Politeness across cultures and language teaching


In the 21st century the field of language teaching and learning has shifted from focusing on form and structure to give more attention to the integration of the culture of the target language. As meaning is usually created within a social context, culture is very important to understanding and interpreting words and sentences. As such, in order for language learners to effectively communicate with other speakers of the target language, they should not only master the language but also understand the culture of that language.

The questions of 1) whether we have experienced cross-cultural misunderstanding with respect to politeness, as well as 2) how to teach politeness and whose norms to teach, were raised in one of the classes a few weeks ago, but we did not have the chance to discuss that due to the lack of time. I kept thinking about it after class and would like to share my thoughts with you in this blog post.

It is wonderful how the same behaviour or situation is interpreted and perceived differently by different cultures and societies, and similarly, how the language used in any specific situation affects the way we interpret the meaning and the way we respond to it. It is known that some languages promote more formal levels of speech as an indicator of politeness when dealing with people. That makes it quite challenging for a second language speaker to know the ropes, because what is considered polite in one culture is not necessarily the same in another culture.

Having different cultural background from the host country’s cultural norms has put this issue into strong relief for me. Upon my arrival to Canada, I felt confused and not able to distinguish what is considered polite and what is not. For example, I was not always clear about when I should be formal and when informality was acceptable. Similarly, I did not always know when I should be direct and when it is better to be less direct. I believe that people in my culture tend to be less formal and more direct in more situations than people in North American culture, as far as my experience indicates.

Over time and with continued interaction with the Canadian people, I have started to understand some of the norms and the rules with respect to politeness. However, it can be hard for me to adapt to them. Sometimes even when I know what would be considered most polite in this society, I find it hard to do; this is especially true when the Canadian politeness rules conflict with the politeness rules in my culture.

On the one hand, I think it is really important for language teachers to present the topic of politeness among the other cultural subjects their students learn. These rules should be presented from the perspective of the culture of the target language as well as draw contrasts between these rules and those of other cultures. This is important in order to help students to develop a cross-cultural understanding and sensitivity.

On the other hand, since there is no universal standard for politeness, I believe that it is crucial for teachers to learn about their students’ cultural background in order to understand the behaviour of their students which will help teachers know how to best deal with their students. For example, language teachers might be trying to engage their students in class and get a lot of feedback from them, or discussion. However, when I was taking an ESL class, one of the teachers asked us to be very involved in the discussion and interrupt her any time with questions. One of the students, who was from Japan, however, told the class that this was very difficult for him (especially interrupting the teacher) because this was not part of his culture, and is the kind of thing that would be considered very rude in Japan.

In the end, I wonder how practical it is for teachers to learn about the different cultures of their students? Do you have any examples in mind of cross-cultural misunderstandings based on different politeness rules?

3 thoughts on “Politeness across cultures and language teaching”

  1. Hi Raheel,

    I like your blog and your questions! I think it would be great if teachers could learn the different cultures of their students because cultures shape students’ knowledge and way of learning. For example, students in China tend to talk less and listen more in a classroom, for they are greatly influenced by Confucius philosophy that teachers are supreme. In contrast, Western students prefer to talk more because they have strong individualism and would like to share their ideas. The understanding of these differences will guide teachers’ selection of pedagogy. Therefore, I consider it’s practical but I also admit it’s time-consuming.

    According to my experience, compared with learning different politeness rules, maybe learning to be tolerant is more important. Sometimes, students give me suggestions in a very direct way that even makes me a little embarrassed. But It doesn’t mean they want to hurt anyone or they are not polite. They just communicate with each other in this way to avoid ambiguity. So for teachers, especially if they teach multicultural students, it’s significant to have the awareness of and be open-minded to various politeness rules.

    Commented by Yuting Zhao


  2. Hi Raheel,
    I suppose there is not one perfect answer to your questions. Politeness ‘rules’ are difficult to set in stone, as there are always social and contextual factors that can influence the appropriateness of expressions of politeness.

    Perhaps it is not entirely “practical it is for teachers to learn about the different cultures of their students”; and on the flip side, to what extent to learners need to learn about the different cultures of their teachers and peers? Maybe, we need to embark on a learning journey WITH our students, where we approach differences and ambiguities with openness, respect, and curiosity.

    I’ve had experiences where I know I’ve broken the social norms and expectations for politeness (in Japan, especially, but also in Canada), but for the most part, people are pretty understanding if they feel that the underlying intention behind my linguistically inappropriate expression (too formal/ not formal enough) is genuine. Like Yuting, I believe that developing some degree of tolerance for ambiguity and difference is a really important part of participating in a multilingual and multicultural society.


  3. Thank you for the good post. I am always interested in politeness in different languages. To answer your first question, body language is universal language, so before I know the culture and the language well, I use body language to show good manners when I communicate with someone. And I don’t think it bothers the waiter/waitress when I use “I want…” to order the meal, because he/she can tell I am learning the language.
    Second, I used to compare the different levels of politeness in different cultures and languages. Students found this activity fun, and they didn’t feel insulted by being corrected when they misuse the politeness because they considered it a form of grammar.
    Lastly, I would like to talk about why I personally find it hard to adapt to different languages’ politeness codes. Politeness in language rests on the relevant social values and beliefs of a given speech community, so when the values and the beliefs of the society, where my L2 is spoken, is different from mine. I would feel like I give up the values and beliefs I grew up with when I speak my L2. For example, I still don’t feel comfortable when I hear my husband is called by his first name by his nephews, and my husband still struggles to call my mom “mom”.


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