48

I've arrived in Australia 9 months ago and I've noticed that often when asking people from East Asia to "give way" they will simply ignore me or even answer a "yes" but not move at all.

This is a situation that at least my wife, friends and work mates also faced a lot of times.

Some examples:

  • I went to an electronics shop some days ago and there was this Asian girl standing in front of a product section that I wanted to check. She was texting on her phone. I politely asked "can I take a look at these?" and all she did was nod her head and still block the view.

  • Leaving the train. Several times I was trying to hop off the train and a group of Asians would block the way and ignore my desperate "excuse me, guys".

  • Groups of 5+ East Asian people blocking the pathway while chatting and/or texting. "Excuse me" also didn't work.

  • Same as above, but getting hit in the shoulder by one of them and not even getting a "Sorry"

So obviously I don't know if it's a cultural thing or not. It just seems that our standard "excuse me" has another meaning to them.

What is the possible reason for this behavior and how can I politely ask to give way which is culturally understood by East Asians? Or how can I ask to give way in a way which is universally understood?

closed as primarily opinion-based by A E, pnuts, Revetahw, Ali Awan, gerrit Jan 4 '17 at 14:24

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

  • 57
    In case they block your exit of a train, you can use the internationally understood, if rude, method of just walking on. Hands in but elbows out, aimed at body parts of theirs will improve the delivery of the message and will teach for next time. – Willeke Dec 31 '16 at 10:15
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – RoflcoptrException Jan 7 '17 at 10:30

16 Answers 16

39

To deal with the situations you faced, I will share some tips.

  • If all she does is nod or say something like "Ah~~~", then it is likely that she either doesn't understand English, or is so obsessed with the smartphone that she doesn't hear what you are saying. Then you should just step in to check what you want while putting your hand forward. She will likely start to stagger while watching her smartphone.

  • If you want to get off the train, just keep saying "sorry" multiple times all the while stepping into the exit. Many people understand that you want to get off in the context and will likely make an empty room for you.

  • Although you might feel that it is not you that should feel sorry, saying Sorry would work better than Excuse me. This is simply because most people, especially those who are not good at English, are far more accustomed to hearing the former than the latter.

Honestly, I feel with you. My biggest pet peeve is a group of people walking in front of me all on a horizontal line to block the entire pathway. I usually just force my way into the group to pass through it, in case you wanted to know.

71

I found, when in Europe, that going "beep beep" when trying to get through would instantly get both a way through and a smile from the former obstructors.

  • 1
    Thanks, I will remember that next time. (Unless it is out of a train, of course) – Willeke Dec 31 '16 at 22:17
  • Well, it worked for me even on the tram :-) – MMacD Dec 31 '16 at 22:22
  • 11
    This is an awesome & cute answer :) – Mehrdad Dec 31 '16 at 22:31
  • 4
    If you do this in the UK, you're more likely to get a punch than a smile. – ArtOfCode Jan 4 '17 at 0:59
  • 6
    @ArtOfCode Just curious, how so? Does it bear some other meaning than "honking"? – Vilmar Jan 4 '17 at 14:09
51

Well I think in case they are polite Asian people, you should say more than just 'excuse me'. Because in Asian language, 'excuse me' does not mean anything rather than just an opening of a conversation.

So my advice is next time you should add more information like:

Excuse me, can I get through please?

or

Excuse me, can you clear a path for me so that I can look at those devices/products?

Conversation with Asians (especially ones who are not really good at speaking English) need to be specific and informative. As an Asian, sorry for all those inconveniences :( we never want to be impolite to you or anyone.

45

I live in Sydney. When you say "Asian", I think you mean mostly Chinese people since Chinese people are our largest immigrant group by far. In Australia, we currently have over 200,000 international university students living here and 136,000 are from China alone. Many people arrive in Australia with virtually no English language skills at all, and while students will learn English over the course of their degree, they will not learn too many English customs as that is not taught as part of their programme, and also most of their interaction is with other Chinese students who they befriend.

There are almost 1.4 billion people in China, and as a result of the large, crowded population, many people simply gently push past other people - they don't just stand there saying something like "excuse me." So if you see someone who looks Chinese, then try gently pushing past immediately after saying excuse me, and they'll understand. Don't use your elbows on people like other respondents have instructed - that is just stupid and rude. Gently squashing by is more appropriate and civil.

I completely get where you are coming from here, as it appears by your name that you're an Italian man, and in Europe it is considered horribly rude to push past a woman and touch her body, particularly when you're a man. In Europe you would always ask her politely to let you pass, to avoid any embarrassing encounters such as touching her buttocks by accident. But remember, countries like Japan have men who are "train stuffers" (who push people into trains for a job and frequently touch their buttocks, legs and back), so in Asian cultures there is less of a taboo about brushing past another person and touching them - people are used to it. The girl on the phone was probably confused about why you just stood there after saying "excuse me" as she would have expected you to just brush on past.

Just a side note, since we have so many Chinese people living here, perhaps you could consider learning the mandarin word for excuse me?

  • 12
    That's some good information. +1 for learning mandarin word for excuse me. – Rodolfo Perottoni Jan 1 '17 at 10:27
  • 6
    The elbows are just unnecessary. Pushing your body through is completely sufficient and your elbows are pointy whereas your "body" is blunt, so no poking occurs. – user48037 Jan 1 '17 at 14:20
  • 7
    Uh, just because Japanese train stuffers may accidentally touch (girl's) buttocks, etc, doesn't mean they are okay with (used to) it. It's considered as sexual harassment for many of them! Still, try to prevent direct contact, especially if she's a woman and you're a man. Hand gesture may be more appropriate to prevent misunderstanding. – Andrew T. Jan 2 '17 at 12:28
  • 5
    @Willeke. Where I live (in China) it is not true that everyone knows that custom. Some people know it and don't follow it, and some people don't know it at all. If you wait until everyone gets out, you'll be the last one in (or maybe you won't get in at all, in the case of an elevator). The people who got on before you will look at you like you're a sad idiot loser. The people behind you will be very angry because you blocked their way – bubba Jan 2 '17 at 12:35
  • 7
    @Willeke: my experience in Beijing is that as soon as the subway stops at the station, the people trying to get in cover the door completely, without leaving any room for the people to leave the train. So people leave the train by pushing. It was very rude and I have never seen anything like that in any other country. I even saw a young man push an elderly woman (who was blocking his way completely and not moving) on her chest. – Martin Argerami Jan 2 '17 at 19:45
17

Different countries have different social norms. How do queue up for a line, how close to you stand to people in a public spot or in an elevator, when do you engage in conversation, etc. Combine this with the language barrier and different communication style, you have ample opportunities for confusion.

Simple example: American often say "Hey, how are you?" expecting the answer "great" even if your dog just barfed all over the carpet. A German would perceive this as a strange question: In Germany you only ask this if you are generally interested in an honest answer and it would be rude for the person being asked not to take this seriously. So the German is going to think "What does weirdo want? I don't even know him and he wants to know details of personal life?"

Back to topic: I had similar experience in China. For example people will get VERY close physically and will cut in line whenever there is an opening. If they say "yes" it often only means "I heard sound" not "I understand and agree" as saying "no" is considered rude. Nothing wrong with this at all: that's the "normal" there.

First, don't think of anyone being intentionally rude. In most cases, they behave "normally" for their own cultural context and they are often not aware that they are doing something that other people may perceive as rude or a nuisances.

Second, communicate: Get their attention and make sure you get the message across. Smile, use hand gestures, don't rely on words too much unless you are fairly certain that the person speaks this language well. Keep it simple and adjust your response by their reaction. In most cases "sorry" and some pointing and purposeful movements towards your target will do the trick. It's okay to be loud and repeat as long as you smile along with it (non-threatening).

FWIW: I spend a few weeks in Australia and Japan this year and didn't notice much of this behavior, certainly not as much as in China.

  • 2
    I definitely didn't notice it in Japan as much as in China. But it did happen several times with Japanese tourists. One episode I remember particularly, we were in some kind of temple where you could look inside a room through a window; I had already initiated the movement to put my head through the windows, when a Japanese woman cut in front of me, and I had to back out. More generally, with people from almost any country, when you are in a situation of close proximity, you look at each other and somehow get an agreement of who moves in which direction, etc. Not with Japanese/Chinese people. – Martin Argerami Jan 2 '17 at 19:49
  • @MartinArgerami Was she visibly older than you? I think in east Asia (and Japan in particular) it's expected that elders go first by default. Then the eye contact negotiation thing is only required between people of apparently equal age/status. – user568458 Jan 3 '17 at 16:38
15

People from densely populated culture (e.g. China, Japan, and many large cities) generally think that if they've left you enough space to squeeze yourself through that that would be good enough. They generally wouldn't care if you accidentally brush on them when the train is crowded. So if the train is crowded, just push yourself through, most likely they wouldn't think it's rude. Accidentally brushing each other in crowded public transport is not rude, for regular commuters it's often just a necessity when the public transport is crowded all year round. Your asking for more walking space than what they think is enough space, on the other hand, can be seen as rude/excessively demanding.

In your electronic shop example, I'd just say "excuse me" and try to reach for the product. If the product is small enough to fit your hand, just take it and look at it at your hand. If the product is big enough that you appear to have difficulty looking at it as long as she's in the way, that gives a clear message to her to move.

I think with your question ("can I take a look at these?") she thinks you mistook her for a store clerk. I can only imagine in her head she was thinking, "Why was this weirdo asking me if he can look at the product? Just look at it if you want to."

Another possibility is you might also not consider that she might also looking at the same product and she was texting the detail of the product to a friend.

12

Follow your polite 'Excuse me' with a neutral 'Can you please step out of the way' followed, if needed, by a sharp 'I have to be where you stand now'.
If that does not work, get rude and push.

When leaving trains I will never ask, I just walk out.
Elbows out if there is not enough space for two people at a time, everybody traveling in trains in the western world should know not to block the exit out of the train. And aiming (if not too harsh) for body parts of those who stand in front of doors.
If carrying a bag on a shoulder strap that will be in the same position, elbow to middle of the body.
(But I am a rude Dutch person who does not appreciate being stuck in a train while people crowd and block the exits and I only do it where I know the local habit and know that blocking train exits is frowned on by everybody when they it is their time to leave a train.)

While a group of people may be more of the problem in some places, it is certainly not restricted to those people nor to that location.
It is more distinct where cultures clash more.

English people in the Netherlands have long been complaining about the crowds blocking the train and bus doors. All countries with big immigrant streams will have some trouble with some of the groups not following the same code of polite behavior. And it is not always the immigrants who are the impolite ones, as you can see from my sample of English in the Netherlands.

10

I've never been to Australia, but I have lived for several years in both Tokyo and Shanghai. Every day for the last 10 years, I have made a journey via crowded stations and trains in one of these two cities.

As others have said, there are different cultural norms in different countries. And it's not reasonable to brand someone as rude/inconsiderate when they're following their culture's practices rather than yours. Customs are just different, and none of them are intrinsically right or wrong.

Tokyo and Shanghai are almost at opposite ends of the spectrum, so making general statements about "Asians" is nonsense. Japanese people typically worry endlessly about how their behaviour will affect people around them. Shanghai people are often quite selfish (by Western standards) -- some would tell you that if you don't push your way onto the train first and get a seat, you're not being polite/unselfish, you're just plain stupid. This behaviour shouldn't be considered "rude", that's just the way the world works, sometimes, in Shanghai.

If the people standing in your way are Chinese, just push past them, doing your best not to hurt anyone. There will probably be some body contact. In my experience it won't bother anyone at all, so don't worry about it. If you have space to squeeze through, that should be enough. If you expect them to give you more space than that, then you're the one who's being selfish (in their view).

9

I did a lot of ESOL tutoring in my youth, and one of the lasting takeaways is that Asians as a group will say OK or YES to mean they heard you, but does not mean they understand.

Example

Me> when making tea with a teabag, you take the teabag out of the cup before adding milk. OK?

Student> Yes.

Me> Alright - please demonstrate.

Student> blank look

I suspect a lot of people still think in their internal language, and have to translate in their heads before understanding and comprehension happens.

Solution: try indicating with a fully open hand where you want to get to or go. Then look there with your eyes, and move toward it. They'll get your message even with no English.

8

My turn to suggest that there is no real link with being Asian, for those who still doubted it, and offer a way out.

Just be clear with your intentions. Most people, tourists that focus on the sights and locals that focus on their commute, shopping or any other task. If you want to say they are in your way, just tell them exactly that.

I take the metro in Paris every day and even though you would expect people are big boys and big girls and understand that to get on board they need to first let people out, most people are not really aware of others. Some days that pisses me off, but most of the time I understand that people are focused on their own world, be it their book, phone, thoughts about work or anything.

The situation is more obvious when you are the only one to get off the train and it is packed. People will not guess they are in your way unless:

  • you use obvious gestures like walking on and trying to go between people without pushing them hard
  • you simply use your spoken language to get your way through: sometimes "excuse me" (French or English) is enough, sometimes you need to say out loud "I'm getting off here"
  • you get angry

Needless to say, the more clear and polite you are, the more others will go out of their way to let you out. And only in (not so rare) situations when people are tensed or offending everyone starts losing patience and sometimes even fight.

No one can guess you are interested by these hard drives on some shelf or those usb sticks on another in an electronics shop unless you say it, no matter your neighbor's ethnicity, language or attention.

Bottom line: drop your racist comments, people do not read your mind, learn to communicate clearly your intentions.

  • 6
    The first and last paragraphs of this answer really aren't helpful. Different areas have different cultural norms. The cultural norms in many, if not most, parts of East Asia and India in regards to personal space are different from those in most Western countries. Recognizing that and asking how to work around it is not racist. – reirab Jan 3 '17 at 19:29
  • @reirab that's very fair, I'm trying to balance out the focus on ethnicity that some formulate(d). I don't know that much about the Asian habits and some other answers are very good at explaining them. – Vince Jan 3 '17 at 19:40
5
  • Use body language: Where language doesn't work, gestures usually work. Tap the person on a shoulder and make a waving gesture to the side with one or both hands. This works regardless if person is Asian, Spanish, German, or whatever. It's a universal gesture.
  • Move yourself instead of moving others: I have been to China last summer, and usually repeatedly saying "Excuse me, pardon, coming through, please make way " or some other combination of those, and persistently advancing and pushing through usually works. Don't assume that somebody should give you way, just because you say "Excuse me", because a) you're dealing with people of different culture, and b) those who may not speak English
  • Learn the "Please give me way" phrase in their language: But sure, let's pretend it's absolutely problem with Asians (Not like you'd have difficulty of saying "Excuse me" in English in all-Spanish community). You can learn to say a phrase in some of Asian languages to make your point. It's just one phrase. We as humans learn tons of useless info on daily basis. Surely we can handle a phrase in one or two languages. It doesn't take much difficulty to learn to discern Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean language. While this is most troublesome solution, it's not exactly that difficult. One phrase, maybe 3 languages, 3 phrases. Surely we can learn that much.

(I registered to this community just to answer this absolutely horrible question, which moderators should have slammed long ago for a) being disrespectful to specific racial group, as OP himself stated, "targeting Asians" , and b) having nothing to do with travel per se, but with human psychology, thus being off-topic.)

  • 5
    Welcome to Travel.SE! I am a bit puzzled that you claim the question has nothing to do with Travel.SE because you mention yourself in your second answer that you are dealing with people of different cultures which is absolutely on-topic here. While the original question had offensive undertones, it has been already amended and it seems by the amount of thoughtful answers that it is a real problem caused by cultural misunderstanding. Moderators here have to regulate different cultures and therefore they must carefully consider the overall tone and not what people personally find offensive. – Thorsten S. Jan 1 '17 at 16:24
  • "It doesn't take much difficulty to learn to discern Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean language." I have one semester of Japanese, and a comparable amount of Korean, and could communicate a little in either, But it was decades ago, and now, I cannot discern which is which. Sp maybe it's not so easy. – WGroleau Nov 27 '17 at 4:14
5

The correct Australian in this case would be 'Mate?' with a long 'a' and accompanied head-shaking.

5

The solution is actually quite simple. Accompany your "Excuse me" with an up and down chopping motion with your hand, as if you are symbolically using the edge of your hand as a knife to cut a path between the individuals blocking your way. Note that you are not trying to look like you are karate chopping anyone, but rather directing the gesture between individuals. This gesture is generally understood throughout Asia even if your words are not.

3

Kindness we all know goes along way, with a language barrier we need to practice patience. Everyone understands facial expressions, a friendly gesture to get eye contact with a smile a pointing gesture of where you are trying to move to, even if not understood first time,smile and do it again, you could gently move through,i dont see a serious problem,kindness and patience is all thats needed.

2

When you do not know the local language, it may be more effective to act as a deaf-mute without the ability to hear and utter any sound. Therefore in order to get somewhere, you need to use your body. This has a few advantages:

  1. you purposely move your body to the location you are trying to reach;
  2. since you are not worried about forcing the locals to understand your words or getting a response from them, your actions are less stressed out by the situation;
  3. your body movements will translate your intentions: light tapping shoulders or slightly brushing your arms/torso on someone while pointing towards your intended path will rarely be taken as rude.

The disadvantages may be:

  1. locals getting offended by your touch, due to an embedded cultural disapproval of people touching each other, even in stressful or awkward situations;
  2. they may get slightly hurt if you forcibly tackle them, instead of signaling your intentions with light movements.

Since you mentioned Asian people, these disadvantages may never come across your daily routine–for instance, Chinese and Japanese people are generally used to bumps in public spaces–even if they feel your bump, normally they understand the situation and will not even look at you (unless they are Pengci (碰瓷), trying to show you huge old bruises you inflicted on them when they fell down to the ground right in front of you, for obvious purposes)...

1

If they are Japanese you can say shi-tsu-re-shi-ma-su. It means pardon me

  • 3
    Ironically, the literal translation is "I'm doing something rude" :-) – bubba Jan 4 '17 at 1:18

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.