“Mean Professor” and the context of rudeness

Mean Professor Tells Student to “get your sh*t together”

This story appeared a couple of years ago and soon after NPR did a musical version (http://tinyurl.com/cgwww3o). The blogger received hundreds of comments and likes. More recently it appeared on my facebook page, posted by another academic. The story, and the sentiment, still have currency. Indeed, the rudeness of students is often something discussed by university teachers (and I suspect other teachers as well). We talk strategy for getting students to be on time (and be quiet and turn off their cell phones). We lament a situation where we do not feel as empowered to say what we feel as this particular professor did. We wish we could be Professor Snape or Lord Sugar and cut the-one-who-must-be-silenced down to size.

This rudeness of lateness, I’ve come to understand, is cultural. Many HK students are frequently and considerably late for class, even and perhaps especially well into the term.

This shocked me at first and I would have loved to respond in the same way that the Mean Professor does. But, over time, I’ve come to understand why it isn’t such a big deal here. This is largely for two reasons. Firstly HK is crowded. People are used to having other people around them doing loud, and what some might consider disturbing, things. The response is to just get on with what one is doing themselves and not be disturbed.

I am coming to realise that it is not just the environment that renders not rude what I would think of as rudeness. American’s (and I say this as one) are a noisy lot and we don’t particularly get on with it when someone else is disturbing. When we are doing something, we want it to be quiet. We want other people to be quiet. Why is that? I think it has to do with how we understand and perceive ourselves and others as we form groups. Our groups form upwards from connections between individuals. At its base a group is really a collection of propinquitous dyadic relationships. This is why the Mean Professor was so upset. Politeness dictates that we must acknowledge these relationships and if someone is late, then we must stop what we are doing, indeed everyone must stop what they are doing and acknowledge that new formation. It is a disruption. Connection is noisy.

This brings me to what I believe is the second aspect. In China, I am coming to understand, groups and our position in them are conceptualised differently. The group exists first–before the individual. It is a whole. At the centre of that whole is the most important person (in a classroom it is the professor) with a periphery that can expand or contract. Ideally it should expand. Everything else is out there or beyond the group. Geographer Elaine Ho once explained this concept with the term Tainxia. In the context of the classroom, while it would be rude for an individual to address those who are at the center in a manner that is disrespectful, such as by using their first name, it is not rude to enter the group, late or otherwise. By entering you are merely expanding the group, which is a good thing.

But there remains an issue. We live in a global world, and many of these HK University students plan to go on to be participants in that world. Active participants. And they will find themselves in situations where being late will lose them the deal and hold them back. Is university the place to teach them that lesson? If so, then it is probably also important that we recognise and identify what exactly that lesson is. It isn’t so much about being on time or not being disruptive. It is more about intercultural communication and understanding. If Westerners are not going to be all colonial about it, then this also means that those who understand this behaviour as rude also need to learn that what is rude (or not) is not written in stone and somehow naturally occurring. Politeness is instead a product of social interactions and how we contextually decide to (in)formally institutionalise those interactions. Indeed, the business case is made for understanding how others see the world and probably is the first thing we should learn.


How to reference this post in non-web publications. If you would like to cite this post I suggest the following format:

Blake, M (2013) “Mean Professor” and the Context of Rudeness. https://geofoodie.org/2013/04/10/rudeness/ ‎ ‎Geofoodie.org 10 April 2013 (Accessed: XX/XX/20XX)

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