Olympic volunteers are now brushing up on their etiquette and so am I. In a Beijing university classroom last week I joined 200 students who were studying the dos and don'ts of dealing with foreigners.
I learnt a few lessons myself.
"OK guys, what are the three 'A' principles in social communications?" asked the young instructor. There was a pause in the lecture hall. The words Acceptance, Appreciation, and Admiration were flashed up on an overhead projector.
It's common sense stuff, the sort of civility my mother taught me when I was 10. But I realized these fundamental principles of being a decent human are often overshadowed by the mountain of useless information I've collected in the 30 years since.
Olympic organizers want to ensure the 100,000-strong army of volunteers is sensitive to the needs of visitors and act in the nicest, possible way. So they are getting down to basics.
"When you are talking with people from Western countries, what eight topics should be avoided?" the lecturer asked.
I wondered myself.
"Age, marital status, salary, experience, address, personal life, religious belief, politics and opinion about other people."
I do believe that about covers everything. But if I avoided all these topics, I would never ever have an argument. In fact, I'd probably not bother even talking.
I keep reminding my Chinese friends that the West thrives on social conflict. In my beloved field of journalism, if it bleeds, it leads. If the newspaper only had good news, nobody would buy it and I'd be out of a job.
When I first heard the term "harmonious society" I thought it was the title of a book, maybe an old Chinese fairytale.
"Nice and polite" was something I had to do when I'd visit my dear old late grandmother.
I can't remember the specific details but do remember feeling nice and light every time I was with her. Whenever I'd talk about drama or politics, she would say: "Oh well" and then change the conversation back to something more refreshing.
As I get older, I understand my grandmother's tact. Why waste precious time feeling troubled and anxious? Why take matters so seriously? Why not wear life like a loose garment and focus on the roses and not the thorns?
Later in the lecture, the subject of watching sports was discussed. "No matter if we win or lose, we should talk politely, wear suitable clothing, be warm and generous, don't damage property and keep the place clean."
I agree with the bit about property damage and littering, but "warm and generous" and "talking nicely" at a footy game?
Not yelling at the umpire when he's 110 percent wrong? Not laughing at opposing fans when their multi-million-dollar star drops the ball?
There are some etiquette issues I have to draw the line.
(China Daily 04/28/2008 page10)