How polite are you?
Ways of being polite are often expressed through language. However, different cultures and languages have different ways of doing this. In the English language, and particularly in an Australian context, the words ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ are extremely important. One often hears parents encouraging young children to say please and thank you in appropriate situations. Of course, these words exist in other languages, but in some cultures, they may not be enough and in others, they are not as essential, because there are other ways of indicating politeness through language.
Some languages tolerate more directness than we would expect in Australian English. In an ordinary everyday request such as ‘pass me the pen’, we would expect a ‘please’ on the end – and even with a politeness indicator, this might seem a little too direct and not a very polite request. To make this a more polite request in English, we might say ‘could you pass me the pen, please?’ Even more polite would be the request ‘would you mind passing me the pen, please?’ In other words, gradations of politeness (from least to most polite) might look like this:
- Pass me the pen
- Pass me the pen, please
- Could you pass me the pen, please?
- Would you pass me the pen, please?
- Would you mind passing me the pen, please?
Politeness in other languages
In some other languages, politeness can be conveyed through the use of certain forms or registers of language which are considered more polite. For example, some languages have forms of address which are more appropriate when speaking to an adult or an older person, so they do not require extra forms for ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ expressions.
In English you can address someone as ‘you’ no matter what his/her status may be. In some European languages, on the other hand, there are several words for ‘you’, from casual forms used, for example, for children or people who know each other very well, to more polite forms used for people in high positons or whom you do not know very well. For example, in Italian you would use ‘tu’ for a child or a close friend, and ‘Lei’ for and adult or someone you don’t know well. The same thing happens with French (‘tu’ and ‘Vous’) or German (‘du’ and ‘Sie’). Some languages have highly inflected forms to show politeness – for example the Japanese language has many words and inflections related to politeness, whereas others do not. This does not mean that people from one culture are necessarily more polite than another, but simply that there is a different approach to expressing politeness. We should not, therefore, expect a similar cultural manifestation of politeness that we are used to in our own country or context when we are travelling in other countries.
Politeness rituals in different languages/cultures are particularly evident in greeting contexts. The words expressed upon greeting are just one element. Of great importance are also unwritten rules about touching or how close people stand. Do people shake hands? Do only males do this? Do people kiss on the cheeks? Do people stand very close? Do people look directly into the other speaker’s eyes? All these rituals can be different in different cultures and you can make some embarrassing mistakes if you are unware of the cultural rules.
Polite behaviour is learned
For these subtle rules are not usually written down anywhere. People simply know and learn these rules as they grow up in different cultural contexts. The safest way to deal with these things is to become a very close observer of how people interact in different cultural contexts and to not be afraid to ask questions of ‘native speakers’. I often ask my international students to explain things about their cultural background – after all, they are much more expert than I am in their culture and language. I find the best way to tackle things is to compare different ways of communicating and behaving in different cultural contexts, rather than making claims that any one culture is more polite or direct than another. What is safer is to say that that all cultures have ways of showing politeness, so it is advisable to compare how this is done in different cultures. This works quite well because you are then not judging which behaviour might be better or worse, but simply comparing and analysing different cultural styles and manifestations.
In today’s world, with so much travel and mixing in intercultural contexts, we need to be more careful than ever about simplistic judgements about language and culture. We need to be keen observers and willing learners of cultural and linguistic matters, because intercultural contexts require intercultural understandings, skills we all need to master in order to become competent global citizens in future cosmopolitan settings (Skrbis 2014).
Note: Skrbis Zlatko. 2014. Coming to terms with cosmopolitanism, global citizenship & global competence. Fostering Global Citizenship and Global Competence: a National Symposium. Melbourne: IEAA.