos!” which they didn’t like. “That’s what you say to get my dog to go with you,” one of the men told me. “If you want ME to go with you, say ‘Vamanos!'” I told that story to some folks at the YMCA while teaching a bit of Spanish and they stared at me like so many owls. “What’s the difference?” they asked me. “It’s just a vowel?”


  8. #8 Sus
    January 24, 2009

    That was helpful. One of my daughters-in-law is Chinese, and I’ve noticed this abruptness in her mother. Now I realize that it isn’t grumpiness, but “the way things are done”.

    “Vamos!” is a command, although not in the imperative mood, grammatically. It means, literally, “We go,” and implies authority on the part of the speaker. Spoken to a kid or a dog, the “we” may be figurative; the connotation would be “Get out of here!”

    “Vamonos,” (with an “o”) comes from a corruption of the reflexive phrase, “Nos vamos,” and implies self-determination. Even used as an order, it is “softer”.

  9. #9 Martin R
    January 25, 2009

    In situations like that, I like to say “Allons, enfants de la patrie”.

    A bit like when I used to wander around looking for stuff and murmuring, “Wo? Wo? Wo ist der neugeborne König der Juden?”

  10. #10 Twoflower
    January 25, 2009

    Happy New Year!

  11. #11 Wife
    January 25, 2009

    My friend Sanna (originally from Finland) tells me this cultural behaviour of politeness in the family is definitely divided by the Baltic sea. On the eastern side of the sea there is no need for pleases and pardons, you only need to provide information. If you are too polite, people will think that you behave in a suspicious way, that you’ve got a hidden agenda and are trying to get some kind of advantage out of the situation.

  12. #12 Simone
    January 25, 2009

    Lovely… growing up in what is still very much a mono-cultural country (New Zealand) its easy to have little appreciation of the nuances of other cultures. Second languages taught in schools are often taught without much regard to cultural differences, as if all there is to it is translating word for word.

  13. #13 Susannah
    January 26, 2009

    “Wo? Wo? Wo ist der neugeborne König der Juden?”

    While you look in the kitchen catch-all drawer, in the pockets of yesterday’s jacket, and under the sofa cushions.

    😀 I like it!

  14. #14 kai
    January 26, 2009

    Yes, I too have my roots on the blunter side of the Baltic and fully agree with Sanna’s sense of politeness. This makes me rather tense whenever I visit the United States, as I am annoyed by the smarmy and ingratiating Americans and simultaneously understand that I’m being very rude and gruff.

  15. #15 Martin R
    January 26, 2009

    In some of the United States you can reportedly be sent on your way by the checkout clerk at the supermarket with the phrase “Missing you already!”.

  16. #16 nutmeag
    January 26, 2009

    Yes, even in the USA we have blunter and more polite regions. Here in the South (I’m in Texas) we’re pretty polite, especially in public. I find it very rude to TELL wait-staff what I want at a restaurant, as opposed to asking for it. There are also lots of pleases and thank yous used. Everyone says a form of “Bless you” when someone sneezes, and holding open a door for anyone is the right thing to do. I’ve noticed that people in the Northeast, however, are super friendly, but lighter on the politeness I grew up with.

  17. #17 TadMack
    January 26, 2009

    “Wo? Wo? Wo ist der neugeborne König der Juden?”
    HAH! We just did that Bach piece in November, so I’m STILL wandering ’round the house looking for things and muttering that. Very amusing.

  18. #18 Abby Spice
    January 26, 2009

    I lived in 8 places before I was 12, mostly in the Northeast. I ended up (for a few years–I’m back in the NE!) in Oklahoma, where everyone drove me insane with their politeness. I lived in Brooklyn, Miami, Cleveland–I didn’t understand why the hell everyone was so slow and polite. I frequently lost my friends at the mall because I would weave amongst people and they wouldn’t.

    What I found about the South is that everyone is infallibly polite–even if they don’t mean it. “We should do lunch” means nothing. Yes, people everywhere fake niceness, but it’s required down there. If someone hates me in New York, they generally tell me so. Much more civilized, I think

  19. #19 Abby Spice
    January 26, 2009

    Oh–and if people are nice in the NE, you generally know they mean it. Plus, it doesn’t take two hours to walk ten feet because no one will get out of your way.

  20. #20 Ralph B
    January 26, 2009

    When I was a linguist in the Air Force we were told this story: The Chinese reputation for being untrustworthy was caused by Nixon not listening to the translator. When Nixon went to China, he was playing tough and said that they “…must change…” how they treated political dissent. The Chinese diplomat said,”We will try” and when the translator added that this means “no, butt out”, he was told just tell us what he said not what he means. That is why I am not a translator today. Nobody listens to translators.

  21. #21 Chelsea
    January 26, 2009

    The issue of politness in cultural speech might be best described as an issue of familiarity. In the English language, it’s easy to spot the difference in Renaissance literature. I studied Shakespeare in grad school and wrote my thesis on the interpretting familial relationships by looking at whether the speakers used “thee” and “thou” (the familiar) or “you” and “your” (the formal). The formal words tend to be used between servants and masters or with no-blood relatives. I always thought it was cool to see where the language shifted from one to another. In Romeo and Juliet, for example, the nurse and Juliet use the familiar (familial) “thee” and “thou” a lot at the beginning of the play, but switch to formal after the nurse advises Juliet to forget Romeo and marry Paris. The switch highlights the new distance between them, and emphasizes the loss of Juliet’s greatest ally. Amazing how much a simple pronoun can layer a situation.

  22. #22 kai
    January 26, 2009

    In some of the United States you can reportedly be sent on your way by the checkout clerk at the supermarket with the phrase “Missing you already!”.

    Indeed you can, it sounds really sincere spoken in a stressed-out droid drone…

  23. #23 hass
    January 26, 2009

    Amongst Iranians, it is common to engage in the practice of “ta’arof” — to offer things not meant to be accepted. For example, if you ask a store owner the price of an item, he will respond “It is nothing, take it for free” which of course is not meant to be taken literally. Also, once on the Tehran subway, a nice young man sat down in the seat in front of us, and turned around to apologize for having his back towards us. My companian replied “A flower has no front or back” and that was that.

  24. #24 kai
    January 26, 2009

    For example, if you ask a store owner the price of an item, he will respond “It is nothing, take it for free” which of course is not meant to be taken literally.

    Swedish readers, see this.

  25. #25 Kathy
    January 26, 2009

    My husband was born in the northeast US and had Swedish immigrant grandparents.

    He mostly called his parents and grandfather Mum, Dad, and Grandpa. But when he was mad at them he’d call them Mother, Father, and Grandfather. He didn’t even know he was doing it till I told him.

  26. #26 Bl0ss0m
    January 26, 2009

    In Ireland politeness is really odd and non-nationals take ages to get it! A great example is tea. When you go into a traditional Irish house the host will offer you a cup of tea (or coffee for the last 20 years or so). They will always always do this. Then the visitor always says no, usually something like “No, I wouldn’t put you to the trouble,” which means, yes I would like some tea but I’m too polite to ask.

    Then the host offers again, usually saying something like, “Are you sure? I’m making a cup for myself? It’s no bother,” at which point the visitor says, “Well, if you’re having one yourself, a tea would be lovely, thank you.” And this is a short version…it can go on and on, if you say you don’t like tea, the host has to offer you something else. And they tend to keep offering until you take something!

    This is a traditional kind of thing though and it’s a bit of a stereotype of course. It’s mostly when people first meet though, if you’ve know each other for ages it’s kind of dispensed with, you can ask for tea or refuse it no problem. But it is considered more polite to refuse once then to accept 1st time round.

    Most people coming to an Irish house for the first time can feel a bit embarressed when tea is forced on them by offer after offer…Especially if they really don’t want any. But then again, some Irish people go very thirstly after refusing the tea they really wanted!

  27. #27 Martin R
    January 26, 2009

    Forcing food on guests used to be an important part of rural Swedish housewifery. There’s a story in my family about a boy who once had dinner at my great grandma’s house. She kept forcing food on him until he, very respectfully, replied, “No thank you, Mrs. Rundkvist, it wasn’t that good”.

  28. #28 AshColette
    January 26, 2009

    I can’t believe this hasn’t been covered.

    As a child I too moved nearly every other year across the U.S. As a child we were taught to address all adults with a “Yes Ma’am, No Ma’am, Yes Sir, No Sir.” Moving to the north-east U.S. (rural Michigan) kids looked at me like I was crazy. They asked if my dad was a general. Teachers often though I was calling them old, or worse, carrying out plantation-day offensive language. Still my parents made me say it…

  29. #29 Kevin
    January 26, 2009

    My grandparents, and people of my parents’ generation, always offered us coffee and whatever cake was on hand, even if we were stopping over for just a minute. Something was always on hand, and we would tell stories about the time one auntie served almond tarts from the freezer so old you couldn’t bite them, or made one hard-boiled egg feed six people (on toast, with a little kaviar). My friends’ houses seem so cold and barren by comparison (you’re lucky to get a glass of water), while I am always worrying that someone will stop by and I will have nothing to give them. It may be an empty ritual for some people, but something resonates deep within me when meeting someone who shares that cultural norm. It feels safe, like I know where I stand with them already, and can depend on a level of mutual respect no matter where the relationship goes. I’m not culturally equipped to deal with the brusque familiarity that passes for intimacy in many cultures. To me, familiarity truly breeds contempt.

    It’s funny, I was just talking to a friend (who doesn’t share my cultural background) about old people and was shocked when he described his grandparents and their friends as grumpy and mean; all the old people I ever knew were sweet and nice. I guess because they always gave me cake.

  30. #30 rkolter
    January 26, 2009

    I’ve lived in a few places in the US, and the strangest friendly convention I’ve seen is in Minnesota, where often people will say “Please?” instead of “Excuse me?”. This results in a very familiar conversation when someone not from Minnesota visits and mis-speaks.

    Minnesotian: “Please?”
    Visitor: “Excuse me?”
    Minnesotian: “Please?”
    Visitor: (pause) “Excuse me?”
    Minnesotian: (pause) “Please?”

  31. #31 Martin R
    January 26, 2009

    Or the classic English “How do you do?”, the correct reply to which is also “How do you do?”.

  32. #32 Richard F
    January 26, 2009

    Hehe – the classic ‘How do you do’ is now replaced with ‘Alright?’, which is often replied to by the same, particularly in the Midlands. Lacks a little something, no?

  33. #33 Martin R
    January 26, 2009

    People in my multi-ethnic ‘hood have taken to greeting me in the street with “You good?”, invariably when we’re passing each other swiftly. I find this really frustrating since there’s never time to actually reply and inquire about their health. But I guess what they mean is “How do you do?”.

  34. #34 Anita M
    January 26, 2009

    Bl0ss0m, your Irish tea story reminds me of visiting my family in the Southern U.S. My granny always insisted upon feeding us and offering us glass after glass of tea (yum, sweet tea…ah, the memories).

    I suppose that with so many Southern U.S. families being Irish in origin, this very Irish custom has traveled across the Atlantic and through the decades to become Southern tradition as well.

  35. #35 kathy
    January 26, 2009

    Most of the time I prefer to drink water, but if I’m a guest the hosts seem to think that’s not good enough.”just plain water?” Some are appeased if I ask for ice in it. Others aren’t happy unless I have a “real” drink like juice or Gatorade.

    I have food tolerance problems with most other drinks. Can’t drink coffee, tea, milk, lemonade, alcohol, or carbonated drinks. Lucky for me I really do like water.

    So sometimes politeness on both sides leads to me no having what I really want, even though that would be easier for everyone.

  36. #36 Mandragora
    January 26, 2009

    Speaking of offering food, my boyfriends Grandmother (country of origin unknown, but she was Jewish through and through) would start offering more and more random things if you kept declining. Unfortunatly for her, her son and grandsons had great fun with this and used to decline water, tea, cookies, brisket, pickles…etc. just to see what she would come up with. One time she brought out a package of Kraft Singles and started forcing cheese on people. The boyfriends impression of this is a holiday favorite.

  37. #37 liltrix
    January 26, 2009

    also in the chinese culture you will undoubtedly have notice table manners in formal situations are totally different, no elbow rules… but taking the last thing on a plate is totally unkosher… like wise with accepting gifts, they must always be refused then offered one more or even several times before really being accepted, and its rather rude to open wrapped gifts in front of others (even the bearer)

  38. #38 Sean O.
    January 26, 2009

    Once, visiting my grandfather and his wife when I was about 14 years old, we were abruptly introduced to some Chinese/Hawaiian cultural differences from our NW US customs (his wife is of chinese decent, but born in Hawaii). His wife insisted on cooking for us the first few days until suddenly refusing altogether for the remainder of our trip.
    It seems that we had made a few mistakes. First, asking what is for dinner is strictly forbidden, you eat what you are served. Second, do not enter the kitchen at all while the meal is being prepared. Third, only the most general comments about the meal are kosher. Even if giving a compliment, don’t ask things like “what’s in this?” or “where did you get this?”. At the time, these comments were brushed off with “your mother has the recipe” or various other statements to end the subject. Later on, apparently when she had had enough, we were told exactly what we had done wrong and why she would not be cooking anymore.
    I’m not sure if this is the way things are done throughout those cultures or if this was just the way she was, but it made the last half of the trip very awkward.

  39. #39 Windy Sheperd Henderson
    January 26, 2009

    I think the Irish tea thing is best summed up in the sitcom Father Ted by Mrs Doyle, especially with the delivery boy who refuses tea on the grounds that he has a rare allergy to tea, and there’s a 70% chance he’d die…

    “Sure will I make you a cup anyway, in case you change your mind?”

  40. #40 lise
    January 26, 2009

    In Canada we just apologize constantly for absolutly everything.

    If someone bumbs into you on the street, apologize. If someone hits your car, you get out, ask them if they are ok, and tell them you are sorry.

    It is not meant in an ironic way, either, that is just the deal.

    And yes, this does numb the effect of apologies somewhat.

  41. #41 Frugal for Life
    January 26, 2009

    My Mother informed me that:
    The Taiwanese lady I used to tutor in English told me that when she first came here, when she had to go to a public bathroom, instead of waiting her turn in line, she would start to make a dash for the open stall. Her daughter would catch her by the shirt collar and tell her “Mom…..No!” I guess where they’re from, it’s pretty much every man for himself at a pubic restroom.

  42. #42 mike wong
    January 26, 2009

    I’m Chinese and I grew up in Taiwan, and from what I know, we do say ‘please’ when asking someone else to get something for us, and we mostly always say ‘thank you,’ too. Pushing against someone when they are in your way with a ‘grunt’ is actually NOT polite, and rude, even with close friends and family…(but that’s probably okay between really close friends and you’re purposely being rude to be fun)

  43. #43 panzyfaust
    January 26, 2009

    Southern hospitality in the US is definitely a strange animal. I grew up in a home with fairly traditional, conservative, religious, Southern parents. While a certain degree of familiarity of speech was allowed in the family, it had it’s boundaries. I was always expected to refer to my parents with terms of respect and expressing direct disagreement with them was fairly strictly prohibited. To strangers, however, you were expected to be the epitome of politeness and to never stir up a conversation with differing opinions.
    I remember bringing new friends over in high school and my mother would always play the role of the sweetest of Southern belles; hospitable, kind, and accommodating to the nth degree. However, as soon as they walked out the door, that comforting expression would shift to one of disdain and the judgment would poor out like the headwaters of the Mississippi.
    Later in life these ingrained behaviors would cause me a bit of social dissonance in the form of (as previous commenters have mentioned) people taking offense at my reference to them as “sir” or”ma’am” and has, on more than one occasion, left me regretting the fact that instead of telling someone exactly what I meant, I coated my words with a fine coat of sugar so as not to offend.
    I’m curious to know how the different cultural norms of your readers affected their discussion of differing political, ideological, or sociological views amongst their families. Anyone care to share?

  44. #44 Sammy
    January 27, 2009

    I’d just like to mention that the tea/coffee thing exists in India as well. I’m not sure if it’s all of India or just the South, but my parents, parents’ friends, and my relatives all do it. I never eat much, so I always have trouble with people assuming that I’m just being polite, as opposed to actually not being hungry.

  45. #45 DianaGainer
    January 27, 2009

    Moving to Texas upon my marriage was quite an education. In California, the only people who said “sir” and “ma’am” were folks who were trying to sell me something, so it’s been very hard to get used to thinking of that as politeness. In big cities, we followed a practice termed “civil inattention” by a certain sociologist, where you pretend not to see the stranger you pass on the street. Here in a small town you’re supposed to tell him or her “Howdy!” as if these folks are all old, dear friends. The clerks in this little berg (or is it burg?) all tell me, “Come back, y’all!” even when I’m alone, so I’m always looking around to see who they think I’m with, when I leave the store. And since I’m caught between two different standards of behavior, I never know whether to accept or decline that cup of tea or coffee that’s been offered by my host. My husband and I always recite several offers, ourselves, and if they are declined, we burst out laughing and offer Ovaltine, mimicking our favorite movie, “Young Frankenstein.” Then we refuse that last offer ourselves, saying, “No, thank you, Frau Blucher!” Then we have to neigh like demented horses. If you haven’t seen that movie, you must! It will explain everything.

  46. #46 dhoryuu
    January 27, 2009

    My husband is manx and I am American (from New Orleans) but my 5 parents are from different ends of the country so I grew up with all sorts of manners and switch back and forth depending on whom I am with. I was married for 4 years before my husband and I saved enough to go visit his family. By then his father had been living with his girlfriend from France and her children from her first marriage had come also to live on the island.

    The girlfriend has large dinners for the family which my family would have considered extremely extravagant for only family (we loved her cooking though I admit!). One of her daughters came with us out to eat one evening and asked me if she could try what I had ordered. I was shocked and grossed out when she beat me to giving her a bit of it on a clean spoon and dove her own spoon she had been eating from into my dish! My husband apologised for her later, saying we’re all family but to me and my friends this was the height of filth- we would only do that from parent to child or man to wife.

    My husband is also horrified with the ease that my family speaks to each other about health and money matters. He purposly never picks up the phone when my family calls for the unease these conversations cause!

  47. #47 Martin R
    January 27, 2009

    Reminds me of something I wrote once about Scandinavian attitudes to nudity.

  48. #48 Bjørn Østman
    January 27, 2009

    I, too, have had plenty of amusing (to be polite) experiences with different cultures*. What keeps frustrating me is that some people will get genuinely upset when visitors don’t know and follow the rules. I mean, unless you go visit a hidden Amazonian tribe or something, they should know that people from elsewhere have different manners and customs, and thus accept their “odd” ways accordingly – at least at first. IMHO.

    * And with my own. In Denmark I still don’t get the now rarer cases where people keep offering food or drinks, and I keep saying ‘nej tak’, because they don’t believe that nothing I don’t want anything (I don’t drink coffee, which is a severe social handicap in Denmark and most other places I have been).

  49. #49 Martin R
    January 27, 2009

    Coffee is huge in Sweden too. I once asked a legendary old ancient monument surveyor with the National Heritage Board how he could stand the coffee the farmers were serving him all the time as he visited them to check out stone axes and ask about sites. He told me that he never had any coffee at all: every time they offered him a cup he’d reply “Thanks, but I had some at the last farm I visited”.

  50. #50 Jasmine
    January 27, 2009

    Hmmmmm…. don’t quite agree with the no manners needed for the Chinese, esp. in families. I think the difference is in whether you are from PRC or SE asian country and what social class you belong to (which also includes your level of education). Keep in mind that many countries that were once under British rule still maintain the manners and norms of the upper to middle class English.
    Besides, I suppose the lack of “Ps & Qs” within families will depend on the level of familiarity.

  51. #51 Meli
    January 28, 2009

    I’m an Australian, and find that with people who have recently migrated from India I am always called “Ma’am”. Taxi drivers, people selling door to door, people on the phone – I’m always “Ma’am”.

    I’m only 26! So I always notice that difference in culture.

  52. #52 Gee
    January 28, 2009

    I grew up just outside of Chicago and suddenly moved to Macon, GA when I was twenty. The subtle nuisances of politeness are drastically different. I was used to ignoring people I passed on the street (no eye contact) and discussing personal things (especially religion and politics) with a stranger was a huge no. And when someone said something, they usually meant it.

    Then, suddenly, I was in the south where complete strangers would greet you and start discussing anything and everything with you. Everything was sugar-coated and no one actually meant what they said. Kids use a distant tone and address with their own parents and everyone’s using “Ma’am” or “Sir”.

    The way I was raised, you just don’t call someone “Ma’am” or “Sir”– especially not a stranger.

  53. #53 Norwegie
    January 28, 2009

    I have an Irish friend who have lived in Norway for the last ten or so years. He said once that he uses this foreignness to his advantage in only-one-bisquit-left-situations.

    I find Norwegian people generally think it is unpolite to help themselves to the last of something (cake, bisquit, candy, what have you) that is served to a group of people. So my friend would make sure to have the second-to-last piece of whatever was on offer, thus being certain he would also get the last piece – because anyone else was to polite to take it. He would say “I’m foreign, I don’t know the rules” 🙂 A very cunning lack of knowledge, I must say.

  54. #54 stella
    January 28, 2009

    would be interesting to see more of your observations and experience on culture differences between u and ur wife:-)

  55. #55 Mac
    January 28, 2009

    I felt culture shock as a teen just moving from N.Y.C. to Washington, D.C., where suddenly people would talk to me uninvited, and say “Good Morning,” and expect me to smile back, just randomly in the streets, when there was no mitigating situational reason for us to be interacting! I felt like a deer in headlights for about a year.

    I also had great difficulty explaining certain cultural differences between Europe and the U.S. (at least the Northeast) to students of mine: (To the Europeans: “No, just because they bring you the check doesn’t necessarily mean they want to get rid of you this instant…they just think you want the check!”To the Americans: “No, they are not ignoring you because they are anti-American/racist/ignoring you/hate you/lazy — they just don’t want to interrupt you enjoying your dinner; if you want the bill, just ask for it nicely!”

    One of my French coworkers described to me how boggling it was, the way New Yorkers ordered in delis. She’d be at the counter answering “What’s you’re order?” with “Well…let me see…what’s available? Is this good?” while the native on line right behind her would spit out “I’d like a turkey cheddar cheese on toasted wheat bagel mayo only on one side no mustard no slaw and a coffee two sugar no milk to go thank you!” in one breath.

  56. #56 Lily
    January 28, 2009

    I think it’s interesting that a couple of Taiwanese commenters don’t seem to realize that Taiwanese and Chinese culture are not identical (not to mention that Chinese culture varies widely in different regions of China). Taiwanese and mainland Chinese ideas of politeness are totally different, so don’t go telling people they’re wrong about Chinese manners based on Taiwanese manners.

  57. #57 Nadia
    January 29, 2009

    The opposite of AshColette….

    I knew a girl who moved from northern New England to Florida for quite a few years of her childhood. She got detentions over and over for calling the teacher “Mrs. So-and-So” instead of “Ma’am”. I can’t decide if I’m surprised or not at the insensitivity of her teacher.

  58. #58 Sadie
    January 29, 2009

    I grew up in California, but my family moved from one end of it to the other, and it’s always been amazing to me the amount of cultural variance that can happen even in a single state. When I lived in a small town in Mendocino County (Nor Cal), everyone was very personable. People met each others eyes when passing on the street and said “hey” or “hows it going?” A lot of folk would pretty much talk to anyone who offered an open ear; I don’t even remember the number of conversations I’d have with strangers while waiting in line at the market or something.

    When I lived in LA (So Cal, obviously) things were a lot more distant. People rarely made eye contact and it was generally considered unsafe to be too friendly with strangers. (On the other hand, they would respond positively if I nodded or greeted them first. Compare to the time I spent in New York, where people became nervous and avoided me if I tried to made contact with them in passing.) But there was also a feeling of being completely left alone that was nice too. In a small town, everyone is judging you.

    San Francisco and the East Bay, where I live now, are kind of a mix of the both. Unless they’re caught up in their own business, most everyone is laid back and welcoming, without being invasive.

  59. #59 windy
    January 30, 2009


    On the eastern side of the sea there is no need for pleases and pardons, you only need to provide information. If you are too polite, people will think that you behave in a suspicious way, that you’ve got a hidden agenda and are trying to get some kind of advantage out of the situation.

    Yeah, and it seems that in Finland you try to avoid calling people by name as much as possible. So the American way of inserting your first name into each greeting or question sounds weird, as if they are talking to a child or a dog.

    Another fun thing is that in a lot of places in Finland, people are normally ‘it’, they are only ‘he/she’ if you are annoyed with them or being sarcastic. So you would say ‘It’s a good guy’ but ‘Let him do as he pleases!’

  60. #60 Doc
    January 30, 2009

    rkolter said:

    I’ve lived in a few places in the US, and the strangest friendly convention I’ve seen is in Minnesota, where often people will say “Please?” instead of “Excuse me?”. This results in a very familiar conversation when someone not from Minnesota visits and mis-speaks.

    Minnesotian: “Please?”
    Visitor: “Excuse me?”
    Minnesotian: “Please?”
    Visitor: (pause) “Excuse me?”
    Minnesotian: (pause) “Please?”

    I’ve lived here nigh on to a half century, and have never heard this usage. I further question the veracity of this account because rkolter has used the term “Minnesotian”, rather than, as every Minnesotan knows, “Minnesotan”.

  61. #61 CHINA
    February 3, 2009

    Forcing food on guests used to be an important part of rural Swedish housewifery. There’s a story in my family about a boy who once had dinner at my great grandma’s house. She kept forcing food on him until he, very respectfully, replied, “No thank you, Mrs. Rundkvist, it wasn’t that good”.

    I’m in doubt with one thing here: “… it wasn’t THAT good”.
    I was told some time ago we may orally use This and That for emphasize the sentence, like this:

    THIS: use it for emphasizing a negative meaning in the sentence, eg: “C’mon, dear, the dinner wasn’t THIS bad…” (it means, the dinner wasn’t too bad)

    THAT: use it for emphasizing a positive meaning in the sentence, as in the example in the caput… (it means the dinner wasn’t very good)

    So, I’m discussing this in some communities, but up to now, nobody agrees with this usage… Am I wrong, then??

    see ya and thanx you all!

  62. #62 Lucy
    February 13, 2009

    What is anyone’s take on this:

    My kindergartener son is offended that one of his teachers doesn’t ever say “Please” when telling or asking a student to do something (such as “Sit down” or “Give him a pencil” or “Give that to me”). In fact, he is so offended that he thinks this teacher is being rude, so he doesn’t do anything she says. As a result, of course, he frequently gets into trouble and is told to sit out of the group. I asked him if he would do as she instructed if she would use “Please,” and he said yes. It seems an easy fix…except I haven’t the faintest idea how to tell the teacher about this without offending HER. Can you imagine…”My son would really like you to use the word Please whenever you are giving an order or command. He thinks you are being rude when you don’t say Please; that is why he won’t do what you say.” When I was little, we had plenty of “rude” teachers. We still did what they said, and then we could talk about it later with our friends (“She’s so mean” “She’s so bossy” “I’m afraid of her”). Talking about this with my son has been difficult. He says he really won’t do what rude people say to do, even if they are his teachers. I really don’t blame him…especially since we have raised him and his sibling to use polite language as often as possible. I’m wondering what you think.

  63. #63 Martin R
    February 13, 2009

    I think you just gave us a non-rude explanation of the situation. If you said as much in a friendly way to the teacher, I can’t see why she should be offended. You and the teacher probably belong to different subcultures. It’s just like the mutual incomprehension between academic parents and daycare ladies over gender issues.

  64. #64 CrimeGirlSA
    February 14, 2009

    I am South African, and we have a very funny ritual around the “last piece of anything on the plate” dilemna described by other posters.

    In my culture, if there is only one cookie left on the plate and someone wants it, they will “claim it” by asking “Does anyone want the last cookie?”. Everyone else, to be polite of course, will reply “No, go right ahead!”. In the rare event that someone DID really want it before the “claim” was laid, they will reply “Let’s split it”. The claimant will do so, to be polite.

    Politeness is a strange beast!

    Also, on the issue of respectful address. Our equivalents of “Ma’am” & “Sir” are “Tannie” (Auntie) & “Oom” (Uncle). I reckon that this harkens back to days where everyone you knew really were related to you in some odd way! Most younger people do take offense when being addressed as such by children, but I really appreciate that the youth still shows respect when addressing their elders.

  65. #65 Martin R
    February 15, 2009

    My wife calls her maternal aunts niangniang, “paternal aunt”, as the word for maternal aunt has come to mean “cleaning lady”.

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