In most theoretical discussions

In most theoretical discussions, politeness is analyzed at the level of the individual. However, some analysts also study the politeness styles of cultures or language groups (English, Japanese) or sub-cultural groups such as women or working class people. The same model of analysis is used for this wider social analysis of politeness. I feel that I need to consider the difference of politeness at this wider social level and recognize that different issues are salient. There have been a amount of books and topics (Truss, 2005; Lakoff, 2006) newly which have drawn attention to changes which are perceived to be taking place in politeness at a social level. Although these works focus on politeness in the UK and the US, the way in which they describe perceptions about social change in relation to politeness is more generally valid in relation to other languages. In this essay, I will take issue with these theorists, not to argue that changes are not in fact taking place, but rather to argue that the perceptions of these changes are based on stereotypical and ideological thinking. The politeness which is described in such books is that which is stereotypically associated with particular sections of the community. Much of the theorizing of politeness has centered on the analysis of the speech of individual interact ants and has usually focused on interaction between two people (Brown and Levinson, 1978, 1987; Watts, 2003). There has been a quite easy slippage between analyzing and theorizing the relational work between two (often rather abstracted) people and making generalizations about politeness cross culturally.
I claim that it is very difficult to make these affirmations about whole cultures inclining towards either positive or negative politeness, mainly if we endure in mind that positive and negative politeness do not have the same purpose or meaning in different cultures (see e.g. Gu, 1990). Politeness at the level of the individual can be generally analyzed through investigation of the types of decision which are made about suitably within community of practice norms, whereas declarations about politeness at a social level are mainly informed by typecast and conventional fears about, or Traditionalist longing in relation to, social alteration in general. Thus, in this essay, I will focus originally on the work of Truss (2005) and Lakoff (2006) on civility and politeness at a cultural level in order to prove the way that theorists often draw on conventional knowledge about cultures when they debate the linguistic practices of those cultures.
Contested nature of politeness within cultures
Inside all cultures, there is not one only set of politeness rules which is accepted. If you accept that there are simple rules for politeness inside a culture, you can clearly form simplistic views on the way politeness works. For example, let us observe the way in which some experts of English and Chinese politeness describe these languages. Wierzbicka (2003) comments that English “abhors interference in other peoples’ affairs” (xv), which suggests that Britain is a ‘negative politeness culture’. Tsuzuki et al. (2005: 283) reach the conclusion that Chinese society is more “positive-politeness-oriented than American society”. But which group of English/American and Chinese people are they describing? Now we are not suggesting that this means that there is nothing that can be said about politeness across cultures, but perhaps that what can be said about politeness at this social level is much more complex. Regional differences in a culture: Blunt Yorkshiremen vs. soft Southerners, ‘heroic’ Southern Chinese.
As Mills (2004) has argued, it is difficult to assume that there are norms which will always be recognized by all as appropriate. There seem to be stereotypical notions of what is appropriate or what is polite, depending on the class or social level that we assume a speaker belongs to. Regularly, conservative obliqueness used by a speaker who belongs to a higher social class might be understood as excessively customary by someone from a ‘lower’ class, and positive politeness or companionship usage by a lower class speaker to a higher class listener might be understood as overly familiar in surely contexts where reverence is expected. Brown and Levinson (1978) say, in their analyses of cultural differences, that subcultural differences can be seized … governed groups have positive politeness cultures; governing groups have negative politeness cultures. That is, the world of the upper and middle groups is built in a stern and cold architecture of social expanse, a proportion and bitterness of impositions, while the world of the lower groups is built on social closeness, symmetrical solidarity and reciprocity (Brown and Levinson, 1978: 250).
For Brown and Levinson, lower class and middle/upper class groups differ radically in their tendency to use positive and negative politeness, but if this is the case, how can we then go on to make statements about the English language as a whole being largely a negative politeness language, since what I would then be arguing is that what I mean by Britain is middle and upper class culture. On the other hand, if I apply this view to modern Chinese with its claimed preference for positive politeness, I will reach the conclusion that the Chinese is a lower class culture, which would eerily fit Marxist ideologies dominating (at least to some extent) in mainland China. In other words, if I adopt this notion, working class interact ants do not figure as part of British culture, and neither do upper and middle class people in China. This opposition, based on an Anglo Saxon view of politeness and society, is problematic, furthermore, because it unavoidably leads to the question whether in ‘positive’ cultures power is enacted differently from ‘negative’ cultures or whether there are few distinctions based on status? In mainland China, for example, the claimed preference for ‘positive’ politeness obviously contradicts the strongly hierarchical and patriarchal nature of the society.
Kádár is currently carrying out historical research on the formation of Southern Chinese identity by means of politeness (see Kádár, 2011 forthcoming). In order to form a group identity that differentiates itself from the usually more powerful Northerners, certain historical Southern literary groups created an ethos of the ‘heroic southerner’ and made use of/invented different unique politeness expressions and strategies. These typically conveyed politeness in a considerably more indirect way than the norm for Northern Chinese. For example, as relative study demonstrates Southern expressions of politeness might have been quite unusual in Northern China. This increases the issue of whether it is probable to generalize about the (in) directness of politeness in Chinese culture.
Gender and the distribution of politeness
Along with regional differences, it would be possible to trace social differences in, for example, gendered politeness. I would definitely not claim that women use different politeness norms to men, but that politeness is associated with the speech norms at a stereotypical level of middle class white women and is thus already gendered in English (see, Mills, 2003a). This also seems to be the case in Japanese since honorifics are primarily associated with the type of language which middle class women are expected to speak. Okomoto and Shibamoto Smith (2004: 5–6) argue that this view of honorifics is in fact a language ideology and it seems that there is a great deal of ideological work around politeness, and gender at a cultural level.
Due to the powerfully ideologies nature of gender and politeness, discovering diachronic change and the social dissemination of apparently stable gendered norms of politeness is a particularly satisfying approach. Such study can demonstrate that gender norms are substance to change. For example, in a recent (yet unpublished) research conducted by Kádár, it was found that in China traditionally rudeness was associated with the low moral and social level of females. However, in the period spanning 1966 to 1976, the so-called ‘Cultural Revolution’, this value was contested by the Communist leadership that abandoned, on an ideological ground, the use of traditional gendered markers of female politeness such as feminine honorifics revolutionary ‘strength’ by dressing in a masculine way.
Thus, in a similar way to regional differences, the study of gender ideologies also demonstrate that is difficult to identify homogeneous ideologies of polite behavior and ‘appropriateness’ is always contested. Apart from the above-studied issues of region and gender, as we will see below, older and younger people also see ‘politeness’ differently. Let us now focus on two examinations of incivility and politeness at a cultural level in order to gain some insight into the processes whereby stereotypes about politeness and culture develop and are maintained.
? Lakoff
Lakoff sees the politeness norms in American culture as changing from a respect based culture to becoming a camaraderie culture (in Brown and Levinson’s terms, moving from a “negative politeness culture” to more of a “positive politeness culture”). She notes certain changes in American culture, for example “sexual coarseness in public contexts… violence in the media, ageism (the unwillingness to acknowledge a middle ground in debate); uncontrolled displays of hostility; negative political advertising; cursing and other bad language, flaming on the internet, the loss of polite conventions (such as ‘please’ and ‘thank you’), invasions of privacy and the rise of conventional ant formality” (Lakoff, 2006: 30–34). These changes which Lakoff perceives as taking place in “American culture as a whole” are quite clearly loosely connected to the notion of civility and incivility (some of them more tenuously than others).
However, what surprised us most when reading this article is less the fact that a politeness theorist would try to monitor changes taking place in politeness norms generally, but rather the confidence which Lakoff seems to have in her own ability to claim that these changes are actually taking place and that they are taking place at a cultural rather than at a subcultural or Community of Practice level. She also claims that there is an erosion of the distinction between public and private life, arguing that one’s private life is being invaded by public concerns (her example is that of cold-calling) and that public life is being treated as if it were private life (her example is of people speaking on mobile phones in public places).
? Truss
Truss (2005), in a similar way, laments the loss of a particular type of politeness norm at the social level, arguing that there has been an increase in incivility across British society, but this she seems to locate at a different level in society, mainly so-called youth culture, as well as global capitalism. Her railing against a changing society, where Britain is portrayed as increasingly an uncivilized country, can be seen by her opening remarks about the differences between French and English politeness.
Truss’ book is informed by a conservative ideology; she states “egalitarianism was a noble aim, as was enlightened parenting, but both have ploughed up a lot of worms” (Truss, 2005: 33). Her concern with disrespect also marks this out as a plea for older people whom she characterizes as alienated by the disproportionate influence of youth culture: “old people are addressed by their first names. Teachers are brusquely informed ‘That’s none of your business’ by small children, judges are abused in court by mouthy teenagers” (Truss, 2005: 34). She states that “the most extreme form of non-deference … is to be treated as actually absent or invisible” (Truss, 2005: 34). She characterizes her book as not simply documenting linguistic change, but rather as exhibiting concern about the imminent breakdown of society, for she states: “If you ask people, they will mostly report with vehemence that the world has become a ruder place. They are at breaking point” (Truss, 2005: 39). This apocalyptic view is also registered when she states that the reason that politeness is so important is that it is ‘a signal of readiness to meet someone half-way; the question of whether politeness makes society cohere, or keeps people safely at arm’s length is actually a false opposition. Politeness does both, and that’s why it’s so frightening to contemplate losing it” (Truss, 2005: 61). Thus, this is not simply a discussion of what she sees as linguistic change, but constitutes a call to action to people to act to ‘save’ politeness before it disappears. It is clear that discussion of impoliteness is largely a means by which Truss can discuss the ills of modern British society, for the culprits of incivility are largely youths and the working class people who serve her in shops or who drive her in taxis. Furthermore, she sees that changes in politeness norms are leading to British society no longer being civilized and this fills her with a range of extreme emotions.
Both Lakoff’s and Truss’ view of the linguistic changes which have occurred in the US and UK are clearly inaccurate, but there have been linguistic changes which can serve as indexical of social change. As Fairclough (1992) has documented, there have been a number of important changes at a surface level in the level of formality required in public interaction and there has developed a conversationalisation of public statements to consumers. In a complex way, language can be seen as both a site where conversationalisation and informality are affirmed or challenged, as well as helping to bring about social changes in the relations between individuals and groups (see Mills, 2003a). In Britain in particular, this growth in informality and the decline of deference between people perceived as superior or inferior to one another has been largely the result of political changes and the decline of a clear cut class system. Although as Skeggs (1997) remarks, I should not imagine that, because the linguistic markers of deference and social division are less apparent in Britain today, class distinctions are not salient in interactions. She argues: “there was a time when the concept of class was considered necessary by the middle classes to maintain and consolidate differences in power; its recent invisibility suggests that these differences are now institutionalized” (Skeggs, 1997: 7).
What Truss seems to be drawing attention to in her analysis of contemporary Britain is that, for her at least, the growth of informality in interaction has not been a positive change and she would like to return to the days when class distinctions were moreclear cut and respect for one’s elders was the norm. Her perceptions about changes in politeness is used as an index of these changes.
What both Truss and Lakoff share is the belief that it is possible to make sweeping generalizations about norms of language across a society. Not only that but they assume that they are in a position to generalize about the society as a whole – as Foucault (1969 -1972) has shown, this is a very powerful position to hold and it is only open to certain commentators. Their comments on politeness are not simply descriptive but are highly evaluative.
The ‘disappearance’ of politeness: A diachronic perspective
A problematic aspect of the aforementioned generalizing descriptions is that they easily lead to simplistic views on the development of politeness. In fact, in modern times it is a general tendency for politeness to become simplified and less deferential or, to provide a perhaps more accurate definition, less ritual in a Goffmanian (1967) sense which is unavoidably painful for the members of the higher classes who possess the ‘key’ to ‘proper’ politeness that, for them, differentiates them from people from ‘lower’ classes. Since researchers and other powerful commentators are generally members of the educated middle classes, such generalizing views inherently reflect that class’s negative attitude towards change. These views are generally apocalyptic, that is, politeness is seen as degenerating. Therefore, it is intriguing to briefly explore whether politeness can diachronically decrease or degenerate at all in a certain society.
In fact, Chinese may be the best example for the realization of the apocalyptic prediction of Truss and Lakoff. This is because in the course of the 20th century the historical Chinese honorific lexicon of several thousand words (cf. Kádár, 2007a) has simply disappeared from colloquial language; furthermore, Chinese underwent major ‘purification’ campaigns, launched by the Communists after 1949, which promoted rudeness and directness (‘the voice of the masses’), as well as the stigmatization of traditional politeness norms.
Due to these dramatic changes, the traditional means of deference largely disappeared from Chinese politeness, which previously had a complex system of honorifics that made it quite similar to Japanese and Korean. As a result of this large-scale change, many Chinese literati lamented the disappearance of ‘politeness’ (see Wang, 1988, cited in Kádár, 2007a: 41). Due to the fact that in Chinese the traditional norms and lexicon of politeness mainly disappeared, if one applies a macro or generalizing view it would be a clear-cut conclusion that modern Chinese culture became less polite.
For example, the modern Chinese speaker has to apply conventional politeness markers in a very careful way, compared to speakers of historical Chinese: the complete lack of politeness markers is open to impolite interpretation, whilst their use beyond a ‘minimum’ makes an utterance sound overly formal. That is, whilst in historical Chinese communication the abundance of politeness markers and honorifics was the norm in deferential contexts (cf. Kádár, 2007a), in modern Chinese contexts that necessitate politeness the speaker needs to maintain a balance between the lack of these forms and their extensive use, which is a difficult task, all the more so because the definition of ‘extensive’ changes in every context. Furthermore, in modern China a set of polite discursive strategies (in a Brown and Levinsonian sense), such as joking tone, have gained salience, filling the space of the extinct historical honorifics. Although certain forms of politeness in the case of Chinese, honorifics can largely decrease, this will be perceived as a loss of ‘politeness culture’ merely by the members of the higher/educated classes. For example, as argued in Kádár (2008), in historical China, members of the lower and uneducated classes, such as peasants, made use of a very limited honorific lexicon; it is doubtful that, for these people, the modern replacement of honorifics with discursive strategies meant the loss of politeness.
In this section I have reviewed generalizing views, which predict negative outcomes for changes in politeness in certain cultures/societies, by showing that politeness can alter but not decrease in a technical sense; instead, it is only certain phenomena equated with politeness by the elite which can decrease or be viewed as degenerating.
Contested nature of politeness across cultures
I am all aware of the differences pragmatically between different cultures in terms of what is considered polite. However, what I am arguing here is that this notion of a culture having an agreed set of politeness norms is not as clear as I generally think. I need to ask myself, which group of people is represented by the politeness norms which I associate with a particular culture; what type of behavior is indirectly indexed by the use of this type of politeness; and, most importantly, what kind of conclusions can be drawn on the basis of general characteristics that I associate with a given culture.
To give an example of the contested nature of politeness and impoliteness at the level of culture, I would like to refer to a historical (19th century) cross-cultural epistolary interaction between two intellectuals from China and Japan. This historical example has been chosen because whilst the field has an abundance of cross-cultural interactions (see e.g. Oetzel et al., 2001), little attention is devoted to historical interactions between language users of different cultural origin despite the fact that such interactions can be instructive.
The cited section is representative of the style of the letter as a whole. For experts of Chinese politeness an interesting feature of the work is that it uses an overtly deferential style. Whilst the genre of historical Chinese private letters presupposes the use of honorifics and other expressions of self-denigration/recipient-elevation (cf. Kádár, 2009a), this letter is heavily loaded with such forms: the above-cited brief section (not counting the formal opening) contains as many as honorific expressions, and also some discursive strategies of self-denigration (such as the author’s symbolic claim that his letter is brief, or being a duandu, which contrasts markedly with its actual length). When reading this work initially, it is possible to assume that these features are due to intercultural differences between Chinese and Japanese politeness. This seems to be confirmed by modern empirical research (e.g. Kim, 2007): in fact, many case studies suggest that the Japanese can be more indirect and formal than the Chinese, which would explain Munakata’s application of an extensive number of honorific forms when using Classical Chinese, the traditional lingua franca in the East Asian region. Therefore, the present work could provide an example of historical cross-cultural communication, representing intercultural politeness cultural differences between the Chinese and Japanese.
I am not suggesting that this means that there is nothing that can be said about politeness across cultures, but perhaps that what can be said about politeness at this social level is much more complex. As Wierzbicka states: “What is at issue is not politeness as such, but the interpretation of what is socially acceptable in given cultures” (Wierzbicka, 2003: 35). But this is particularly salient here, because we would argue that politeness really is about what is considered socially acceptable or appropriate (see Watts, 2003 on social politeness or politic behavior).
Positive and negative politeness cultures
Both Truss and Lakoff draw on work by Brown and Levinson (1978/87) and Scollon (1995) which argues that it is possible to make generalizations about language groups and cultures in terms of the degree to which they tend to use negative politeness or positive politeness. By this, they mean that in certain cultures and language groups there is a tendency for negative politeness to be the norm, and the instances that are generally cited are Japanese and English cultures where they claim deference and formality are seen to be of greater importance than in other language groups.
Positive politeness cultures, for Brown and Levinson, are ones like Australia and America where deference and formality are seen as an impediment to communication and camaraderie is stressed instead. However, although at a stereotypical level, it is quite clear that there are differences of emphasis in language groups on certain types of politeness, each group does make use of both types of politeness to a greater or lesser extent. Furthermore, as Sifianou has argued (1992) when analyzing other cultures I should not assume that I know what function deference and formality have in interaction, for these terms may have a different interpretation in other cultures. Analysts often, for example, contrast Asian deference to the role that deference would play in British culture, and therefore make the assumption that Asian cultures are in general more concerned with status difference and roles in society than British culture. There may be an element of truth in this stereotypical view, but it is also the case that deference in many Asian cultures is conventionalized, just as indirectness is conventionalized in British English, and therefore we should question whether societies as a whole can be seen as in fact tending to be concerned with social distance simply because deference is conventionalized within the language. Several theorists (Ide, 2006; Takekuro, 2006; Yoshida and Sakurai, 2006) writing on the function of indirectness, honorifics and deference in the Japanese language, have stressed the degree of flexibility that there is within so-called deference cultures, depending on the context, to stress one’s role and one’s position in society, whilst at other times, stressing camaraderie and positive politeness. They also all draw attention, particularly Ide, to the degree to which honorifics and deference markers do not simply indicate respect, but signal a host of other elements, for example elegance and refinement.
It seems that when analyses deference in other cultures, Western critics often impose their understanding of how deference and negative politeness are signaled and interpreted within British English upon other cultures whose linguistic and cultural norms are at variance with these Western norms.
Conservatism in statements about culture
The newsletters of the Polite Society, a UK campaigning group which calls for the instituting of a national Courtesy week, seem to epitomize this harking back to a golden age when people were supposedly more polite to one another. Older people often tend to see the changes that they perceive to be occurring in society in a negative way, sometimes eliding these negative changes wholesale with a concern with perceived changes in politeness, for example, that academic standards are falling, the streets are no longer safe to walk at night, service in shops is getting worse, motorists are not courteous any longer, children are not brought up to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, and so on. Cameron (1995) has noted that very often those who lament the passing of older ways of speaking or who attempt to reform language (she terms them language mavens) are very conservative.
However, it is not necessary to perceive these changes as negative and to call for reform. What needs to be recognized is that the act of making statements about what happens at a national level is rarely liberal. Generally, when making generalizations about nations, even supposedly linguistic statements, ideological knowledge about civilization, progress and decay tend to become entangled in our thinking (Fabian, 1983). Whilst it is perfectly possible to make certain statements about language groups as a whole, although these would have to be hedged about with qualifications, there is a tendency for there to be a slippage into ideological thinking about the progress or decline of civilization.
Many theorists of politeness find it difficult to adequately define a culture, and there is a constant confusion of the notion of culture and language group. Although many theorists find it very easy to describe cultural norms within a language group, as Scollon and Scollon (1995: 168) argue, the term culture is ‘too broad a social organization to be very useful in the analysis of discourse’. Eelen (2001) draws attention to the difficulty of describing a culture and its norms and argues that:
If the seemingly ad hoc uses of the term are taken seriously, the notion either annihilates itself, or it annihilates the conceptualizations it is asked to defend. A notion that can simultaneously denote any group of people based on (any combination of) characteristics loses its operational value. On the other hand, if the notion were fully accustomed to the amount of empirical variability encountered, cultures would become so small that the notion of shared norms would lose its explanatory value and fail the explanatory role it is currently asked to fill. (Eelen, 2001: 173)
Very often, within politeness theorizing, the term ‘culture’ is used as a way of reifying what are perceived to be rather fixed notions of appropriateness, almost akin to rules, and this view of culture runs the risk of characterizing individual speakers as passive recipients of cultural values and speech styles. Foley (1997) argues that we should see culture not as referring to a set of fixed values and ways of speaking, but rather as ’embodied practices’, that is rather than seeing culture as a set of abstract rules or norms for behavior.
Politeness as a resource
So what I need to be aware of when analyze the speech norms stereotypically associated with particular cultures is that not all members of that culture will speak according to the stereotype, and that whilst useful sometimes as an indication of tendencies within the culture as a whole, these stereotypical qualities are generally associated only with particular groups within that society. Politeness should be seen as resources which are available within particular languages and cultures and which different groups will view in different ways. Drawing on Terkourafi’s (2001; 2007) work on a frame based analysis of politeness whereby I try to compute the frequency of occurrence of particular styles of politeness within particular language groups, we may be able to make generalizations about tendencies in languages for certain resources to be available but we need to be aware that different groups in the society will have different perspectives on these resources and will both use and value them differently.
Conclusions
This essay has argued that the relationship between culture and politeness can in fact be studied but should be approached with some caution. In line with what I discussed above, I believe that it is possible to critically study politeness in Chinese, Japanese, Korean and other East Asian settings, provided that one refrains from generalizing statements based on the language practices of certain dominant groups or stereotypes of those groups. In other words, the dominant politeness norms of these areas can be faithfully represented as long as it is not claimed that they are absolute norms, and as long as other ‘norms’ are discussed in relation to them.
Furthermore, as the analyses of Truss and Lakoff have shown, the language practices associated with certain groups deemed to be disruptive can be considered to be disproportionately influential. Thus, what we have been arguing for in this essay is for discussions of politeness across different at a cultural level to be conducted in such a way that preconceptions and ideological beliefs about the linguistic behavior of certain groups can be described objectively and perhaps can form part of our analysis of politeness stereotypes. However, I need to distance myself from the conservatism and ideological nature of this type of analysis. Once I have isolated this type of ideological view of politeness at a cultural level, I can then analyze the variety of politeness norms and resources available within particular Communities of Practice within a culture, especially those which seem to be dominant. In this way, I can make general statements
about politeness resources within cultures, without relying on ideological beliefs and represent the diversity of positions on these politeness norms. I can also begin to develop models of politeness which would allow us to discuss politeness at this cultural level rather than drawing on models developed to describe language at the level of the individual.