If I May… A Comment on Politeness

In May 2000, the BBC News website was abuzz with commentary.  An unidentified study had just been released, based on hidden-camera evidence, which concluded that “the people of the UK are getting ruder”. The website’s description of the unknown study claimed it had found “a nation of unhelpful, surly and downright rude people,” and encouraged remarks on this issue from Brits and foreigners alike. The results are quite humorous. Here are a few of the best:  

We British wait our turn in the queue.  – Chris Klein, UK 

The English have always had good manners. Even as they colonised and brutalised the world for two hundred years they were well behaved. Which proves that manners and goodness are two very different things.  – Roy Posner, USA 

 

Quoting a hotel guide’s description of the attitude of waitstaff: “It would be ever so nice if you weren’t here”. – Peter C. Kohler, USA 

 

“I dread coming back to my own country, as its denizens are without doubt the rudest, most surly, arrogant and unfriendly people on the face of God’s earth, especially in London. We could all take some lessons on behaviour from places like Australia and Canada.” – Andy Foot, England 

 

Strong words indeed. But these are but four comments in a sea of about 100. Taken as a whole, we have a widely contradictory web of strong opinions. Are the British polite or rude? Based on these comments, they are both and neither.  

 

Writing only a month ago, British author Geoff Dyer weighed in on the issue himself, publishing a piece in the New York Times entitled “Letters from London: My American Friends”, largely a commentary on his experience with Americans at home and abroad. His conclusion? Americans were “friendly and hospitable… also incredibly polite”. The author continues, “I always feel good about myself in America,” and gushes, “Americans are not just friendly and polite — they are also charming”. 

 

In contrast, “Civic life in Britain is predicated on the idea that everyone just about conceals his loathing of everyone else.” He bemoans the “ostrich stoicism” of his homeland, which manifests itself a “highly stylized willingness to muddle on, to put up with poor quality and high prices … to proffer…apologies not as a prelude to but as a substitute for improvement”.  He even compares the quiet endurance of modern-day Britain to Soviet Russia.  There was no available comments section for this piece, but I can only imagine the author managed to rankle a few bosoms.  
 

Overall, however, this sort of anecdotal evidence really doesn’t seem sufficient to answer our question of comparative politeness. And as to the question itself, it could use a bit of refining.   

 

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Politeness theory is field at the intersection of social anthropology, sociolinguistics, and pragmatics that attempts to look more closely at what it means to be polite. The field took off in the 1978 work Politeness: Universals in Language Usage by Stephen Levinson and Penelope Brown.  

 

This kind of politeness is perhaps divorced from our common idea of “politeness,” and has a relatively formal definition: “the expression of the speakers’ intention to mitigate face threats carried by certain face threatening acts toward another” (Mills, 2003). A “face threat” is a potentially embarrassing encounter that could be injurious to one’s prestige, honor, or self-projected identity.  

 

Brown and Levinson speak of two primary types of face: positive face and negative face. Positive face is a need to feel appreciated, and negative face is a need to feel as if one’s actions are unimpeded by others. These can be thought of as the basic wants in any social interaction. On an abstract level, valuing positive face (positive politeness) can be thought of as showing solidarity, while valuing negative face (negative politeness) is closer to showing respect.

 
Beyond defining the concepts of positive and negative politeness, Brown and Levinson controversially apply them. While their descriptions are heavily qualified, they even go as far as to classify American culture on the whole as a “positive politeness culture” and British culture (as seen by Americans) as a “negative politeness” one. From an American standpoint, the United States is a “friendly back-slapping culture,” whereas Britain is inhabited by “standoffish creatures”. These cultures are further described as the difference between an “egalitarian, fraternal ethos,” and a “hierarchical paternal” one.  

 

A negative politeness culture demonstrates various linguistic trends, among them indirect requests, apologetic language, and many variants of thanks, designed to minimally intrude on the personal space of others. More specifically, the British on the whole employ hedging (“if I may…,” “perhaps,” etc.), tag questions (questions at the end of a sentence, such as “it’s cold outside, isn’t it?”), passives (spitting will not be tolerated), and plural pronouns (we regret to inform you) to a greater degree than other cultures. 

 

This is all backed up by somewhat empirical data: corpus studies (using a large body of written work) have shown that there are nine times as many tag questions in colloquial British English as in colloquial American English (Tottie and Hoffman 2006). British people are more concerned with reducing the level of coerciveness in requests, and “call on a varied repertoire of external modifiers to accomplish their goals” (Reiter 2000). There is a verifiable preference for the above strategies in conversation. Also common is the use of off-record politeness, in which a seemingly ambivalent statement actually functions as a request: “wow, it’s getting cold in here” might itself signify that one’s host should turn on the heater.  

 

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American English on the other hand, spoken within a “positive politeness” culture, tends to emphasize attending to the interests of the speaker, optimism, inclusion, reciprocal promises, and the avoidance of disagreement. Its goal is to make a person feel included and wanted—in other words, to save positive face.  

 

Despite these seeming empirical results, however, we must take all of this with a supreme grain of salt. In many ways, to speak of a national culture defined by specific linguistic features is almost nonsensical. Even Levinson and Brown acknowledge this in their original remarks, finding it more useful to focus on groups within a society—be they defined on socioeconomic or cultural terms.  

 

The comments from the forum and the traitorous British man quoted above fail to acknowledge that they are necessarily extrapolating from a minute set of interactions to the trends inherent in an entire culture. Likewise, comments on the predominating politeness strategies within a society must acknowledge that they are a not-particularly-representative aggregate, and must be careful not to make value judgments. And finally, the very idea of politeness is heavily colored by cultural norms, and we must be careful not to let these carry over into our evaluations.   

 

In broad summary, when it comes to commenting on culture-wide politeness, everyone is wrong. Certain trends are visible, but we must be very careful as to how we interpret them. It may be more fun to say that an entire country acts a certain way, but it is far from accurate.  

 

In my personal experience, the British people I have encountered in Oxford, who have been brave enough to talk to a tall, awkward-looking American, perhaps out of common interest, have displayed tendencies that I, from the perspective of a white male from the central United States, would associate with respect for my personal boundaries, and, while some I have met have perhaps paid less attention to making me feel welcome and at home, I recognize that this is a statement which concerns a small and not-representative minority.