Being polite can be as simple as saying “please”, or as complicated as spending thousands of dollars to become more refined. As Chinese parents look for any competitive edge they can get for their children, the complicated option is becoming the preferred choice.
There is a mounting interest in several schools offering etiquette classes for China’s elite, and they reveal a progression that only money can bring.
James Hebbert, managing director of Seatton, a British culture and etiquette company in China, says after procuring a fortune, happiness, and security, there still are things left to get. ”You see this with developing countries — they go through a ‘bling phase,’ but then they move onto a more elevated level of discernment.”
“My students were the ones who were buying Hermes bags 10 years ago,” said Sara Jane Ho, the founder of Institute Sarita, a finishing school. “Now they are holding themselves to higher standards and have deeper desires.”
Specifically, it looks like the Chinese rich want to use proper etiquette as a way to gain a competitive edge in order to gain more business opportunities. As the trend continues and competition between applicants heats up, Ho explains “children need that edge to get into a good boarding school or top university.”
Joanne Milner, CEO of Debretts, further explains how learning proper etiquette is a way to better adapt to a broader range of situations. ”Studying abroad can bring a heavy academic and cultural shock. We are teaching the students how to interact in any global environment.”
However, as these teachers explain, learning etiquette is a profound experience that fundamentally changes a person’s culture. “Learning and practicing international etiquette is a statement of your openness and awareness of the fact that people you are with may see the world differently,” Ho said. Hebbert was much more direct by saying, “[Learning proper etiquette] is more about teaching and appreciating a different culture.”
Contemporary Chinese people from the Mainland have been criticized as “crass” or “uncivilized”, even by their own government. There are several campaigns to stop Chinese from jaywalking, cutting into long queues waiting to board subway trains, and even to encourage citizens that ordinarily don’t trust each other to perform good deeds. CCTV even aired a controversial advertisement admonishing Chinese to behave when overseas.
That said, Chinese are nevertheless are very polite — to people that matter to them. Acts of politeness are routinely done to strengthen relationships. But that means when queuing for the subway, “politeness” can be overlooked in a crowd of strangers while etiquette would demand you consider other people’s needs before your own.
However, if you can afford etiquette classes in China, chances are you aren’t taking the subway anyway.