I Hate People When They’re Not Polite…

You start a conversation you can’t even finish it.
You’re talking a lot, but you’re not saying anything.
When I have nothing to say, my lips are sealed.
Say something once, why say it again?

Recently, I was listening to the song “Psycho Killer” by the Talking Heads while cleaning my apartment. This is a longstanding habit of mine, as there is something about the invigorating music of David Byrne that inspires me to dance my way through even the most annoying chores–in this case, trying to dust a room inhabited by a cat that seems to shed more than her body weight in fur.  It’s a rollicking good song, and if we put aside for a moment the minor fact that its narrator is a “psychotic” character, “Psycho Killer” touches on a very important question in the field intercultural communication: What exactly does it mean to be polite?

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In his article Perspectives on Politeness in the Journal of Pragmatics, author Bruce Fraser explains that “politeness is a state that one expects to exist in every conversation; participants note not that someone is being polite–this is the norm–but rather that the speaker is violating the conversational contract.” The factors that impact our understanding of the “conversational contract” include:

  • identity, role, and relationships between the interactants
  • situation and context
  • culture!

When we communicate with others, our “politeness” is the manifestation of our desire to maintain positive relationships in our interactions.  However, words and behaviors that are viewed positively in one culture might be viewed negatively in another culture.  Here are some of the culture-based aspects of politeness we should consider when communicating across cultures.

  • language conventions
    • Does the culture have a polite form of  “you” or do people need to use other linguistic conventions to indicate respect?
  • discourse conventions
    • What language is situationally appropriate when greeting, demanding, promising, requesting, etc.? 
  • face-saving conventions
    • How is reputation, dignity, and/or credibility preserved in a conversation?
  • body language
    • When it comes to posture, gestures, eye contact, facial expressions, and personal space, what is the norm during a conversation?
  • rules of etiquette
    • What level of formality/informality in dress or behavior is required?
  • taboo topics and actions
    • What subjects are off limits for discussion, and what forms of personal contact might be considered offensive?
  • positive and negative politeness
    • To what degree is praise of the other or effacement of the self expected?

The key to being polite in intercultural encounters is to do our homework and come to the situation prepared. By taking some time to learn what we can about the “conversational contract” conventions of our partners, and then making a sincere effort to respect those conventions in our interactions, we can maintain an acceptable level of politeness.

The good news is that, unlike the “Psycho Killer” in the Talking Heads song, most people are very willing to overlook and/or forgive small  (and sometimes even large) gaffes in an intercultural interaction, especially when they see that the other person is clearly making an effort!



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