It seems simple enough, and we use it all day long. But my new theory (constantly evolving) is that the “Excuse me” that we know and love is perhaps considered aggressive and intrusive here in S’pore.
Consider this. When standing on the escalator, you should stand on the left and climb on the right (different from the States). But, if one person stands on the right, then the rest of the people will just keep standing there. If you pulled that stunt in DC, you would have chorus of commuters asking you to move your slack jaw, fly over-state, tourist self the heck out of the way. Or, at best you may simple have someone say “Excuse me” and the person would move and you would continue to climb. Also, we may have mentioned the queuing issues when boarding an elevator, escalator, or MRT. The story is that when standing at the door, if there is ANY space between you and the door or person in front of you, when you blink you are liable to find about 3 Aunties have slipped in front of your from nowhere. See also my previous post about walking down the street. For the record, I do say “Excuse me” when I need to climb on the escalator, and the person moves, no stink eye, no problems, just me wondering why they were standing there to begin with….
What I think these all have in the common at the moment, is that there is a lack of eye contact in these adventures. Yes, they have cut in front of you, but they don’t acknowledge you. They just seem to focus on the task and go for it. Rarely an excuse me or pardon me is issued during all this jockeying for position. And this brings me back to the Excuse Me. I think, that making eye contact, involving yourself in someone’s space, and speaking to them directly to say, you are in my way, and I wish to pass, Excuse me, could be considered….rude? aggressive? As if that by speaking to someone and acknowledging that you wish to pass and they are in your way is an intrusive act that breaks the bubble of polite society…..
I will say the BIG exception to this behavior is on the MRT, seats are almost ALWAYS offered up to the elderly, pregnant, or injured. I have see young guys, middle aged women, and others all readily offer up their seats when a Grand-ma or Grand-dad boards the train. It warms my little heart every time.
I don’t know. But as I wander the MRT on my daily commute I am struck by how seldom people will acknowledge their fellow traveler. Just put your eyes forward and move about your business. It’s not an intentional rudeness, but rather an indifference (?) to those around you.
This brings us to our next topic, manners.
There is a conflict between the perceived hospitality of those you meet on the street and those you meet on personal levels. For whatever reason, people you meet on the street could walk past you like wallpaper. They don’t know you, don’t need to know you, and your problems are your own. Again, hence no eye contact, cutting in front of you, and in general not sharing the sidewalk very well. BUT, meeting people on a personal social level and the tune changes. I find them to be hospitalibel, friendly, warm and kind. When eating out, visiting hawker centers, entering stores (even Mustafa) people are generally friendly and helpful. The one on one engagements are quite nice, sometimes with over sharing, it’s the encounters on the street that make you wonder if this town has ever heard of the Golden Rule. The expression Do unto others as you would have done unto you, just doesn’t quite jive with the culture here I don’t think.
My last comment du jour is about Generosity.
I’m working on a project now in Shanghai and doing research about the past, the roaring 1920-30’s of Shanghai. During that research I came across this note:
It is well to know something about rickshaws and their “pullers” before engaging one. There are many foreigners in Shanghai who ruefully recall the time they paid a dollar gold for a ten-minute ride. Do not attempt to bargain with a rickshaw coolie with foreign money. Chinese money is all that means anything to him. And don’t deliberately overpay him from a sense of sympathy. Rickshaw coolies live in dire poverty; pay them liberally but not foolishly, for it is an idiosyncrasy of the coolie mind to mistake generosity for idiocy.
Hand to God, I think that still true today. There is something about transactions that make the culture here think Generosity is Idiocy. Where my Western culture (or personality) has a distaste of haggling and bargaining, I think here it’s how you earn respect. I had heard that tipping in Asia is not common, when you go out service is often included in a meal, if you try and leave more than what’s added, you get some funny looks. We tried to give some tips in Guangzhou and were flat our refused along with looks of “WTF are you doing?” But to me, that same attitude translates into other areas, the idea of doing something for nothing is met with skepticism. Why would you do something, anything, for nothing? You must be a fool? So why let someone go first into the MRT train? What if it fills up and you miss your spot? Why give up a spot on the queue to someone else? What if they run out of food/product/space? I encounter this quite often. Me and a fellow passenger will approach a gate/door/escalator at the same time. Back home, someone would say “after you” and pause. Sometimes you might respond, “Oh no, you were here first, or go ahead” That exchange has never taken place on this island since it was created.
Just as a final note on all the above, I often come up against Aunties in these cases, the Aunties always wins….