If Reader's Digest is to be believed, Taipei is home to some of the world's rudest, most callous and most uncaring humans on the face of the Earth. That may be exaggerating the results of the magazine's recent international survey, but it's a tempting exaggeration, especially as the survey says that New York is now the most polite city in the world.
The magazine used the following variables to measure politeness across different cities: "document drops," in which a person drops a bundle of papers on the street and expects others to help pick them up; "door tests," in which unwitting people are assessed on their willingness to hold doors open for others; and "service tests," in which staff were monitored over whether they thanked customers for their patronage (in New York, all of these tests were conducted in Starbucks stores, which seems more of a plug for the coffee franchise than a genuine attempt at experimental validity).
The point has been made that these tests were remarkably biased toward Western conceptions of politeness, although even by this standard it seems odd that Taipei should rank so low on the first two tests. Another factor not discussed in the magazine's article is the potential effect of tipping culture on American staff: if there is a much more direct economic mandate on polite behavior, how can this be compared with what goes on in cities that do not tip?
The politeness survey article in the online US edition of Reader's Digest concentrates on New York to the exclusion of all other cities in the survey. That's not very polite. Presumably the same pattern holds for other editions; if so, Reader's Digest readers are interested only in their own cities, even in the context of a global survey. That's not very polite, either.
The survey made no mention of differing expectations of what constitutes polite behavior in different societies, and with only three variables being used, it hardly covered the richness of human behavior, polite or otherwise.
More intelligent editors at this famously conservative magazine would themselves concede that the survey was more of an international marketing exercise than a serious comparison of cultural mores (Reader's Digest is published in all 35 cities that took part). This is why it should not be taken seriously. But it does offer an opportunity to reflect on Taipei's image to overseas visitors.
If tourists can endure the genuine surliness of CKS International Airport's immigration officials and the perfunctory manner of many of the bus drivers from the airport to Taipei or elsewhere, then what remains is by any standard a refreshing surprise for those who travel widely in countries whose languages they do not speak.
In the end, the pressing issue for foreign visitors to this country is not whether the average person holds open doors or helps pick up papers, but whether people providing essential services can speak adequate English or Japanese, whether police are capable of doing their jobs properly in times of emergency, and whether signs in obvious tourist or business destinations are sufficiently multilingual.
The people of Taipei need not feel disturbed by silly surveys -- there are enough of them as it is. But things can definitely be improved at an administrative level. The form of politeness in this country that needs more work is institutional, not social.
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