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by Philippa Law
Being politePoliteness is an expression of concern for other people's feelings. Being linguistically polite involves a highly complex mix of appropriate words, grammar, intonation and tone of voice.Linguists start from the assumption that nobody wants to lose face. Nor do we want to upset others, because we might get hurt in return. When thinking about how this relates to language, it's useful to differentiate between 'negative face' - the desire not to be imposed on - and 'positive face' - the desire to be appreciated.
What makes you sound polite - or not?
"saying "Mm..." in all the right places and calling someone by a nickname can all be ways of being positively polite.'''Positive politeness' is used to emphasise goodwill and camaraderie and helps preserve the other person's positive face. Paying compliments, saying "Mm..." in all the right places and calling someone by a nickname can all be ways of being positively polite.'Negative politeness' is non-intrusive, respectful behaviour that helps preserve negative face. Using verbs like 'would' and 'could' to soften requests, apologising profusely and not interrupting can be examples of this.I say "can be" because timing, intonation and context all play a part. There isn't a one-to-one relationship between a particular bit of language and a degree of politeness; the same phrase can be polite in one case but rude in another. "Would it be a terrible imposition if I asked you...?" might sound respectful if talking to royalty, for example, but sarcastic if asking your offspring to tidy their room.Whether something is taken as a compliment or not is largely dependent on context too. Although compliments can be 'social lubricants', lovely bits of positive politeness that make you feel good about yourself, they can also be taken (and meant) in other ways.Have you ever felt patronised or humiliated by a compliment? If so, it's hardly surprising: not only has the other person declared themselves in a position to pass judgement on your abilities (how dare they?!), but they've also expressed surprise that you've done well (what a cheek!).You can be damned by feint praise too. If someone wonders over your friend's beautiful hair/eyes/singing voice and then glances at you and says "Interesting choice of hat," you're likely to feel that's not the kindest of compliments.Since they're a token of camaraderie, compliments can imply too much intimacy if they come from someone you don't want to be friendly with. If a woman is walking down the street and a complete stranger shouts "Oi, nice legs!" at her, she might take it as a compliment, but she's just as likely to find it really offensive.The minefield doesn't stop there: paying compliments to a superior isn't always considered polite because it can be seen as sucking up.
Politeness doesn't just vary between situations, it's also culture-dependent. What sounds polite to you might be embarrassing or upsetting to someone from another background. Aboriginal societies often leave long gaps in conversation, for instance, whilst other Australians (and British people) tend to rush to fill 'awkward' silences.It's really important for people working in multicultural areas to be aware of how norms of politeness can vary. In court, Aboriginal witnesses who pause for 'too long' before answering a question can potentially be misinterpreted as insolent or 'concocting a story', or the court may move on to the next question before they've had a chance to say anything at all.
There's a fascinating handbook about these differences, aimed at those working in the Australian legal system, to help avoid the problem of misinterpretation.
One polite word you might think it's hard to misinterpret is 'please' - however it's not as simple as that.Further reading:
Watching the English by Kate FoxWomen
Men and Politeness by Janet Holmes
Politeness by Penelope Brown and Stephen C Levinson