Mind your manners

By Hannah Leung Source:Global Times Published: 2013-2-19 19:38:01

Young women at a finishing school in Yangzhou, Jiangsu Province, work on their posture and smiling on the eve of the 2012 International Women's Day. Photo: IC
Young women at a finishing school in Yangzhou, Jiangsu Province, work on their posture and smiling on the eve of the 2012 International Women's Day. Photo: IC

In December last year, Hong Kong businesswoman Sara Jane Ho made international headlines when she launched an etiquette school based in Beijing's five-star Park Hyatt Hotel. The Harvard Business School graduate received much publicity for her school, which seeks to improve the manners of China's high society through three-month courses priced at 100,000 yuan ($16,000). 

However, it is common public behavior of ordinary people in China that often attracts the spotlight for all the wrong reasons on online forums, social networking websites and blogs. Spitting in streets, loud slurping in restaurants, unashamed queue-jumping and public defecation and urination by infants at the encouragement of parents are regularly criticized by both Chinese and foreign Web users alike.

Cultural etiquette clash

Ho's school might target the super-rich in Chinese society, however it is the growing middle class that often shapes the reputation of their compatriots when they travel overseas. Despite tour guides and travel agencies often warning Chinese customers to refrain from behavior considered acceptable at home yet intolerable abroad, sometimes these calls aren't always heeded.

"These are all very typical behaviors. Chinese people [sometimes] do not behave well … this is especially evident when they travel abroad," said Wang Xiaolü, 26, a Beijing native currently studying her master's degree in New York.

As a student abroad, Wang said she often encounters Chinese tourists who are "loud and pushy," causing her to cringe.

However, she hastened to add not all such behavior should be considered offensive. Westerners may misinterpret cross-cultural differences as being rude, when they might actually be linked to traditional or medical beliefs. Spitting, for example, is encouraged by some traditional Chinese medicine practitioners to expel phlegm from the body.

Arguably, one of the most controversial examples of etiquette taboo is public defecation and urination. On January 30, outrage ensued when a photo snapped by a Taiwanese tour guide purportedly showed a Chinese mainland mother letting her son defecate onto newspaper sheets at a Taiwan airport.

The reality for many Chinese parents is that diapers remain an expensive and less favored alternative to the popular crotchless pants for infants. This cheap solution, however, can sometimes come at the expense of embarrassment.

"I have mixed feelings. On one hand, I'm proud of being Chinese. China has developed so fast, as has quality of life [in the country]. But on the other hand, I sometimes feel so ashamed. We have such a bad reputation," Wang said, in response to the airport incident.

Teaching Western etiquette

Institute Sarita, the school run by 27-year-old Ho, is described on its website as "China's leading finishing school, bringing you first-hand experience to help you become more poised and polished, taking your social and professional success to the next level."

Knigge Akademie, a Germany-based etiquette school that teaches Western etiquette to Chinese businesspeople, opened its Beijing office in March 2011. Its courses are taught by etiquette specialists from overseas, and cater mostly to employees of large companies and the government.

Eric Liu, marketing manager for Knigge Akademie, said a one-week course at the institution costs around 30,000 yuan. Costs, which are usually footed by participants' employers, include accommodation and meals, with mastering table manners ranking among the most coveted skills.

"Everyone knows that the Chinese economy is growing, but if Chinese businesspeople can't learn [Western] etiquette, they can't successfully conduct business internationally," said Liu, a Chinese national. "Western visitors might think that Chinese clients are not polite, which makes etiquette such a key part of business."

Briton Freddie Cull founded The Etiquette Society along with business partner Cameron Shaw in Beijing in 2008. Like Knigge Akademie, it taught Chinese clients Western etiquette and aimed to refine their daily social and communication interactions. However, the school closed down in 2011.

Cull, who is now a brand strategist at a multinational company in Shanghai, believes the market for such services is stronger today.

Nevertheless, negative historical attitudes toward Western etiquette still linger among some from China's older generation. During the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), such etiquette was denounced as bourgeois, and being branded a dalaocu, or "uncouth fellow," was considered a compliment.

Etiquette schools still risk being misinterpreted and perceived as condescending in China, Cull noted.  

"You run the risk of coming across as derogatory towards Chinese society when you start insinuating that there are better ways, in line with your own culture. Trying to shift societal views can get you into murky waters," he told Metro Beijing.

"There's certainly space to do it if you're aware, but you have to be a respected company to justify the means."

Bridging the cultural divide

Beijing has made efforts in the past to clean up its act for the global spotlight. Before the 2008 Beijing Olympics, a manners campaign was launched and more than 100,000 authentic copies of a book titled Etiquette for the Modern Chinese were distributed.

But many Chinese already know the difference between good and bad public behavior, according to Zhang Fang, a professor of Chinese history at Peking University.

"China is historically based on respect for rules and laws. There have always been high requirements demanded of citizens, but in today's society, disrespect has emerged for these types of rules," Zhang said.

After the Cultural Revolution, China "started from scratch" and consequently lagged behind in civil behavior compared to Korea and Japan, he said.

"When I was young, the idea of lining up was non-existent, but now you can gradually see some improvements. Though you might not notice it at all, to me there is improvement," he said, noting that change was a "step-by-step" process.

It's not just Chinese who are learning, either. Foreigners coming to China hoping to conduct business also have lots to learn to adhere to local etiquette customs. 

Business cards, for example, must be presented with two hands to the receiving party as a gesture of respect, though plenty of Western professionals miss out on this nuance when exchanging first-time pleasantries.

"I feel ashamed of rude behavior [by Chinese overseas], but on the other hand I understand it, too. People are used to acting a certain way in China. You can't expect them to change overnight," said Yu Xiao, 27, who travels domestically and internationally in his role as a manager at a State-owned enterprise in the oil and gas industry. 


Posted in: Metro Beijing

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