Politeness relativity

Politeness relativity

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Learning a language means more than acquiring vocabulary. Blogger Kasia explains that fluency has just as much to do with adopting a new style.

A few weeks ago a fellow Scot (who's a huge fan of Poland) told me that he finds Polish people very to the point.

"They'll tell you you're old, not to offend you, but because it's a fact. There'll be nothing disrespectful in their tone, but they won't use sophisticated vocabulary," he said.

You might think that it's because if they speak English they might not know the sophisticated vocabulary, but that's not the case and I would go as far as claiming that this is not just Poles - most Eastern Europeans are that frank (just to be clear - if I'm using the term Eastern Europeans here, it's purely a historical term, the people I'm writing about live in Central Europe).

I remember one of my first native-speaking English teachers told us that when you describe somebody in English you're unlikely to use direct words. Instead of she's fat, you say she's not exactly a model.

And you do, don't you? Well, in Eastern Europe people don't. If she's fat, she's fat; if she's dumb, she's dumb. And also, it's quite enough to apologise once. Slavic languages are more professionally to the point than uber-polite.

When we arrived at our hotel in Bulgaria and were waiting at the reception desk, we witnessed a Scottish couple with three kids being told that their room was not ready yet.

And this is what the girl said, “Unfortunately your room is not ready yet. It will be ready in an hour. You can leave your luggage in the luggage room and sit at the bar or by the pool.” End of story. No more I'm sorry's. In fact, the word sorry wasn't even used. And she didn't even smile apologetically.

When I started working in the UK it came as a bit of a shock to me when I was told I should be more polite. In my own view I was – tersely and professionally polite. But my first boss told me, “You need to use more please's and sorry's.” As he himself was not originally British, he added, "British do say please and sorry a lot, you know." Well, it's a fact. And I guess I came from a place where what matters more is professionalism than politeness; politeness is not measured by the words you're using, but rather by the tone of your voice.

If you prefer, you can look at it as just another cultural difference. Accept it and bear it in mind when going abroad. If people are official to you, it may be considered polite in their country.

I found it useful to be able to switch between those two approaches and it works very well.

But I feel tempted to dig a little bit further. There's a theory in linguistics called linguistic relativity or Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, claiming that the way you speak influences the way you think.

Or more accurately, the language you speak influences the way you think.

So, I wonder if the polite forms worked differently in some languages, would people behave in a different way? Would they consider not smiling, or not adding ‘please’ at the end of a request rude? Or is it the language, rather, that's influenced by what certain nations find courteous and what they find rude?

Kasia
I'm one of the million Polish people who have invaded the UK recently. Unlike most of them I don't work as a kitchen porter, I do speak English and I'm sharing my expat experiences at Clockwork Orange: my life in Edinburgh, discovering the country, the language and the cuisine.

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