The other day, while I was out of the office, she teared up while showing a letter she'd written to one of my fellow editors. It was addressed to our company's previous landlord, who was apparently very kind to our cleaning lady. Then, still feeling emotional, she told my co-worker that people always ask why she spends so much time chatting with the editorial department. She told her it's because we always look her in the eye when we speak to her and she can tell by that how we feel about her. She said she knows her job isn't regarded as important, but she appreciates the respect we give her.
My co-worker gave her a pat on the back, feeling awkward and embarrassed, because it's not as if this is something intentional on our parts. If I had to guess, there are probably two reasons our department stands out in the eyes of our cleaning lady. (We're the only department that's majority Western.) Culturally, eye contact is more important to us when addressing people. And we have different feelings about relationships and power distance. We have much less of a problem telling the boss when we think he's wrong, and we also probably are more inclined to chat with the cleaning lady.
I've seen (not regularly, but sometimes) Chinese people treat service staff in a manner that to me seems appalling and dehumanizing, behavior like snapping one's fingers at a waiter in a restaurant and not looking at them or saying "please" or "thank you." And it took me awhile to adjust to the fact it's acceptable and expected to address your cleaning lady as "ayi" (aunty) and your cab driver as "shifu" (skilled worker). Here on the mainland, we're supposed to address waiters as "fuwuyuan" (service person) because "xiaojie" (miss) is a euphemism for prostitute in the south. I still slip up and call a waitress "xiaojie" sometimes (which is acceptable in Taiwan). It just feels strange reducing someone to their labor. I had an equally hard time in Taiwan where everyone addressed the school managers as "zhuren" (manager). I wasn't expected to do this since I was a foreigner. What's more disconcerting to me is when the Chinese editors who have to deal with our censors address them as "laoshi" (teacher), which is a form of respect for older, educated folks.
Of course I prefer my own culture because it's mine. But that's not to say everyone else is wrong, or that the other departments in our company are wrong for not taking more time out of the day for our cleaning lady - she doesn't expect it, but she appreciates it.
It's easy to lose your manners in Shanghai. There are low expectations for showing consideration to strangers. Sometimes it drives me nuts. There's a checker at the corner grocery who seems to make a point of ringing up the items and then chucking them away from your open plastic bag, just to make the point that she isn't going to bag your groceries for you. Fine. But just because there's a low bar where social expectations are concerned, doesn't mean my personal bar has to sink too. Since my co-worker told me about her conversation with our cleaning lady, I've tried to be more intentional about looking people in the eye and smiling and almost always that friendliness is reciprocated. It's so much better to concentrate on conveying good feelings to others than to dwell on frustration. I'll try to remember that.