Do you think that people’s ideas about what’s polite and what’s not polite are the same all over the world or do you think that it depends which country you are in?
In today’s post, I’m going to tell you what I’ve discovered by working with international learners, living abroad and a bit of reading. I wouldn’t call myself an expert but I love learning from my students and followers!
I’m sure there must be some ideas about politeness which are universal. When I worked in a language school, I had many different nationalities in the classroom at any one time. Despite coming from many different backgrounds, everyone worked happily together and problems were very unusual, so I think that our similarities are more than our differences.
Of course, occasionally, there were a couple of students who were more interested in their phones than in the lesson. This annoyed the other students as well as me! Apart from these few people, generally, everyone agreed that it was polite to listen to the teacher, listen to each other, say please and thank you and help each other out.
One difference I noticed in the language school was about nose blowing and sniffing! In some countries, it’s not polite to blow your nose in public and it’s OK to sniff instead. In the UK, it’s the opposite. It’s OK to blow your nose (unless you have a really disgusting cold, and then it’s better to leave the room first) and it’s not OK to sniff a lot. I sometimes wanted to tell a student to blow their nose so I didn’t have to listen to the sniffing any more, but of course I didn’t because I didn’t want to be rude!
When I lived in Poland, I discovered that people don’t smile at strangers as much there as they do here. In the UK, it’s common to smile and say hello if you go out for a walk in a village or in the countryside and pass somebody coming the other way. In the city, we don’t smile at everyone we see but we might smile at a shop assistant, a waiter or somebody who holds a door open for us.
British people also say “please” and “thank you” a lot. I don’t know much about which other countries do this - perhaps you can tell me - but I do know that my language school students sometimes commented on it and found it strange! We also say “sorry” quite a lot. If somebody bumps into me, I might say “sorry” even if it was the other person’s fault and not mine!
Another thing that’s important for you to know if you ever visit the UK is that we like to queue! If you want to pay in a shop, buy a cinema ticket or get on a bus, you need to wait your turn. This can be especially difficult at a bus stop because there isn’t always an obvious line of people. You just have to notice who was there before you and let them get on the bus first. Strangely, this doesn’t apply to trains or the London Underground, where everyone races to get a seat!
If you’re invited to somebody’s house for dinner, there are different ways to be polite in different countries. In a lot of Asian countries, you should take off your shoes as you enter the house. This is less common in the UK.
In many countries, it’s polite to take a gift when you are invited to somebody’s home. Here it’s common to take a bottle of wine as a gift but obviously this would not be appropriate in countries where people don’t drink alcohol for religious reasons. English people also often take flowers or chocolates.
I’ve also read that in some countries, you should give and receive a gift with both hands, not one. This custom is even followed when passing somebody a business card. My Japanese and Korean students used to give me their homework with two hands sometimes.
I’ve read that in parts of India, people often use their hands when they eat but in the UK, we usually use a knife and fork. It’s also important to know that in some countries, in the Middle East, for example, it’s not polite to touch food with your left hand.
What time should you arrive if somebody invites you to their home? In the UK, it’s common to arrive 5 or 10 minutes late, in case the host or hostess needs more time to get ready. It’s OK to be on time but it’s not polite to be early, although this doesn’t matter so much with close friends or family. In other countries, people might arrive early, exactly on time or half an hour later, depending on where they live.
The way people greet each other varies a lot from country to country. In the UK, it’s common for people to shake hands but in other countries, people might bow. I remember a funny TV advertisement from a few years ago. A Japanese business man met a European. The Japanese man put out his hand to shake and the European bowed because they both wanted to respect the other one’s culture. Then the Japanese man bowed and the European put out his hand!
In this country, it’s not common to call people “sir” or “madam” these days. In fact, it makes me feel a bit uncomfortable when somebody calls me “madam”. Even if somebody is serving me in a shop or a cafe, I consider us to be equals so there’s no need for them to call me “madam”. Plus it makes me feel old! People always ask me what they should say instead. You don’t need to call the other person anything at all.
You might imagine that the topics of conversation which are impolite in your country are also rude in other countries. However, if you visit Korea, somebody might ask you how old you are. This is because the Korean language has different ways to address somebody depending on whether they are older or younger than you. In the UK, it is generally not polite to ask adults about their age, especially women.
I’m going to finish by sharing a story from the two years I spent living in Poland. I made a video for you. I don’t have a lot of experience making videos and I can see lots of things I can do better next time! Just as my video doesn’t have to be perfect, remember your English doesn’t have to be perfect either! We can only learn and improve by trying, right?!
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