When we are being polite, we follow certain linguistic and cultural rules, and we customize them for the particular situation we are in. We usually don’t think about what it is that we do, but when we find ourselves in unfamiliar situations, we are not so certain. Are you perhaps polite in the same ways in other cultures, in other languages?
If you’ve travelled, experiencing other cultures, then you have certainly been in situations where you started thinking about whether what you were doing was polite. But are we so very different across borders and oceans? Or are there some universal rules that everyone in the world follows when we want to be polite?
What do you do without the word ‘please ‘?
In Danish you learn that there is no word corresponding to the English please or the French s’il vous plaît. In Japanese you eat plainly with the verbal form 食べる, but if you wish to be polite, you use the form 食べます. In Spanish they say tú to their friends, but usted to their teachers, just like the difference between ты and вы in Russian and du and Sie in German.
We don’t have these differences in Danish – and there is no one who really uses the polite form De any longer. Does that mean that we are less polite in Denmark than elsewhere in the world? Not necessarily, because we can easily express politeness with our language in other ways.
Kunne det eventuelt tænkes at du måske havde mulighed for at sidde lidt stille?
In Danish we often use verbs in the preterite and fillers like lige and måske, while we often avoid verbs in the imperative and use questions instead. It feels more polite to say, “Kunne du måske lige sidde stille?” than to say: “Sid stille!” – even though it really means the same thing: We want the other person to sit still.
Instead of using the imperative sid!, we ask the question, kunne du måske lige sidde stille? By asking a question, we are giving the other person the chance to consider our proposal. And by using the verb kunne in the preterite, a hypothetical meaning is produced, giving the person the chance to actually consider whether to sit still or not. With the interjection måske we highlight the hypothetical situation even more, and when we add lige we are making the request less direct and less imposing on the recipient.
In Danish we use lige in many contexts. “Vent lige et øjeblik,” we say on the phone — because it sounds friendlier and gentler than saying, ”Vent et øjeblik.”
Common rules for courtesy in all languages around the world
In their book on universal politeness (1987), language researchers Brown and Levinson present a theory that there are actually some universal rules of courtesy that everyone in the world can agree on. They talk about all human beings having both a positive face and a negative face. When we communicate with other people, we may threaten the two kinds of faces with our actions.
If we are indifferent to a person’s feelings or do not have the same opinions as they do, we threaten their positive face. If we restrict the freedom of the other person, then we threaten their negative face. If we try to avoid the actions that threaten the faces of the other person, we will be received by that person in a better way.
However, we ourselves also have the two faces, and they can also be threatened by our own actions. If it becomes clear that we are in the wrong, our positive face will be threatened; if we allow a greater power to steer our actions, our negative face is threatened.
When people communicate, it is always a balancing act between one’s own and the other person’s two faces, and this is, according to Brown and Levinson, universal for all people.
In the examples above we saw how a phrase became more polite by asking a question (Kunne du prøve at sidde stille?), instead of issuing a command (Sid stille!). When we ask in this way, giving the person the chance to consider the proposal, we are not restricting the person’s freedom, and we avoid threatening the person’s negative face.
It is, however, not done without cost, because by giving the other person the option to choose, we give him or her more power than we ourselves have, and this threatens our own negative face. But by giving the other person more power, we also get them to do as we want. In a way we are manipulating with people’s faces to get our own way, and we are paying for this by losing face ourselves.
Brown, Penelope and Levinson, Stephen C. 1987. Politeness: Some universals in language usage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.