Politeness and its counterpart, impoliteness, are twin issues that concern linguists and language users, monolinguals and multilinguals alike. Perhaps the most well-known work in this area is Brown and Levinson’s (1987) Politeness: some universals in language usage, inspired by Erving Goffman’s (1967) notion of face work, derived from the Chinese notion of “face”. Drawing on data from a variety of languages, Brown and Levinson argue that politeness strategies exist in all communities as a means of managing our own and others’ face needs.
What counts as polite behaviour, however, and how this behaviour is enacted linguistically, varies across language varieties. Given that different languages have different social and linguistic norms, how is a multilingual speaker to decide whose norms to follow, when and where?
Consider, for example, the English politeness formulas please and thank you, which are more widespread in the UK than in many Asian varieties of English. Failure to mind one’s Ps and Qs can result in one’s being perceived as an uncivilised foreigner (or barbarian, to quote our Ancient Greek friends). I grew up in Penang, Malaysia, speaking English, Malay, Malayalam and Tamil; and, while my mother wanted us to mind our Ps and Qs, my father found the same behaviour laughably priggish and stand-offish.
More recently, a newly-arrived American colleague sent round an email chastising my colleagues and me for “failing” to address our elderly Malay cleaning lady by her given name. In Malay (as in Chinese, Tamil, and various other languages), it is considered the height of impudence to address one’s elders (and betters) by name. So, most of us had taken to addressing the aforesaid lady as Makcik (the appropriate Malay honorific for a woman of her advanced years). Indeed, one knows that expatriates in Singapore have acculturated to Singapore English when they address unrelated older people as auntie or uncle, as a mark of respect.
Brown and Levinson (1987) discuss two kinds of face needs and their corresponding politeness strategies. Positive politeness strategies attend to our positive face needs – our desire to be liked and admired – by emphasising solidarity (e.g. using in-group identity markers like nicknames), reciprocity, interest in and sympathy for one’s interlocutors.
Negative politeness strategies in turn attend to our negative face needs – our desire not to be imposed on – by showing deference, indicating pessimism about the likelihood of a request being granted (e.g. I don’t suppose I could borrow your umbrella for just a few minutes) or impersonalising directives (e.g. Patrons are reminded not to walk on the grass).
But, figuring out what counts as an imposition can be tricky. In the US, it’s generally considered polite for hosts to offer guests to their home a choice of refreshments. In Japan, the same behaviour would be perceived as placing a burden on one’s guest. There, the polite thing to do would be to “just serve the tea”, as a Japanese colleague recently told me.
Travelogues and textbooks on cross-cultural communication are full of stories about the strange and exotic customs of others. The question they don’t fully answer is how monolinguals and multilinguals decide whose norms to follow, when, where, and to what extent, in an increasingly globalising world.
Sunita Anne Abraham is an Associate Professor at the Department of English Language and Literature, National University of Singapore, and a Fellow of the NUS Teaching Academy.
© Sunita Anne Abraham 2011
Next post: Socialising in tongues. Saturday 5th February 2011.