Recently, there was an interesting article in the 11/8/14 edition of the Wall Street Journal entitled, “With Guests On The Way, China Aims For It’s Manners To ‘Be Splendid.'”
When I travel, I typically try to experience life as a local. As a part of that experience, I often take the subway or bus to gain an authentic cultural experience, although I have the means to take taxis or hire cars. As I read the article describing pushing, elbowing and yelling on Chinese public transportation, I couldn’t help but relive my experience in Beijing on my first visit several years ago. It was, quite frankly, intolerable. I just happened to be standing in front of a seat that became available in a packed subway car. Simultaneously, three people pushed others aside and made a dash to the seat. I was knocked over by one member of the mob and trampled to the floor. There was not one look of remorse and nobody looked appalled. It was obviously survival of the fittest and that experience marked my last venture on public transportation in Beijing. Before arriving in China on that visit, I was in Tokyo and the social differences were startling. Although the subway in Tokyo is just as crowded as the one in Beijing, it was a markedly different experience. The Japanese crowd was very polite, quiet and well mannered. However, as the article states, China has made major strides in the hospitality realm. The intriguing piece of the transition is in how it occurred and in particular, how the government guided the effort. It brings up an interesting question: Can cultural norms be altered and if so, what is the best approach? In addition, there is a broader question. Is it ethical to make a concerted effort to transition a culture or should it occur organically and naturally?
To be fair, the appalling experience I described earlier was more than a decade ago. China has made major strides in the hospitality realm. For many years, the country has been on a path to make not only the physical surroundings more sophisticated and appealing, but it’s citizens more polite and genial.
You may recall, prior to hosting the Olympics, Chinese leaders rolled out a highly publicized campaign to persuade locals to refrain from coughing and spitting phlegm on the sidewalks and streets. In fact, the government positioned extra trash receptacles around the city to act as spittoons. Many Chinese were perplexed by the government campaign. To most Chinese, using a handkerchief simply doesn’t make sense. Chinese find the western norm of coughing into a Kleenex and putting it back in their pocket, revolting. From the Chinese perspective, why would anyone want to put a possible cold virus into a cloth and keep it with them?
The systemic effort to mold more polite citizens started in 2002 when the government distributed thousands of t-shirts that said “Civilizing Beijing Begins With Me.” In 2011, another program was instituted around the number “11.” On the eleventh day of each month, citizens were encouraged to formulate lines or queues. Guides dressed as penguins were hired to model how to stand in line. It seems like the positive reinforcement approach has worked. In addition to higher living standards and improving public transportation, more and more people are standing in line and being more respectful of others. A “civilization index” used by Chinese leaders to measure the country’s prevalence of polite behavior towards others shows significant promise. Between 2005 and 2012, the index has shot up from 65 to 83.
Now the government is taking it one step further. The latest attempt to raise the polite barometer in Beijing relies on an incentive and a formal competition. “Be a Splendid Beijinger” contest was just launched in anticipation of the Asian-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit this week. Over 40,000 residents of Beijing have entered the contest and 100 of the most outstanding competitors will receive a cash prize and national recognition. The financial reward is minimal, however the recognition is widespread. Pictures of all the contestants blanket Beijng’s streets and contestants are working hard to win. One competitor was recently seen with binoculars alerting fellow travelers about the next arriving bus number and route. At least for this week, there will be a slew of people opening doors for others, helping travelers with their luggage and welcoming locals and foreigners alike to Beijing.
Beyond the entertaining value of the competition lies an interesting sociological question. Can and should cultural behavior be altered? It appears to be happening in Beijing. Should global peer pressure be the catalyst for change or should cultures remain true to their ways of living? Is the change Beijing currently undergoing short-term or long term? Will the new interaction style become the national norm, remain centralized in Beijing or wither away? What do you think? Your comments are solicited and valued.
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