Xiaoke Sun # Post 2
Politeness, which is regarded as a sign of good education, is highly praised in our society. Having acquired proficiency in different languages, I found out each language has its particular way to show politeness, explicitly or implicitly. For example, Mandarin has two different pronouns (“ni” and “nin”) of the second personal singular. By altering between them, speakers are able to show different levels of respect and politeness. The similar linguistic trait can be found in French. People use “vous” as a respectful form to address the second person singular, (as “nin 您” in Mandarin) while using “tu” (as “ni 你” in Mandarin) in the casual, or peer interaction. In English, however, only “you” is employed to address the person (or people) that the speaker is associating with, regardless of their age or social status. It is not to say that English lacks preciseness or politeness. Instead, it highlights the variety and complexity of linguistical features among different languages. The way to show politeness in English is unique in its use of conditional tense or in its increase of the length of sentence. This feature can be well explained by Alison’s example of using “Could I bother you to lend me your pen?” instead of shortly saying “Pen”.
Based on my experience of English learning, I noticed that learners, especially at the beginning level, focus on the accuracy of message delivery. More specifically, ESL learners prefer using a short, and direct sentence to make sure the meaning of a message can be conveyed to the listener, comprehensively and correctly, without producing any ambiguity. I noticed that NNS in public places use “I want…” when they order food instead of “Can I have….”. Grammatically, both of the expressions are correct, however, the latter one displays the client’s better social etiquette because of the form of interrogation.
In addition, at school, we also encounter the scenario of talking with important individuals, such as professors. When people intend to explain an ambiguous sentence, they prefer to say “sorry, I’m not making myself clear” rather than “You didn’t understand me”. This example of avoiding the use of “finger pointing” sentences including the word “you”, shows that the statement could be seen as more polite and appropriate. NS certainly have a better control of their language use. NNS, nevertheless, often experience difficulties in conversations requiring a higher level of formality and politeness. Since this issue has not been fully addressed in ESL classrooms, learners take longer to develop the awareness of politeness through their personal practices.
In reality, NS usually show a reasonable tolerance to the inappropriate expressions from NNS. Theoretically, however, the Politeness Theory (Brown & Levinson, 1987) points out the subtle differences of language use might render huge distinction. According to Brown and Levinson (1987), politeness is the expression of the speaker’s intention to mitigate face threats carried by certain face threatening acts towards the listeners. This definition connotes the ultimate goal of exercising interpersonal skills, which aims to ensure everyone feels affirmed in a social interaction. Applying this theory to the aforementioned examples, the waiters in the restaurant might generate a negative feeling or receive disrespect by the client’s the use of an imperative form of “I want sth.”. At the same time, the client’s expression could also be seen as a Face-threatening act, which inherently damages the face of the client by acting in opposition to the wants and desires of waiters. Therefore, accidentally, the client is very likely to be seen as impolite.
While examining the Politeness Theory, I found it is amazingly helpful in understanding interpersonal communication skills. Subsequently, two questions came to my mind :
-Firstly, in the scenario of ordering food in a restaurant, what if the client does not notice the difference between “can I have ” and “I want”? That means his speech act is unconsciously threatening his face without any chance of being self-noticed. In another case, if the inappropriate language use happens in your class, how do you address it as a language teacher? Do you have any skills to help students to notice and correct their inappropriate use of language without feeling hurt?
-Secondly, how do you think the Politeness Theory applies in other languages? Do you think there are any languages where it may not apply? Therefore, could there be any politeness-neutral languages?
Brown, Penelope and Stephen C. Levinson. 1987. Politeness: Some universals in language usage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. [First published 1978 as part of Ester N. Goody (ed.): Questions and Politeness.]