Saturday 29 January 2011

When in Rome, do as the Romans do?
=Guest post=

by Sunita Anne Abraham

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.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Everyone,

    Thanks for this post! I really enjoyed it!

    I would like to comment on two points in Prof. Abraham's post:

    1. With regards to Prof. Abraham’s account of the term of address for the elderly cleaning lady in school, I think it is really interesting and insightful! I think it would depend on the context as well. Personally, for me, if I were to see the same elderly cleaning lady/lady who sells me food in the canteen and chats with me during her free time every week, I would ask for her name and proceed to address her as "Auntie X (insert name here)" from then on. This is because I feel that it is best to combine my respect and honour towards her as an elder, as well as add a touch of personalisation to my term of address towards her. In personalising my term of address, I pay attention to her positive face needs, since I feel that a name carries significance, and thus it shows value and attention for the person.

    Additionally, for names, I have made
    a personal commitment to try my best to pronounce my friends’ real names. Very frequently, we find difficulty in pronouncing our foreign friends’ names accurately. I think it is only natural for us to have this difficulty because we have become accustomed to our different mother tongues and the ways their sounds are produced in our mouth. For example, I had great difficulty in pronouncing the “r” sound in Japanese when I first learned it. This is because my mother tongue is English, and “r” is pronounced in a different manner.

    Therefore, while I do understand the natural difficulties I have, I feel that I should not just acknowledge them, and stop there! I feel bad for our foreign friends who create alias names for themselves because the majority of us locals cannot pronounce their names right on the first try. I think that one of the best ways to show courtesy and value for a person is to make the effort to learn to pronounce his name properly. Practice makes perfect, and even if I have to trip and fall twenty times before I get the intonation/pronunciation of their names right… it is okay, I comfort myself by professing that I have a “thick skin” (Colloquial Singaporean English: Meaning that I am not afraid to be embarrassed in public) My Vietnamese friends told me that they really appreciated this effort and gesture, and that was when I realised that there really is significance and value attached to a real name.

    In contrast, if the context were a taxi car with a taxi driver whom I would only meet in a one-time occurrence, I would address him as "Uncle" or "Auntie". This is because this term of address adheres with Watts’ theory of politeness, where politic behaviour is deemed as that which is expectable in a particular culture. There is an interplay between the taxi driver’s own habitus and social field, where he will know innately if his passenger is being polite.

    If I were to address him as “Uncle Tan Khoo Peck”, I think he would immediately feel that I am giving him an excessive dose of politeness, which may lead him to interpret my intentions/reasons for my term of address.

    2. With regards to Prof. Abraham’s last sentence, I feel that this is really true! My opinion is that I will use the accommodation theory, where I will alter my speech according to my audience. For example, if I am interacting with an Asian in cosmopolitan Singapore who is more reserved than me, I would "tone down" and speak more calmly in a polite manner.

    In contrast, if I were to talk to a Western friend in Singapore, I would alter my speech pattern to suit his.This is because, somtimes, a lack of volubility may be perceived to be a lack of interest/attention.

    I really like this topic on cross-cultural communication! In order to become better communicators with different people in a fast globalising world, I think I will need to practise and learn from mistakes to know what politic behaviour means for different people! :):):)

    Li Lin


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