We all know the Japanese are “very polite.” But being polite goes beyond just saying excuse me or thank you or holding the door open for someone. Let’s start with the word “teinei,” or “polite,” in Japanese. Teinei goes beyond the English word “polite” because it applies to far more than just people and their actions. In Japanese, you can treat a fragile item “politely” meaning “gently” or “with care.” A birthday present should be wrapped “politely.” A friend recently complimented my cat, exclaiming how “politely” she uses her litter box (clean and orderly).
Politeness can also be synonymous with respect. Putting other people first: giving them the biggest piece of cake, the best seat in the restaurant, or the center position in the photo, are all part of everyday politeness in Japan. The traditional Japanese house even has a dedicated seat for guests — the one in front of the tokonoma, so that the guest is framed in a background of the beauty of Japanese art (hanging scrolls, ikebana, ceramics, etc).
Respect is about patience. Waiting in line without complaint, and giving others the chance to express their opinion without someone immediately challenging their words. It’s about listening to others, allowing them to open up. It’s respecting other’s opinions, even when they’re different from yours. Respect includes copious doses of “benefit of the doubt.”
Respect means not boasting, not dominating the conversation, and not talking in an angry voice. Respect even entails holding in your emotions, so as not to make a scene if things don’t go as smoothly as you think they should at the bank, post office or city hall.
Politeness is about hesitation, that slight verbal delay employed when you have to ask a favor (rather than just barreling right in with your request). And when someone does ask us a favor, so often we are inclined to think: What’s in it for me? Instead, we should be asking: What’s in it for us?
And don’t just accept favors, return them too. No, not tomorrow, today. Procrastination results in putting yourself before others, doesn’t it?
Politeness is about not hurting other’s feelings, not putting people on the spot, and not crossing them in front of others by saying things which might cause the speaker embarrassment. Instead, hold your correction until later when it’s one-on-one and the person has a chance to consider why they may be wrong.
Polite people do not blame and do not complain. In short, politeness is the realization that, OMG, it’s not all about you! Instead, it’s about us.
Politeness is about grace. Using your hand to refer to the person standing over there rather than pointing that accusing index finger. It’s about honoring dress codes: dressing well just to please others. Yes, you may be uncomfortable in that shirt and tie, but if you wear jeans out to a nice restaurant, you are making your guest look bad. Think about the people around you and that they might be uncomfortable if you: talk too loud, gossip about others, or wear offensive clothing.
Politeness is about respecting property. If it’s not yours, don’t take it. Just because it’s not chained down doesn’t mean it’s yours. In Japan, there isn’t even any “finders keepers . . .” (“losers weepers!” How’s that for compassion!). Instead, if someone drops their hat on the sidewalk, the finder rests it on the nearest post, so it is easily visible to the person coming back to find it.
Politeness is about being a good citizen. Don’t throw trash on the ground, and if others do, clean up after them (yes, even if you didn’t do it). Sweep the sidewalk or pathway in front of your house every day. Clean the drains in your neighborhood of leaves and debris. Take responsibility for your environment, rather than just blaming others who don’t. Clean up after yourself, whether it be a hotel room, a stadium seat, or a camping spot. Do your part. Then do some more.
Respect means you do not deface property, even if you are an underprivileged youth or a rebel high school student on detention. Privilege is not a prerequisite to politeness.
Politeness is about having a sense of duty, and doing things even though you may not want to. Are the in-laws driving you crazy? So what! Honor your spouse and tolerate them. Rather than cop out by avoiding them at holidays, ganbaru instead! Remember, it’s not about you, so stop being so selfish. Instead, be selfless.
Politeness is about the little things, such as staying to help the host or hostess clean up. “Of course I do that,” you might tell yourself. But are there also times you don’t do it? Quite a few, actually? Being polite is making these things regular habits. No exceptions. Even when you’re tired. Even when you don’t feel like doing it.
In my country, people get noticeably nicer at Christmas time. But should politeness be seasonal? Why not be polite all the time? We should strive to always live at the highest level, the highest ideal.
Politeness promotes harmony. But most importantly, try to remember that it’s not all about you — it’s all about us, living in this world together.
And may your cat use her litter box politely.
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