If you’ve read The Geography of Thought, or at least my summary of it, you are already familiar with the importance of the family/community in Chinese society. This strong sense of belonging to a group, and the fact that China is a huge country with a lot of people in it, created a very sharp distinction of “insiders” who belong to one’s own group (family, etc.) and “outsiders” (everyone else).
The lack of organized social security, or sometimes any security at all strengthened the feeling of mutual dependence within these groups and they learned that they can only rely on themselves. This contributed to a sense of isolation between the groups. The “inner circle” is what really matters, and whatever is outside of it is not one’s business. This is one of the reasons why Westerners can find Chinese people “ignorant” or “insensitive” towards each other.
The goal of politeness is to show respect, also to emphasize the other person’s (perceived) higher status as opposed to one’s own lower status. Classical Chinese politeness is filled with self-degrading phrases; even people and things belonging to the speaker would get some “derogatory” adjectives (“my run-down home”, “my worthless son”, etc.) and the glorification of the other person and everything associated with him (“your noble house”, “your talented son,” etc). In order to be polite, you need to talk down anything belonging to you. This can sometimes baffle foreigners when they hear someone talking about his own family as a group of worthless and lazy people. This is not to be taken seriously; this is politeness.
But since politeness is used to create and emphasize difference and distance, it is considered not only unnecessary but completely inappropriate within the inner group, especially with family. With a tighter relationship comes less politeness. In a way that can be seen as an inside-out for Westerners, since a lack of politeness actually signifies more intimacy. In Chinese families you rarely hear members saying “please” and “thank you” to each other. You can even insult someone close to you by trying to be polite to them, as they will se it as trying to build distance between the two of you and treating them as an “outsider”.
So if you are treated by Chinese people with utmost politeness, be aware of the distance it signals. Actually the more politeness being shown the greater the distance they feel from you. Politeness is not friendliness, it’s an impersonal “duty” they feel they need to perform. Thinking with a Western mind makes it easy to end up disappointed when one mistakes politeness for real personal feelings.