What is politeness?
Most people have been taught what good manners are like holding doors open for people and not having elbows on tables. Etiquette can range from well known, like saying your p's and q's (please, thank you). From manners not so well known like referring to others before yourself, e.g., 'John and I went outside'.
Arguably, the better your manners, the better an indicator of your upbringing. However, whatever class or culture, the central aspect of having good manners is to convey respect to others.
Now, let me ask a question. You're in Japan, which is excellent, and you want to give a good impression. Your eating with Japanese people who have greeted you into their home. You've done a great job earlier by remembering to take off your shoes before coming into the house. Now there's a dish or sauce you would like to try out. It's in arms reach, but it's not next to you. Do you:-
A: Ask the person closest to the item to pass it to you?
B: Lean over the person to grab the item yourself?
If you answered A, th
en you have just committed a faux pas. In Japan, asking for something which you could just easily reach would be rude. It would be like your bothering someone when you could do the task yourself. Even if you learnt over them, they wouldn't mind, it would be expected. This is the complete opposite of how we
view table manners, in which leaning over someone was quite rude.
So between the Japanese and Westerners, who is in the right and who is being impolite. Well it's obviously us Brits (and Western Culture) that are being polite, right? Keeping in mind that I would be very biased because of my British upbringing. I remember growing up that I have been scolded many times both in school and at home for leaning over the dinner table.
Generally speaking, asking or leaning over the table, UK or Japan, neither are correct or incorrect. Rules were set by people, centuries or even millenniums ago. Passed down from parent to scorned children who then grow up to scorn their children. When the rules were being set, the perspective of what choice of action is ill-mannered or not is entirely subjective.
I explained about this etiquette to a supplier who does Japanese inspired gin and tonics (check out Merchants Heart). I happened to have a Japanese person at the time who was helping me. She was unfamiliar that leaning over the table was rude here in the UK. Also, the supplier wasn't familiar that asking for things (within arms reach) is rude in Japan. If both attended a diner party, they would have both considered each other disrespectful.
This was just one example, there are many, many more which can cause misunderstanding between the two cultures, with language, traditions and societal etiquette.
This can apply to many other cultures, through the lens of our upbringing, we see things as just wrong. In reality, it's just culturally different, learning about cultures builds understanding. That leads to building bridges.
Mind that culture gap.