Cruel to be Kind from the English Heart of Tradition

You have to be cruel to be kind: this is an old English saying. Perhaps there is a connection with the Japanese traditional idea of kitaeru, but it is not the same. An example of the English saying would be when a small child refuses to learn to read, and is very obstinate. He simply will not try, in spite of all persuasions and promises of rewards. Then the parents and teachers have to use punishments to make him study. Now the child feels that his parents and teachers are cruel. They are cruel: they make him cry. But that is only the short-term view. Their ultimate purpose is to be kind. They know (as he does not) that if he cannot read, his life will be very difficult. They are cruel, but it is because they are kind. If they do not force him to read, because they cannot bear to see him cry, then when he becomes a man who cannot read, he will not forgive them. They will say perhaps, “But we loved you. We could not make you cry”. He will reply: “That was no true love. I did not know what would happen, but you knew. You should have made me cry. Look at me now! I am unable to read; how can I get on in life?  I am crying all the time now.”

I was in charge of the Japanese Service of the British Broadcasting Corporation in London for twenty-five years from 1946. Recently I read an account by a Japanese of his first working day in London. This was about thirty years ago, and he had come to work for three years at the BBC. He had had a couple of days’ rest, to adjust to the time difference between Japan and Britain. After he had done his first morning’s work in the section, translating the news, at about 12.30, we went together to the BBC staff self-service restaurant. There were five of us, including myself; and we had lunch together. We began with soup. He wrote that afterwards I said to him, when we were alone, “Customs are different in different countries. In Japan it is usual to take soup with some air as well, to cool it. That makes a slight noise which is quite normal in Japan. But in England, to make a noise is regarded as not good”. In his account of this, he said that he felt his face turning red, and that he was very embarrassed. He evidently thought that my remark was rather cruel.

But I believe that it would have been far more cruel to say nothing. He would have continued to make a noise when taking soup, and drinking tea too. After about a month, or perhaps even a year, he would have noticed that the English people take their soup, and their tea and coffee, silently. He would have asked someone, and would have been told, “Yes, in Britain to make a noise is bad manners”. Then he would have thought back over that month, or that year, and realized that he had been displaying bad manners every day. How red his face would be then! He would have thought, ‘Why did no one tell me? They saw me making this mistake, but no one told me. How cruel they were!’

I can remember that when I first went to Japan, I tried to eat soba without making any noise. I saw, of course, that the others were sucking it up noisily, but the ingrained habit of eating silently was too strong. I felt illogically that it would be bad manners to make a noise. Finally a Japanese friend, who had lived in Britain, saw that I was eating hardly any soba. He said to me quietly, “It’s good manners here to make a noise when you eat spaghetti. In fact it is bad manners if you don’t”. Then I felt relieved, and began to suck the soba down like the others. I was very grateful to him.

I had a parallel experience in Egypt. In many countries of the Middle East, there is a strong distinction between the right hand and the left hand. The right hand is the pure hand, and the left hand is regarded as impure. So it is rude to pass anything with one’s left hand. In Britain, however, we do not make any distinction of pure and impure as applied to  the hands. When we pass something, we just use the hand which is most convenient.

I had never heard of the Arab distinction between the hands. At a small party in Egypt, I passed a plate to the person on my left, using my left hand, as that was the most convenient. A little later, the Egyptian host drew me aside in a natural way, and told me something interesting about the history of Cairo, adding gently at the end, “Oh, and by the way, Mr. Leggett, it’s the custom here to use the right hand to pass things, never the left one”. He gave my arm a little pat, and smiled in a friendly way. I felt a momentary embarrassment, but then a tremendous feeling of gratitude. Suppose he had not told me, I thought. I should have gone on making the same  mistake. No one would have said anything. Some would have thought, ‘Well, a foreigner cannot be expected to know’. But there would be some Egyptians without experience of the outer world, with the conviction that their own national customs are laws of nature. (One finds such people in every country.) And those Egyptians would have thought, ‘Every educated person knows that it is wrong to use the left hand to pass food. What a vulgar foreigner this is!’ The considerate Egyptian host saved me from all that.

It is best to learn the foreign customs before visiting the country. But one cannot learn everything. A few years ago, I returned to London from Osaka with John Newman, Japanese Programme Organiser at the BBC. The plane was held up for a few hours, and all the passengers were given a meal at a hotel nearby. We were at a large table with about fifteen young Japanese, obviously making their first trip to Europe. The first course was soup, and the waitress served me first; my white hair made me clearly the most senior passenger at the table.

As I took the first spoonfuls, the lively conversation round the table seemed to drop, but I did not pay any attention to that. Then John whispered to me, “They are all watching you with the soup”. Suddenly I realized that they must have been told about the ‘silent soup’ in Britain. This may have been the first demonstration of it that they had seen. So I was like an actor on the stage—they were wondering whether I  would make any noise at all, I suppose.

I managed to finish it without spilling any, and felt that I had passed my examination as an Englishman, so to speak. Nobody actually applauded. But they all began on their own soup—in dead silence.

© Trevor Leggett 1987

Index for this series of articles
1 Foreword
2 Consideration for Strangers
3 Social Conventions and Surprises
4 Cruel to be Kind
5 Losing to Oneself
6 North-South-East-West
7 It Likes That
8 Warukuchi
9 Japanese Logic


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