During the build-up to the Olympics, I was intrigued to read various guides intended for people visiting the UK during the games, about London and the British. Typically, all of them included the usual stereotypes about British politeness and etiquette, particularly with regard to our propensity to queue and apologise profusely for no reason.
As I pondered the reality of these stereotypes I also started think about how my daily interactions with strangers in São Paulo compare with those in the UK. Are the British really as polite as we’re made out to be? And how do Paulistanos compare? Well, let’s have a look…
London / UK
The British tendency to apologise is indeed an in-built coping mechanism for almost all of our daily social interactions. Believe me, it’s a hard habit to kick and so I often find myself slipping in “desculpe” during most conversations I have with Brazilians in Portuguese.
However, in Britain saying “sorry” is not just about apologising for a personal mea culpa, as we’re also just as likely (and illogically) to do so when others commit them AGAINST us. Thus, if someone bumps into a Brit in the street (or causes some other such heinous crime) it’s quite likely that the victim will apologise just as profusely, if not more so, than the culprit themselves.
The ultimate in politeness you might think?
But, wait, because a British “sorry” can also have a number of other intended meanings, from indicating that you’ve misheard or misunderstood someone to expressing shock or, in a more sinisterly subtle way, to suggest that whilst you’ve understood very clearly what someone has said you actually think they’re an idiot.
As for queuing, it’s certainly up there as being one of the main points in our ethical code for acceptable behaviour in public, a code which also stipulates that you stand on the right-hand side of an escalator so that people can walk past you on the left. Similarly, it’s an unwritten rule that you should allow passengers to get off a train or the Tube before entering yourself.
However, whether or not this is because of an inherent British tendency for politeness is debatable, because: 1) Not everyone follows them (especially after spot of binge-drinking), and; 2) For those that do, failing to adhere to them is effectively tantamount to committing an offence that should be punishable by death – thou shalt feel their wrath.
If you’re one of those people (unknowing tourists aren’t spared) who stand on the left-hand side of an escalator then you can expect to hear a chorus of disapproving tuts (it’s our British way of moaning but without confronting you directly), and if you’re that person who tries to get on a train or Tube before everyone else has departed then don’t be surprised if someone getting off lowers their shoulder into you so that you’re put back in your place – both literally and metaphorically.
So, are us Brits really polite? Or are we just a nation of sarcastic, passive-aggressive, public transport fascists?
São Paulo / Brasil
In São Paulo my experience of public etiquette has mainly been restricted to two types of person: those who take the bus and those who catch the Metro or train. It’s likely of course that most Paulistanos use both forms of transport on a daily basis, but this is strange because the etiquette I’ve witnessed on both couldn’t be further removed from one another.
For example, on a crowded bus journey it is not uncommon for someone who is seated to kindly offer to hold the bag of someone who is standing up. This would never happen in London, where talking to strangers – let alone handing them your bag – on any form of public transport is almost as unthinkable as standing on the left-hand side of an escalator.
Secondly, when someone sits down on a vacant seat next to another passenger you’ll almost certainly hear the former say “com licença” (excuse me). This strikes me as being a little unnecessary, especially when it’s the aisle seat, but it’s probably an idiosyncracy linked to the fact that if both seats on a bus are free then most people will choose to sit on the aisle one (a little annoyingly in my opinion), and so the polite latecomer has to clamber over them to get to the window.
Thirdly, Brazilian queues range from the militaristic (at Barra Funda there’ll often be two queues – one to get on a bus and another behind it with people who would rather wait for a seat on the next one) to the non-existent (usually in the street), though in the case of the latter things usually tend to resolve themselves because the elderly, pregnant and children are generally always allowed to get on first by other passengers.
Fourthly, despite being a bit rubbish, buses in São Pauo are generally very clean – to be fair, the same can also be said for the Metro and trains. Thus, despite the limitations of the public transport system no-one litters it like they do in London. Paulistanos, on public transport at least, show a far greater deal of respect for their surrounding environment than Londoners, who often leave their discarded lunch or takeaways on their seats or the floor.
Yet, such good bus etiquette seems odd when compared to what happens on the Metro or train, because every rule in the London guide to Tube and train etiquette is torn up into nice 10cm x 10cm pieces and then pooed upon (before being put in a bin – NOT flushed).
Firstly, when a train arrives many people will push on to the carriage as soon as the doors open, and as a result I’ve seen a heavily pregnant woman and a man with a broken arm (with pins in it) knocked off their feet. Some people will literally run on to a train (especially if there are still seats available) and it doesn’t matter who they knock into or how they beat them to get there, just as long as they can get to that seat first.
The worst thing is that if you are getting off and knock into one of these arseholes they’ll give YOU the look of death, as if it’s a total inconvenience that you’ve got the temerity to want to get off the train. How dare thee!
My worst experience was during one rush hour when as my station approached I finally managed to make my way to the door. As I did so two guys asked me if I wanted to get off and when I replied that I did they laughed and kindly held the doors shut so that I couldn’t get off and no-one else could get on – I had to wait to get off at the next station when the doors finally opened and other people wanted to get off too.
The process of getting on a train can also be complicated, as there are those who’d rather wait (a bit like our militaristic bus stoppers) on a crowded platform than get on a crowded train and get to their destination quicker (in the hope there might be a seat on the next train). This is a rationale I’ve yet to understand, especially as it causes chaos when people from behind try to get past them.
Finally, on the Metro it almost goes without saying that the left-hand side of any escalator is rarely, if ever, left free despite signs on the new Linha Amarela (Yellow Line) encouraging people to do so. Alas, if you’re on an escalator and hear your train approaching then don’t expect to make it in time.
Are the stereotypes about British being politer than other people really true? Are Paulistanos better or worse?
Firstly, it’s important to remember that etiquette or good manners are a cultural and social phenomenon – a good example of this being the difference between a Paulistano who will offer to hold your bag on the bus whilst a Londoner will at all costs avoid even making eye contact.
Secondly, we need to make an important distinction between manners and being nice. As Debretts, the British ‘modern authority on all matters etiquette, taste and achievement’, notes:
“It is an incontrovertible fact that you can be impeccably punctilious about all the trappings of manners – opening doors, pulling out chairs, walking on the roadside edge of pavements etc. – but still be appallingly rude.”
In other words, blindly following social norms doesn’t necessarily make you polite or, more importantly, a nice person.
Thus, whilst Brits may appear polite, because we have an unwritten code of public transport ethics, our enforcement of them doesn’t mean that we are inherently any politer. And in São Paulo, a person who will politely ask to sit next to you on a bus may also be the same person who pushes into you as you get off the train – just because everyone else does.
I guess my point is that being polite should be something you do with the best of intentions, because you think being courteous is the right thing to do as opposed to it being something you think you ought to do.
In that sense, asking whether Londoners or Paulistanos are politer is rather obsolete because I’ve seen plenty of good and bad examples from both. If everyone was just a little more consistent about it then we’d all be much happier wouldn’t we?