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Global politeness survey is difficult to digest

June 20th, 2006

Dr Petra

According to the ‘world politeness survey’ widely documented in the press today, New York is the most mannered city on the planet, whilst the rudest people apparently live in Bombay. The ‘survey’, by Readers Digest lists 35 countries in order of politeness:

1-New York (80%). 2-Zurich (77%). 3-Toronto (70%). 4-Berlin (70%). 5-Sao Paulo (68%). 6-Zagreb (68%). 7-Auckland (67%). 8-Warsaw (67%). 9-Mexico City (65%). 10-Stockholm (63%). 11-Budapest (60%). 12-Madrid (60%). 13-Prague (60%). 14-Vienna (60%). 15-Buenos Aires (57%). 16-Johanesburg (57%). 17-Lisbon (57%). 18-London (57%). 19-Paris (57%). 20-Amsterdam (52%). 21-Helsinki (48%). 22-Manila (48%). 23-Milano (47%). 24-Sydney (47%). 25-Bangkok (45%). 26-Hong Kong (45%). 27-Ljubljana (45%). 28-Jakarta (43%). 29-Taipei (43%). 30-Moscow (42%). 31-Singapore (42%). 32-Soeul (40%). 33-Kuala Lumpur (37%). 34-Bucharest (35%). 35-Bombay (32%).

Clearly the global coverage of this story certainly didn’t do the Reader’s Digest any harm, but what did they actually do? News reports are conflicting. In many accounts the study’s described as a ‘survey’ of 2000 people in 35 countries. But in other accounts it’s also mentioned that a team of researchers visited the countries and watched if people picked up litter, said thank-you and opened doors for others.

Now, if the latter was the basis of the research then it wasn’t a ‘survey’ as all the papers have reported, but an observational study.

And if it was a survey, it seems that rather than identifying what people actually do, it’s more likely that respondents said what they might do (or perhaps what they thought researchers would like to hear). Given the survey was conducted in so many countries there may well have been differences in the way the survey was phrased or translated – leading to different results. The idea of saying ‘thank you’ and opening doors is a culturally specific form of politeness. Courtesy customs vary the world over, which may be a far more likely explanation of these data, rather than just an acceptance that some countries are more polite than others.

Not that it mattered really, the aim of this study wasn’t an exercise in anthropology, it was a marketing ploy that worked. Sadly though, I’m sure these ‘data’ will underpin all manner of media features in the future, and for some unfairly reinforce prejudices.

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