The Star Opinion: Turn the Other Cheek Civility

From The Star Opinion 25 May 2010:

Nothing to gain by being arrogant to others

I WOULD like to comment on the article “Glaring cultural differences,” (The Star, May 24).

I have had a totally different experience from Sheila Stanley.

I can attest to the rudeness that is witnessed everywhere you turn. Sadly, it is not for no reason that we joke about having First World amenities with a Third World mentality.

However, I find that “giving face” tends to oil the gears of public interactions rather than gritting them up.

My experience is that a humble attitude, a gentle voice and a grateful smile does wonders for the service received.

Whether it is with shopkeepers, clerks or policemen, an arrogant or confrontational attitude only invites conflicts and unnecessary hurdles, even though you know you are in the right.

This has been especially apparent in government offices.

I have witnessed clients loudly demanding to be served and the staff responding with indifference.

By contrast, I get pleasant smiles and quick service when I act politely and humbly – perhaps because it is such a surprising change from the rudeness the staff encounter on a daily basis.

I suppose my approach is different from what is considered the norm.

I was once a waiter and remember clearly what it felt like to be commended for good service or to be mockingly laughed at for breaking a glass.

Thus I can empathise with those providing services.

I am quite sure many others have gone through similarly humbling experiences.

But once they climb the social ladder, they behave differently.

It results in rudeness and a bullying attitude that mars the image of many Malaysians.

How can we change our prevailing culture for the better?

I suppose we can always pass on the responsibility to the Government for a top-down approach – more campaigns and slogans, anyone?

Or we can shoulder the burden ourselves and change things from the ground up.

The next time you interact with others, try turning the other cheek and see what happens.

We may have to put up with a few metaphorical slaps, but perhaps – just perhaps – we can influence others to try out this unusual custom called civility.



I used the phrase ‘turn the other cheek’ above, and in my last letter used the term ‘Good Samaritan’. See the pattern?

The opinion piece that I respond to:

Monday May 24, 2010
Glaring cultural differences

Malaysians will never be rude to a Datuk or a Tan Sri because they choose the people to bully.

I arrived back in Kuala Lumpur on Jan 11. I hadn’t been too certain whether I would even get on my flight from Dublin on account of record snowfalls (the worst in Europe in 30 years) and icy runways.

Straight back into 30-degree heat in my snow boots, thermal knickers and winter coat was a bit of a shock to my system.

After the initial unpleasant jolt and the necessary adaptation into a more tropic-friendly ensemble, I got straight back into the flow of the climate here.

A lot like the initial culture shock of settling back into life in Malaysia – and in both cases, at times, I find myself in a fractious mood as a result of cultural and climatic differences.

The weather is easy enough to deal with, what with non-stop air-conditioning being the norm here.

As for everything else that annoyed me, I didn’t really notice it initially as I was too busy eating my way around Malaysia.

From roti canai in Cameron Highlands to Sarawak laksa in Kuching, I was just far too caught up with stuffing my face to notice much else but the plate of food in front of me.

It was only after my digestive system started giving out about all the food additives I was ingesting that I had to start paying attention to other little details of Malaysian life.

I have a long list of pet hates (which gets longer as the days go by). For a start, we’re just a rude nation.

We’re rude to family, friends and neighbours. We’re rude to maids, security guards and supermarket cashiers.

We are not, however, rude to Datuks, Tan Sris and their spouses. We know our place in the pecking order, you see.

We are rude when we drive, when we park and when we engage with others in commercial transactions.

When it comes to small and medium- sized businesses, there is no such thing as customer service in Malaysia.

Large multinational corporations have the money to send their staff for training and as a result, they’re just a lot easier to deal with than small businesses which seem to think that they’re doing you a favour by taking your money off you to provide service for you.

I have lost count of the number of times I’ve handed my money over to people who have just been plain rude.

It was only when one day, as a result of a particularly nasty heat wave, that I snapped at some small business-person and watched as he then did a turnaround and apologised to me, that the realisation struck me about one of the fundamental rules of surviving in Malaysia.

“Don’t give face.” That’s what politeness is viewed as in Malaysia – giving face, as opposed to it being just the norm of social engagement.

Malaysians pick the people they choose to be polite to, as opposed to Europeans, who pick the people they choose to be rude to.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not as if I think I’m beyond all this.

I used to be the quintessential rude Malaysian as well. But moving away from Malaysia, I was exposed to a culture where rudeness is not just frowned upon, it verged on the illegal!

God forbid you’re rude to the supermarket cashier anywhere in Europe, or you might find them refusing to serve you.

You see, we Malaysians are far too accepting of this rudeness.

I don’t know why this is so, but I do know that I don’t want to be in a position where my principal form of engagement with my friends, family, neighbours, mamak stall operators, restaurant waiters, supermarket cashiers and petrol station attendants is based on hostility.

I do realise that my visceral reaction to this rudeness (which like all other Malaysians, I used to be pretty blasé about) is all about me and my personal journey of adapting culturally to life in Malaysia again.

Six years ago, when I made the move out of Malaysia, I had a hard time adapting to the cultural differences in Ireland. Returning to Malaysia, I find this cycle repeating.

My experience is actually part of the typical human reaction to cultural adaption. Known as the W curve, it is the theory of anthropologist Kalvero Oberg, who in 1960 coined the term “Culture Shock”.

Oberg, who viewed culture shock as an occupational disease that international travellers face, theorised that in a move to another culture, there is an initial ‘Honeymoon’ period when all is rosy and one’s mood is buoyant.

It then heads to a low mood period when one goes through the crisis of culture shock.

After this, there is an upward mood mobility towards recovery and adjustment.

If one were then to return to one’s culture of origin, the mood curve repeats itself by beginning with a ‘Honeymoon’ at home period, followed by a downward dip with another crisis as a result of the shock of re-entering one’s home culture.

This low period is then replaced with an upward mood trend of recovery and adjustment at home.

Following Oberg’s logic, I am bound for that upward trend of recovery and adjustment at some point in the future.

I’m not prepared to integrate back into Malaysian culture by being rude all the time, and polite some of the time. I’d rather it be the other way around. How about you?

> Sheila Stanley is an ex-journalist and a mother of two children who hopes that they do not pick up the bad habit of being rude.

One Response to “The Star Opinion: Turn the Other Cheek Civility”

  1. pink vehicles Says:

    pink vehicles

    The Star Opinion: Turn the Other Cheek Civility | LEADING MALAYSIAN NEOCON

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