Conscious courtesy – Contradictheory | The Star Online

I couldn’t help nodding my head in complete agreement while reading Dzof Azmi’s Contradictheory piece in The Star newspaper today. I suffered a culture shock of sorts when I first arrived on American soil for my tertiary studies.

Total strangers I walk past on the street would greet me with “Hi, how are you doing?” or “Nice day, isn’t it?” As I soon learnt, exchanging such pleasantries is commonplace. People going through the door before me would hold it open. When done eating at campus cafeterias or fastfood joints, people empty the contents of their trays into the trash bins then neatly stack the trays in the space on top of the bins. And yes, customers and cashiers would usually thank each other upon completion of transactions and even follow with a “Have a nice day.” What initially surprised me quickly became the expected norm. It’s something so pleasant which I swiftly and willingly adopted and became my way of life the 2 years I was there.

Then I came home and suddenly the difference became so glaring. Hardly or no such pleasantries here. My nose almost got flattened several times by doors swinging at me after the person before me had gone through. It’s true strangers hardly say hi to each other. In fact, I personally would be wary if someone, especially suspicious-looking males (sorry, but being female, I’m sure it’s understandable I need to view the opposite sex with some caution) were to pass me by with anything more than a cursory glance.

Disappointed at first, I regretfully had to accept this is how it is here. What I choose to do now – encouraged by my sis who resides in US and hubby who’s lived Down Under for many years – is to initiate greetings when appropriate. Smile at others in the hope they don’t think I’m trying to get fresh with them. Hold doors open for others behind me. And the list goes on. My hubby and I are determined to teach our son good manners. I feel those of us who realize it should emulate such simple common courtesies and educate the younger generation. Hopefully it’ll be contagious, just like a smile.

Conscious courtesy – Contradictheory | The Star Online.


Published: Sunday October 27, 2013 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Sunday October 27, 2013 MYT 8:56:08 AM

Conscious courtesy

Why do we need ‘politeness campaigns’ like this? A file picture of a 2011 ‘Courtesy and Noble Values Campaign’ involving Universiti Putra Malaysia students.

Why do we need ‘politeness campaigns’ like this? A file picture of a 2011 ‘Courtesy and Noble Values Campaign’ involving Universiti Putra Malaysia students.

Are Malaysians less polite and caring than Americans? Or are we just more shy about exchanging unnecessary pleasantries with strangers?

I WAS lucky enough to be in San Francisco recently. A beautiful city, with wonderful food – and very helpful people. I saw not one, but three people, get up to help a septuagenarian getting on a tram with his shopping basket.

When I mentioned the last point to somebody living there, she replied that people work hard to keep SF’s reputation up.

Which struck me as a strange answer. Isn’t manners something you learn from young and not adopt when you’re older, as in the phrase: “well brought up”? Or are manners more akin to Eliza Doolittle of My Fair Lady, something you can learn to move up society’s ladder?

As far as moving up is concerned, the 800,000 San Franciscans have good reason to believe they are near the top. In a survey done by Conde Nast Travellermagazine, the city came third in the list of Best US Cities. Its history of cultural innovation based on the ideology of free speech is now blended with the technological innovation of Silicon Valley.

And through it all, they are still thoughtful of their fellow man. Just ride a bus for a day and you’ll see people give up their seats for the elderly with no second thought. It gives you a warm fuzzy glow inside.

Do I get that same warm glow on the LRT in KL? Sure, in the middle of rush hour heat.

Admittedly, occasionally generous persons on the LRT do offer their place, but by and large, people look down at their phones and not up to their fellow passengers.

Does that mean people in SF are more polite than those in KL? The idea that an American has better manners than an Asian is contrary to what many believe. After all, Americans are supposedly loud, aggressive and uncouth, whereas Malaysians are portrayed as being gentle, polite and non-confrontational.

What does “politeness” mean? Kuala Lumpur was ranked in the bottom three out of 35 cities in the 2006 Reader’s Digest Global Courtesy Test. New York came top, and far above Kuala Lumpur were Mexico City, Johannesburg and Manila (for the curious, Singapore was ranked only two positions higher).

How they measured politeness in this case was to observe how citizens behaved in three situations: whether they would help somebody who suddenly dropped a sheaf of papers on the pavement; whether they would hold open a door for somebody following close behind them; and whether shopkeepers would say “thank you” after a transaction. Anybody who lives in KL knows the first sometimes happens, the second rarely and the last almost never.

Perhaps this is more about culture than anything else. For example, it’s not in our culture to exchange irrelevant pleasantries. If you were walking down a street in KL, and somebody suddenly said “Hi” to you, you would think they were quite strange. Be over-friendly with a shopkeeper and you may be accused of (or praised for) flirting. A woman in KL stopping to help a male stranger pick up his dropped papers may even come across as being too forward in certain circumstances.

So why don’t more people hold open doors? I’m not sure. But I do know that many people will open a door for an elder or somebody of superior rank to let them walk through first. Perhaps the reason we didn’t learn to hold doors open for others is because usually the eldest person walks through first, and it is not expected of him to hold it for the younger person coming after.

It’s a cultural DNA that has been drilled into you from a young age, in the same way when people salam (greet) each other, the younger will bow their head and kiss the hand of the elder.

On the other hand, I believe that politeness in San Francisco was a very conscious effort. The residents are constantly aware of its identity and they adjust their behaviour accordingly. The kind of learning KL-ites do is to not contradict somebody superior than you because you’ll get told off for it later.

So is it better to be polite by instinct or by intention, by rote or by reason? It’s hard to say. I find that Malaysians have more genuine warmth when you do connect, whereas those in SF still keep their distance slightly. But on the other hand, a society where people are consciously trying to be nice to one another has greater potential.

For example, one piece of hard-wired code many people have, including KL-ites, is “if everybody else does it, it’s probably OK”. But I think if we can all accept that being polite means going out of your way to help make somebody else feel better, then perhaps it’s sometimes okay to encourage people to do what’s unnatural, and not what other people do.

And if we can inculcate into our kids the idea it’s not wrong to be different, it might make KL a nicer place for all.

Logic is the antithesis of emotion but mathematician-turned-scriptwriter Dzof Azmi’s theory is that people need both to make sense of life’s vagaries and contradictions. Speak to him at


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