How Polite Are We: Reader’s Digest 2006 Global Courtesy Test

In July of 2006, we ranked the world. Out of 36 cities, Toronto placed third, Montreal 21st.

It’s lunchtime in Mexico City and a young man follows a slim girl wearing dark glasses into a restaurant. Without looking behind her, she lets the heavy glass door swing closed, almost smashing him in the face.

In a stationery shop in Seoul meanwhile, a female customer wants to buy a disposable pen. It’s a minor purchase, but 56-year-old store owner Jang Byung-eun takes the time to talk her through a variety of different models. When she makes her purchase, he takes the time to say a friendly thank you.

A chill wind is blowing on a late-winter Wednesday morning at the busy subway exit at Yonge and Eglinton streets in Toronto. Twenty-year-old Monica Hinds is struggling through the rush hour crowds on her way to work when, up ahead of her, a woman drops a beige folder, scattering papers everywhere. Commuters walk by, but Monica takes a minute to stop and help the woman pick up her documents, handing them over one by one. When thanked, she smiles kindly and says, “No problem!”

The young man risking a broken nose, the customer in Korea and the woman with the unwieldy documents were no ordinary members of the public. Each was a Reader’s Digest researcher taking part in a unique test to see how helpful and polite people are around the world.

From Thailand to Finland, from Buenos Aires to London, people worry courtesy is becoming a thing of the past. Service in stores has become surly, they say, and youngsters have lost respect for their elders. Lynne Truss, in her international bestseller Talk to the Hand, claims that we live in “an age of lazy moral relativism combined with aggressive social insolence” where common courtesies are “practically extinct.”

But is such pessimism justified?

Our Three Tests

We sent out undercover reporters-half of them men, half women-from Reader’s Digest editions in 35 countries to assess the citizens of their biggest cities. (In Canada, we tested the people of our two largest population centres, Toronto and Montreal.) In each location we conducted three tests:

  • We walked into public buildings 20 times behind people to see if they would hold the door open for us.
  • We bought small items from 20 stores and recorded whether the sales assistants said thank you.
  • We dropped a folder full of papers in 20 busy locations to see if anyone would help pick them up.

To allow us to compare cities, we awarded one point for each positive outcome and nothing for a negative one, giving each city a maximum score of 60. We did not attempt a strict scientific survey; it was the world’s biggest real-life test of common courtesy, with more than 2,000 tests of actual behaviour.

So, which city emerged as the most polite and which as the rudest? Here’s what we discovered:

The Top Three: New York, Zurich, Toronto

They have a reputation for being big-headed, but New Yorkers showed they are big-hearted, too, by finishing first in our global courtesy ratings. They placed in the top five in all three tests and were particularly polite when it came to holding doors open, with only two people failing to do so.

“I don’t even think about it,” said syndications assistant Kirsten Chieco, who held the door of one of the Starbucks coffee shops where the tests were done. “Most New Yorkers are courteous.”

Surprised? Not former Mayor Ed Koch. Asked to react to our findings, Koch pointed to a rise in New York niceness since the terrorist attacks on the city five years ago. “After 9/11, New Yorkers are more caring. They understand the shortness of life.”

The second most courteous place: prosperous Zurich. In a feat matched only in Stockholm, Zurich store assistants thanked us for our purchase in every store we visited. Old-fashioned customer service was very much in evidence.

“I am friendly to people whether they are dressed shabbily or are wearing an expensive fur coat,” said Frieda Lütolf after we purchased $2 worth of chocolate from exclusive confectioner Sprüngli’s. “Everyone I deal with is served attentively-even those who are rude to me.”

Swiss shop workers’ good manners were often inspired by pride in their work. “I have been here for 40 years,” explained tobacconist manager Ursula Gross. “I like it, so I have always arrived on time and have always been friendly and courteous.”

Toronto came third among all the cities we tested. On a cold day in the trendy Queen Street West area, we were helped with a dropped folder by Mike Parsons, a 28-year-old street artist, sitting cross-legged on the sidewalk, sketching. “I sit out here doing my drawings all day, and I find people to be really good and cheerful,” he told us. ” Toronto is very tolerant, very polite.”

Litigation lawyer Mark Ellis, in a dark trench coat, Blackberry clipped to his belt, agreed. “I’ve seen more politeness in Canada than in many other places I’ve been, particularly Europe,” the 48-year-old told our male reporter after holding the door and stepping elaborately to one side to let him enter Bell Canada Enterprises Place in the financial district.

Still, two European cities- Berlin and Zagreb-did well in our tests, tying with São Paulo for fourth place. Zagreb residents were world leaders in helping with dropped papers. Seventy-two-year-old Josip tried to bend down to pick up our female reporter’s documents despite having arthritis and a bad back. “I always help someone in trouble,” he said, “if I can!”

In São Paulo, even petty criminals were polite. As we bought a pair of cheap sunglasses from a trader at an illegal market on 25 de Março Street, shouts rang out that the police were coming. The merchant gathered up his goods to flee-but not before thanking us for our $2.

Somewhere in the middle of the rankings was Amsterdam, at 20th. Montreal, at 21st, came in just below the global average. There, while store assistants were almost unfailingly courteous to customers, the general public didn’t do so well in helping others out. In Montreal’s Central Train Station, a well-dressed man in his mid-50s failed to hold a door for our female researcher, offering the excuse that “I just held the door for someone downstairs” before continuing on his way. At the McGill subway sta-tion, another well-dressed man, who looked to be in his late 20s, steered himself around our researcher, who had dropped papers in his path. He seemed peeved to find out it was staged. “Why didn’t I stop? I’m not even supposed to be out of my office right now!”

The region that most consistently lacked courtesy: Asia. Eight out of nine cities there finished in the bottom 11.

Last in our rankings was Mumbai, where courtesy in stores was particularly lacking. When our female reporter bought a pair of plastic hair clips at a convenience store, sales assistant Shivlal Kumavat turned his back on her as soon as she had paid. Asked why, the 31-year-old was unapologetic. “Madam, I am not an educated guy. I hand goods over to the customers, and that’s it.”

In a government-run supermarket, a young female employee lied that she hadn’t seen what had happened when asked why she didn’t help our reporter pick up his papers. Another worker stepped on them. “That’s nothing,” said the store’s security guard. “In Mumbai, they’ll step over a person who has fallen in the street.”

What was most striking in Asia was how few people held doors open for us: Every city except Hong Kong finished in the bottom ten in the rankings, and not one had a success rate higher than 40 percent. Many Asians simply don’t include door-holding in their notions of courtesy. “How can we measure someone’s value simply by whether they hold a door open?” observed 19-year-old student John Christopher Padilla in the Philippine capital, Manila.

Yoon Mi-ri, a 43-year-old businesswoman, held open the door of a shop in Seoul only because “I often go overseas on work trips and it’s basic manners over there. In Korea people don’t pay much attention to such things.”

But we found plenty of discourtesy outside Asia, too. Moscow and Bucharest ranked as the least polite cities in European countries. When an affluent-looking lady in her 40s failed to hold a door in Moscow’s Prospekt Vernadskogo, she chided us: “I’m not a doorman. It’s not my job to hold doors. If someone gets hurt, they should be quicker on their feet.”

What can we learn from our results? While two of the world’s most affluent cities- Zurich and New York-came at the top of our rankings, we found plenty of courtesy in poorer areas, too. In Johannesburg our researcher concluded, “The better dressed the person, the less likely he or she was to help. This applied across the board, irrespective of race.” Nonetheless, it was prosperous cities that were at the top of our rankings. Charles Mosley, editor at British etiquette publisher Debrett’s, ventures this explanation: “Wealthier cities aren’t generally as crowded, and competition for resources is less intense.”

But being in a hurry isn’t always a barrier to helping people. Tests carried out during morning rush hours produced almost as many positive results as those performed off-peak.

In fact, Toronto ranked second only to Mexico City for courtesy during rush hour. For Londoner Gary Webber, a 46-year-old local government worker who helped gather up our papers during the city’s rush hour, this came down to empathy. “You looked as if you were in a hurry. I was in a hurry. I thought, Let’s work together and get us both on our way.”

Older and Better?

Many older people we encountered complained that courtesy was less prevalent among the young. But we found that the under-40s were, by a small margin, the most helpful of all age groups. Toronto ranked second globally for courtesy among the young; Montreal came tenth. In fact, overall, the over-60s were the least courteous. “The younger, the more courteous, it seems,” says our researcher in Finland. “So, no more complaining about the younger generation not being up to standard!”

Women were slightly more courteous than men, and oddly, both groups were significantly more polite towards their own sex. Some men told us they worried about patronizing modern, independent females. “I’m originally from Romania,” said Valentin Punga, a 30-something resident of Montreal. “Over there I wouldn’t hesitate to help pick up the papers. Here it is different. Once, I tried to help a woman who had dropped something, and she told me she was perfectly capable of doing it herself.”

Courtesy levels in larger stores were roughly similar to those in smaller establishments. In a Sydney branch of Woolworths, cashier Reena had a huge smile for every customer and thanked us very cheerily. But in a tiny music shop in Milan, we were ignored for ten minutes by the middle-aged assistant, who pretended to be busy stock-taking before he deigned to sell us a guitar pick.

Globally, about 74 percent of store employees said thank you. The most common reason given was that if you were nice to customers, they would come back. “After the Argentine economic crisis of 2002, I would never risk losing a sale,” said Buenos Aires toy-shop owner Amanda Herrera.

Our other two tests produced less heartening results worldwide. Just over half of people held doors open for us and only a third helped pick up our papers. Many in the latter category said they were too busy or couldn’t be bothered to stop, but a significant minority was scared of crime-or of being seen as a criminal. “I’ve heard that pickpockets use tricks like that,” said a 50-year-old woman in Prague. “One drops something, you help them pick it up, and their accomplice robs you while you’re not looking.”

So, did the world pass our courtesy test? Overall, the cities we tested showed it 54 percent of the time. It has been said that common courtesy is the oil that keeps society running. If so, our check on the level of the world’s courtesy suggests that, in most places, there’s plenty of oil in the engine. But some cities could use a top-up.

Were our researchers surprised by the treatment they received from their compatriots? It depended. Our Toronto reporters-one was born there, and both are long-time residents-weren’t at all surprised that their city ranked so high. “I’ve always found people here to be very polite and courteous,” says reporter Ian Harvey, who immigrated to Toronto from England in 1972. “This is a fast-paced city-we’re all busy-but it’s the norm for people to take the time to help out.”

What did our Montreal researchers think about their city scoring below the global average? “The funny thing is, despite Montreal’s results not being great, for the most part people were actually quite nice about not being courteous,” says reporter Julia Slater.

“When we approached people after they’d ‘failed,’ most didn’t mind stopping to talk to us, and they either offered an excuse or were apologetic.” Interestingly, in the paper-drop test, only five out of 20 Montrealers stopped to help, but many at least pointed out the dropped documents to our researchers as they passed by. Says Slater, “Those people believed they had done the courteous thing.”

Our Paris reporters were so upset at the lack of help with dropped papers that they considered abandoning the test altogether. But elsewhere, our researchers were pleasantly surprised. “It was great to find that the vast majority of our subjects not only passed the test,” says Salvador García of Mexico City, “but said they think we are part of a culture of kindness despite our daily problems.”

An example of this kindness was shown in the same city by pastry-shop worker Rodolfo Mateo Santiago, 21. He thanked our researcher for her purchase of a bottle of water and revealed that he had inherited his belief in courtesy from his grandmother, who had told him, “The most beautiful thing you can give another human being is a genuine smile. Live your life by this motto and you will see wonderful results.”

Inside the Toronto Tally


Toronto ranked third for courtesy out of 36 major cities around the world, with 70 percent of people tested taking a moment to do the courteous thing. Reader’s Digest had two reporters go to central residential neighbourhoods, downtown shopping areas and the financial district. They “tested” Bay Street bond traders, part-time cashiers, lawyers, students and artists. Here’s a snapshot of what they found:

Service With a Smile

Customer service is alive and well in Toronto: 16 out of 20 cashiers passed the courtesy test by saying a pronounced thank you when we made a small purchase. At a bulk food store on Danforth Avenue, Sean Thomson, a tall 30-year-old with shaved head and pierced ears, smiled and thanked our researcher twice before wishing her a nice day. He did the same for everyone else in line. Why? “It’s what my boss wants, and what my parents taught me. It’s about respect.” Jessica, 24, a cashier at a chocolate shop, echoed Sean. “You don’t just take the customer’s money and say, ‘See you later.'” She added, “The staff here, we talk about how we expect the same courtesy when we’re the customer, but we don’t always get it, and that’s disappointing.”

Jessica wouldn’t have been happy with the service at a women’s clothing store in the Eaton Centre mall downtown, where a fashionably dressed young woman with thick black eyeliner barely said a word to our researcher throughout the transaction. When asked about it afterwards, she said sheepishly, “We’re supposed to say, ‘Thank you for shopping here,’ but sometimes I forget.”

That was the exception, as we found that male and female cashiers in stores large and small were quite courteous, thank you very much. At a newsstand, our reporter bought a packet of gum and was thanked by Zeny Ruiz, 44. “I like to set an example for my staff,” she told us, “but it’s also the right thing to do.” In an electronics store on Queen Street West, Daniel Hines, in baseball cap and army pants, said, “I thank every customer, even the ones who tick me off. Ultimately, it makes your own day go a little smoother.”

Paper Chase

Would you take a minute to stop and help a stranger gather up some papers they’d dropped on the sidewalk or in a shopping centre? In Toronto, 11 out of 20 people we tested did.

That’s the lowest score of our three tests-and, interestingly, of the nine who “failed” the test, five were in their 60s and up. The oldest, Sergio Balmont, 79, told us after he and his wife walked past our female researcher, who was crouched down gathering papers, “I knew I should have helped, but I’m too old to bend down.” Most of the other elderly people who didn’t help told us politely that they didn’t want to get involved with someone else’s personal documents.

Of course, a couple of young people passed by without helping, too. “He looked like he had everything under control,” was the excuse of a shoe buyer from Montreal who saw our researcher picking up scattered papers from the wet sidewalk. But most did stop to assist-teens in particular. “Of course I helped,” said William Lee, 16. “I’d hope someone would do that for me.” Keilani Etzkorn and her friend Manuela, both high-school students, also stopped to help. Said Keilani: “It’s what my parents taught me to do.”

Door Stoppers

Our third test showed that three out of four Torontonians hold the door for a stranger-male or female-walking behind them. Most were pleased to stop and talk to us when we revealed we had set them up. “I do it all the time,” explained Meredith McLellan, 25, a fair-haired law student who held the door for our female reporter on her way out of the busy subway stop at Yonge and Eglinton. “I guess I was raised that way.”

It was a common theme. Faisal Bhiwandiwala, a 30-year-old tech-support worker who held the door for our male researcher during a Wednesday morning rush hour, told us courtesy is an instinct. “I was brought up that way. It’s the normal thing to do.”

Fifty-year-old Eric McGarry said, “As a teacher, I think it’s important to show that you’re thinking of others and not just yourself.”

In the St. Lawrence Market, two 14-year-old ponytailed girls could have used that lesson, but when asked why they didn’t hold the door, they claimed not to have seen anyone coming behind them. Similarly, a 41-year-old operations manager listening to her iPod said, “Normally, I’d have held it open, but I’m in a hurry to get back from lunch and I had my headphones on.”

Some who helped did so for practical reasons. In the Bay Street financial district, Brian Galley, a crisply dressed 38-year-old portfolio manager, pointedly held the door for our male researcher. “I always do,” he told us afterwards. “These doors are heavy, and you don’t want to let them slam on people.”

Ramona Taharally, also 38, offered a simple explanation for her courteous act. “People do it for me,” she said, “so I’m going to pass it on.”