Never Say Please To Mother

My lovely Chinese wife came to Sweden with her family at age seven and grew up here. This has given her an unusual level of bicultural competence. I like to quip, lewdly, that she’s a dual boot machine with two operating systems and the most awesome hardware, man. She’s like this typical bright Swedish middle-class chick who somehow happens to know everything about China and looks like an Imperial princess.

So I can’t really say that we have grappled with and overcome our cultural differences. She pretty much does that for me on her own. But there are some details where our different upbringings do show. Having read Vinlusen’s recent blog entry, my wife encouraged me to write a few words about manners in the home.

An American acquaintance with a Chinese wife once complained to us, “I really wish she would quit ordering me around”. That made me laugh. What this is really about is that the Chinese don’t use polite figures of speech with their families. Indeed, they may be offended by them as such phrases mark an unwanted distance. You don’t say “Please pass me the salt” to your mom, you say “Pass the salt”. My wife does that all the time with me, straight imperatives, and I often complete the sentence for her with a joke to soften the impact of what I can’t help but perceive as rudeness. She’ll say “Pass the salt” and I’ll pass it, replying “…or I will cut your balls off”. Then we’ll laugh.

My wife once made the mistake of translating a Swedish figure of polite speech when talking to her mom in Chinese. She said, “Could you pass me the salt?” (OK, maybe it wasn’t the salt that one time.) Her mother reacted really badly, as the connotations of such a question in Chinese, when directed at your mom, is basically “Tell me, are you at all capable of passing me the salt, or are you an invalid?”.

In the kitchen, my wife really doesn’t like it when I apologise for pushing her to the side when I need to get something out of the sauce pan cupboard. The correct way to do this in the intimacy of a Chinese family situation is to shove her gently out of the way without as much as a grunt. Apologising puts her on the level of a cleaning lady.

But she tries to remember my Swedish manners, and usually she gets it right. She knows I really need to hear please, thanks and sorry sometimes or I’ll feel mistreated. But every now and then she gets it backwards to comic effect. Once she tried a half-remembered “Would you be so good as to pass me the salt?”. It came out as “You may pass me the salt…” Then she hesitated, clearly feeling that she’d dropped some part of the phrase. So she finished it, ” … if you’re good”.

Update 26 january: And a shoutout to Miss Cellania at Mental Floss and Neatorama with thanks for the links!


65 thoughts on “Never Say Please To Mother

  1. I’m an Australian, and find that with people who have recently migrated from India I am always called “Ma’am”. Taxi drivers, people selling door to door, people on the phone – I’m always “Ma’am”.

    I’m only 26! So I always notice that difference in culture.


  2. I grew up just outside of Chicago and suddenly moved to Macon, GA when I was twenty. The subtle nuisances of politeness are drastically different. I was used to ignoring people I passed on the street (no eye contact) and discussing personal things (especially religion and politics) with a stranger was a huge no. And when someone said something, they usually meant it.

    Then, suddenly, I was in the south where complete strangers would greet you and start discussing anything and everything with you. Everything was sugar-coated and no one actually meant what they said. Kids use a distant tone and address with their own parents and everyone’s using “Ma’am” or “Sir”.

    The way I was raised, you just don’t call someone “Ma’am” or “Sir”– especially not a stranger.


  3. I have an Irish friend who have lived in Norway for the last ten or so years. He said once that he uses this foreignness to his advantage in only-one-bisquit-left-situations.

    I find Norwegian people generally think it is unpolite to help themselves to the last of something (cake, bisquit, candy, what have you) that is served to a group of people. So my friend would make sure to have the second-to-last piece of whatever was on offer, thus being certain he would also get the last piece – because anyone else was to polite to take it. He would say “I’m foreign, I don’t know the rules” 🙂 A very cunning lack of knowledge, I must say.


  4. I felt culture shock as a teen just moving from N.Y.C. to Washington, D.C., where suddenly people would talk to me uninvited, and say “Good Morning,” and expect me to smile back, just randomly in the streets, when there was no mitigating situational reason for us to be interacting! I felt like a deer in headlights for about a year.

    I also had great difficulty explaining certain cultural differences between Europe and the U.S. (at least the Northeast) to students of mine: (To the Europeans: “No, just because they bring you the check doesn’t necessarily mean they want to get rid of you this instant…they just think you want the check!”To the Americans: “No, they are not ignoring you because they are anti-American/racist/ignoring you/hate you/lazy — they just don’t want to interrupt you enjoying your dinner; if you want the bill, just ask for it nicely!”

    One of my French coworkers described to me how boggling it was, the way New Yorkers ordered in delis. She’d be at the counter answering “What’s you’re order?” with “Well…let me see…what’s available? Is this good?” while the native on line right behind her would spit out “I’d like a turkey cheddar cheese on toasted wheat bagel mayo only on one side no mustard no slaw and a coffee two sugar no milk to go thank you!” in one breath.


  5. I think it’s interesting that a couple of Taiwanese commenters don’t seem to realize that Taiwanese and Chinese culture are not identical (not to mention that Chinese culture varies widely in different regions of China). Taiwanese and mainland Chinese ideas of politeness are totally different, so don’t go telling people they’re wrong about Chinese manners based on Taiwanese manners.


  6. The opposite of AshColette….

    I knew a girl who moved from northern New England to Florida for quite a few years of her childhood. She got detentions over and over for calling the teacher “Mrs. So-and-So” instead of “Ma’am”. I can’t decide if I’m surprised or not at the insensitivity of her teacher.


  7. I grew up in California, but my family moved from one end of it to the other, and it’s always been amazing to me the amount of cultural variance that can happen even in a single state. When I lived in a small town in Mendocino County (Nor Cal), everyone was very personable. People met each others eyes when passing on the street and said “hey” or “hows it going?” A lot of folk would pretty much talk to anyone who offered an open ear; I don’t even remember the number of conversations I’d have with strangers while waiting in line at the market or something.

    When I lived in LA (So Cal, obviously) things were a lot more distant. People rarely made eye contact and it was generally considered unsafe to be too friendly with strangers. (On the other hand, they would respond positively if I nodded or greeted them first. Compare to the time I spent in New York, where people became nervous and avoided me if I tried to made contact with them in passing.) But there was also a feeling of being completely left alone that was nice too. In a small town, everyone is judging you.

    San Francisco and the East Bay, where I live now, are kind of a mix of the both. Unless they’re caught up in their own business, most everyone is laid back and welcoming, without being invasive.


  8. Wife:

    On the eastern side of the sea there is no need for pleases and pardons, you only need to provide information. If you are too polite, people will think that you behave in a suspicious way, that you’ve got a hidden agenda and are trying to get some kind of advantage out of the situation.

    Yeah, and it seems that in Finland you try to avoid calling people by name as much as possible. So the American way of inserting your first name into each greeting or question sounds weird, as if they are talking to a child or a dog.

    Another fun thing is that in a lot of places in Finland, people are normally ‘it’, they are only ‘he/she’ if you are annoyed with them or being sarcastic. So you would say ‘It’s a good guy’ but ‘Let him do as he pleases!’


  9. rkolter said:

    I’ve lived in a few places in the US, and the strangest friendly convention I’ve seen is in Minnesota, where often people will say “Please?” instead of “Excuse me?”. This results in a very familiar conversation when someone not from Minnesota visits and mis-speaks.

    Minnesotian: “Please?”
    Visitor: “Excuse me?”
    Minnesotian: “Please?”
    Visitor: (pause) “Excuse me?”
    Minnesotian: (pause) “Please?”

    I’ve lived here nigh on to a half century, and have never heard this usage. I further question the veracity of this account because rkolter has used the term “Minnesotian”, rather than, as every Minnesotan knows, “Minnesotan”.


  10. Forcing food on guests used to be an important part of rural Swedish housewifery. There’s a story in my family about a boy who once had dinner at my great grandma’s house. She kept forcing food on him until he, very respectfully, replied, “No thank you, Mrs. Rundkvist, it wasn’t that good”.

    I’m in doubt with one thing here: “… it wasn’t THAT good”.
    I was told some time ago we may orally use This and That for emphasize the sentence, like this:

    THIS: use it for emphasizing a negative meaning in the sentence, eg: “C’mon, dear, the dinner wasn’t THIS bad…” (it means, the dinner wasn’t too bad)

    THAT: use it for emphasizing a positive meaning in the sentence, as in the example in the caput… (it means the dinner wasn’t very good)

    So, I’m discussing this in some communities, but up to now, nobody agrees with this usage… Am I wrong, then??

    see ya and thanx you all!


  11. What is anyone’s take on this:

    My kindergartener son is offended that one of his teachers doesn’t ever say “Please” when telling or asking a student to do something (such as “Sit down” or “Give him a pencil” or “Give that to me”). In fact, he is so offended that he thinks this teacher is being rude, so he doesn’t do anything she says. As a result, of course, he frequently gets into trouble and is told to sit out of the group. I asked him if he would do as she instructed if she would use “Please,” and he said yes. It seems an easy fix…except I haven’t the faintest idea how to tell the teacher about this without offending HER. Can you imagine…”My son would really like you to use the word Please whenever you are giving an order or command. He thinks you are being rude when you don’t say Please; that is why he won’t do what you say.” When I was little, we had plenty of “rude” teachers. We still did what they said, and then we could talk about it later with our friends (“She’s so mean” “She’s so bossy” “I’m afraid of her”). Talking about this with my son has been difficult. He says he really won’t do what rude people say to do, even if they are his teachers. I really don’t blame him…especially since we have raised him and his sibling to use polite language as often as possible. I’m wondering what you think.


  12. I think you just gave us a non-rude explanation of the situation. If you said as much in a friendly way to the teacher, I can’t see why she should be offended. You and the teacher probably belong to different subcultures. It’s just like the mutual incomprehension between academic parents and daycare ladies over gender issues.


  13. I am South African, and we have a very funny ritual around the “last piece of anything on the plate” dilemna described by other posters.

    In my culture, if there is only one cookie left on the plate and someone wants it, they will “claim it” by asking “Does anyone want the last cookie?”. Everyone else, to be polite of course, will reply “No, go right ahead!”. In the rare event that someone DID really want it before the “claim” was laid, they will reply “Let’s split it”. The claimant will do so, to be polite.

    Politeness is a strange beast!

    Also, on the issue of respectful address. Our equivalents of “Ma’am” & “Sir” are “Tannie” (Auntie) & “Oom” (Uncle). I reckon that this harkens back to days where everyone you knew really were related to you in some odd way! Most younger people do take offense when being addressed as such by children, but I really appreciate that the youth still shows respect when addressing their elders.


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