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  • Kirsten Bell

I'm friendly, you're polite: Cultural differences in conceptions of politeness

I was originally going to write one post on the topic of politeness, focusing specifically on Canada. However, one piece quickly became two when I realised that there was a lot of background and context necessary in order to discuss politeness in Canada, so you’ll hear more about that topic shortly. In any case, these posts are dedicated to Judith Roback: a Canadian anthropologist whose questions and observations got me thinking about the topic of politeness.


If I had to choose the expression I most associate with politeness, it would have to be ‘I beg your pardon’ – a sentence I almost never use. When someone says it as a means of asking me to repeat myself, I always think ‘Ooh, posh!’ Growing up in Australia, I was impressed whenever I heard people say it, because it suggested a degree of politeness I had never acquired myself.

But why is ‘I beg your pardon’ considered polite? Taken literally, it’s an odd expression – more the sort of thing one might cry to a judge after committing a crime than a way of atoning for the minor infraction of not hearing what someone has just said. Moreover, a moment’s pause reveals that it can also be used to convey the opposite of politeness. After all, when cried in tones of righteous indignation, it’s basically a euphemism for ‘How dare you!’ (as in ‘I beg your pardon! I hope you’re not implying that I’m the moron here’).

This suggests that politeness is far from straightforward. In this respect, it is much like other universal speech acts I have previously discussed, such as greetings and complaining. It also suggests that politeness is, to some degree, contextual. Indeed, this feature is embedded into many languages, where there are no direct equivalents for standard English terms of politeness like ‘thank you’, ‘please’ and ‘excuse me’.

For example, in Korean, there is no word for ‘please’ that directly equates to the English expression. Instead, different terms are used depending on the context, and the status of the person you’re speaking to.1 Another example is the Carrier language historically used by the Dakelh, a First Nations community in the central interior of British Columbia, Canada. Although much has been made of the fact that the Dakelh and related groups incorporated ‘merci’ as a substitute for ‘thank you’ during the colonial period, as the linguist William Poser notes, the use of the French loan word wasn’t motivated by the lack of a native way to say thank you. Instead, it was because there were so many different ways of saying it, depending on whether people were giving thanks or receiving it, and how many were present.

Complicating matters further is the fact that while most of us have a sense of what politeness is, there’s a lack of consensus on precisely what we mean by the term. As the sociolinguist Richard Watts notes, politeness is often treated as synonymous with being respectful, but it’s clearly more than that. Likewise, although politeness is associated with being helpful and obliging, these categories don’t always overlap. Most of us know gruff, salt-of-the-earth types that are both helpful and obliging, without being particularly polite about it, and, conversely, people who are scrupulously polite but exceedingly unhelpful.2

Clearly, politeness is associated with socially correct behaviour, which is generally set by the social elite, so there is unquestionably a class dimension to what’s considered polite – as the use of ‘polite society’ as an archaic euphemism for the upper class attests. Indeed, Watts observes that ‘polite’ is sometimes a euphemism for behaviour that we consider to be standoffish, haughty and insincere; it’s one of the few speech acts we talk about in terms of ‘veneers’ (as in ‘A thin veneer of politeness hid Lady Bride’s growing anger’).

The anthropological linguists Penelope Brown and Stephen Levinson have famously suggested that politeness takes two main forms: negative politeness and positive politeness. Negative politeness is oriented towards satisfying the hearer’s desire to maintain claims of self-determination and freedom from imposition, so it essentially aims to preserve social distance. According to Brown and Levinson, it’s characterised by ‘self-effacement, formality and restraint’ and is apology-oriented and deferential. Positive politeness, on the other hand, is oriented towards validating the hearer’s self-image, and is characterised by a sense of solidarity, affirmation and affinity. It therefore reduces social distance rather than maintaining it.

In Watching the English, the anthropologist Kate Fox has argued that the quintessentially English form of politeness is negative. In her words, there is a ‘distinctively English form of bland, insipid politeness, which is primarily concerned… with the avoidance of offence or embarrassment rather than with actually giving pleasure or expressing positive feelings’. Australian politeness, on the other hand, is typically regarded as positive. According to the communications scholar Aisha Mansaray, it is characterised by speech markers that convey friendliness and solidarity.

These differences in the form that politeness takes from culture to culture would suggest that it’s difficult to talk of ‘more’ and ‘less’ polite cultures, because that depends on how politeness is being conceptualised (as friendliness, deference, helpfulness, etc.). Of course, that doesn’t stop any of us from categorising people in other countries as ‘rude’ or ‘polite’ based on our own understanding of these terms.3

For example, a search of ‘world’s politest country’ on Google immediately brings up a U.S. poll stating that New Zealand is the friendliest country in the world. But a little further down the search results is a BBC article suggesting that Japan is unquestionably the world’s most polite country, given the cultural emphasis on omotenashi (Japanese hospitality), which ‘combines exquisite politeness with a desire to maintain harmony and avoid conflict’. Clearly, rankings come out differently depending on whether positive or negative politeness is being emphasised.4

This is borne out by a fascinating study by the social psychologist Francis McAndrew and his colleagues on perceptions of the core cultural traits (including friendliness, politeness, generosity and aggressiveness) of members of five English-speaking countries: Great Britain, Canada, Nigeria, the USA and Australia.

Published in 2000, the study included 619 citizens from nine countries and the researchers found that although there were national differences in participants’ stereotypes of the citizens of other countries,5 there was a broad cross-cultural consensus regarding various national attributes. In essence, the prevailing view was that Nigerians were ‘traditional, superstitious, and religious’, Australians were ‘friendly’, Canadians were ‘nonaggressive’, Americans were ‘patriotic, aggressive, impolite, and nonreligious’ and Brits lacked generosity.6

The survey results on politeness, however, were a complete mess. The Nigerians rated themselves as the most polite nation; the Canadians rated Brits, Australians and themselves as more polite than Americans, who agreed with this assessment, but thought that Australians were significantly more polite than everyone else; and the Australians, in their turn, completely rejected this characterisation, ranking themselves as just as impolite as the Americans, thank you very much!

Arguably, the inclination of Australians to characterise themselves as ‘friendly’ rather than ‘polite’ tells us something significant about Australian national identity. In particular, it points to the ways in which Australian identity is defined in relation to British, or more specifically, English identity – a topic I discussed at length in my post on whingeing vs moaning. For Australians, ‘politeness’ is associated with its negative (read: English) form – i.e., as lacking genuineness and reinforcing social hierarchy.

This cultural distaste for politeness in its English form is most evident in the figure of the ‘larrikin’: the Australian term for a rowdy, uncultivated individual who bucks social convention. Notably, the term has positive connotations in Australian English. In fact, Bruce Kapferer argues that the figure of the larrikin is central to the founding myths of Australian nationalism – the Anzac tradition is full of stories of Australians resisting the etiquettes of social deference demanded by their British superiors. The larrikin is friendly, but not polite; genuine, not fake; and rejects social hierarchy rather than embracing it.

Nowhere is the element of larrikinism in Australian national identity more prominent than in tourism campaigns encouraging foreigners to visit the country. Paul Hogan (who later achieved global fame as Crocodile Dundee: the ultimate larrikin) played this role to great success in Tourism Australia’s ‘Come and say g’day’ campaign in the 1980s. However, the ‘Where the bloody hell are you?’ campaign, released in 2006, was ‘unceremoniously dumped’ less than two years later.

Despite trying to replicate Hogan’s friendly larrikin, the ill-judged campaign was quickly revealed to be a complete failure, primarily because its attempt to convey the distinctive attributes of Australian friendliness overstepped the bounds of politeness. Indeed, even in Australia, I can’t think of a single context where the expression ‘Where the bloody hell are you?’ is ever uttered in friendly tones.7 Perhaps unsurprisingly, the ad was quickly banned in numerous countries and toned down in others.8

While a good illustration of the differences between friendliness and politeness, it also highlights the meaning that cultural stereotypes come to hold, not purely as questionable characterisations of national attributes, but as templates to follow9 – or avoid, as it were, which is how Australia ended up with one of the most abrasive slogans ever devised in a national tourism campaign.10 This suggests that talk about polite (and impolite) cultures is always talk about national identity, which, by definition, is relational – a phenomenon I will discuss in more detail when I delve into the intricacies of Canadian politeness.



1 For example, a polite sentence ending when requesting something is juseyo: the polite form of juda, which means ‘to give’. But the sentence ending changes to jusigesseoyo if you want to be even more formal and polite. The fact that there are seven speech levels in Korean, all with different terms, sentence endings and honorifics, is one of the many reasons why I struggled with the language, especially because you can’t just use polite-formal forms with everybody and call it a day. I quickly learned the hard way that if you use the most polite form of ‘Hello’ (Annyeong hasimnikka) when greeting a child, they will immediately assume you’re a moron. For the entire duration of my first field season in Korea, the neighbourhood children basically considered me to be a female Simple Jack.

2 As far as I can tell, this is basically a job requirement for anyone working in a customer service call centre.

3 Indeed, the longstanding enmity between the English and the French is at least partially premised on their mutual insistence on each other’s rudeness – as the eighteenth-century image at the beginning of the post illustrates.

4 And, of course, one’s individual experiences, along with the massive variability within cultures that can never be captured by crude typologies. This is how France managed to come out as simultaneously the rudest and the friendliest country in the world in this informal survey.

5 Tellingly, Canadians were extremely negative about Americans, whom they perceived as particularly selfish, close-minded, patriotic, impolite, unfriendly and aggressive; Americans were particularly negative about Brits, whom they perceived as unfriendly, patriotic, close-minded, lacking generosity and bound by tradition; while Australians were agnostic on who had the most negative traits: Brits or Americans.

6 On the face of it, the consensus on the lack of British generosity seems a bit odd, because stinginess is not the first attribute that springs to mind when I think of Brits.* But it’s probably explained by the fact that the participants in the study came from former British colonies whose relationship with their former colonial master was primarily extractive (Australia, Botswana, Canada, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, the United States, Zambia and Zimbabwe). In a strange oversight, there were no British participants in the survey, so we only learn about external stereotypes regarding British people, rather than their view of themselves and, indeed, everyone else, although I imagine I can predict pretty well how they would characterise Australians (my prediction is that British stereotypes about Australians would echo the stereotypes Australians hold about themselves).

*Well, Scots, maybe.

7 Even ‘cunt’ can be a term of deep affection, but that simply doesn’t hold for ‘Where the bloody hell are you?’* I, for one, primarily use it when texting my husband – except when I accidentally Whatsapp the same message to friends due to my lack of skill with a mobile phone, which inevitably leads to confused emojis in response. Thankfully, I have tolerant friends.

*This topic is discussed at length in my book Silent but Deadly: The Underlying Cultural Patterns of Everyday Behaviour** in the chapter titled ‘You Can’t Say C*nt in Canada’.

**Wait, did you think I was going to stray from form and not mention my book?

8 Interestingly, Wikipedia indicates that the ad was banned in the UK on the grounds that the use of the word ‘bloody’ was offensive, and in Canada on the grounds that it was promoting alcohol consumption. As a former and current resident of both countries, I can attest to the fact that these are the most stereotypically British and Canadian responses imaginable. Notably, it ran in the USA without any major public outcry.

9 Another illustration of the same phenomenon can be found in the efforts of Japanese fans at the last World Cup to clean the stadium after matches. Framed in media coverage as an illustration of Japanese ‘good manners’ and ‘politeness’, an act undertaken as a matter of course in Japan took on self-consciously new meanings when performed on the global stage. As the sociologist Scott North has observed on BBC News, ‘cleaning up at events like the World Cup is a way Japanese fans demonstrate pride in their way of life and share it with the rest of us’.

10 Although not to be outdone, the Northern Territory’s unofficial slogan has long been ‘CU in the NT’.

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