Apr 282010

Not all of South America has a positive politeness style. Apparently Peruvians tend to favour negative politeness, as do Columbians. This example comes via a friend of a friend. (Thanks Sabrina)

An English speaking couple were standing at a bus stop in Columbia when they were approached by a guy making a request. The English girl spoke some Spanish and from the guy’s demeanour and what he seemed to be saying, she thought he was asking the time. Her boyfriend was bilingual and understood his intent. ‘He’s mugging us’, he explained. ‘He wants our money.’

Roughly translated, the guy had said:

‘I hate to bother you, but would you please give me all of your money because if you don’t, I will have to harm you. Thank you ever so much for your cooperation.’

Wow, now that’s framing things very gently indeed!

Some other posts related to this:   Politeness    Whimpish Imperatives    Impositions    Polite modals
 Posted by at 11:25 am
Apr 022010

Fellow blogger Sputnik made me chuckle when he stopped by the other day and mentioned it was minus 40 in Siberia, so ‘a bit nippy’. Why yes, that might make someone want to pop on another bar of their electric heater.

Understatement is harder to come by in America than the UK and I confess I’m missing it a bit. There’s plenty of sarcasm here – in the BrE sense. (Very briefly, BrE = the opposite of what you mean, AmE = nasty or unkind – see here and here for more on that difference)

But understatement is in short supply in America, or maybe I’m just used to getting large doses. The anthropologist Kate Fox says:

“The English are rightly renowned for their use of understatement, not because we invented it or because we do it better than anyone else, but because we do it so much. (Well maybe we do it a little bit better – if only because we get so much practice at it.)”

From: Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour

Kate Fox also has some lovely examples that I’ve turned into a puzzle, so you can test your understatement skills by matching them up to her English descriptions. (Ever the teacher, eh? Answers at the bottom)

1 A debilitating and painful chronic illness a Not very clever
2 A truly horrific experience b Not very friendly
3 A sight of breathtaking beauty c A bit of a nuisance
4 An outstanding performance or achievement d Well, not exactly what I would have chosen
5 An act of abominable cruelty e Nice
6 An unforgivably stupid misjudgment f A bit too hot for my taste
7 The Sahara desert g Quite pretty
8 Any exceptionally delightful object, person or event h Not bad

So why all this understatement in BrE? Is it part of a stiff upper lip thing, I wonder. There was a neat post that did its round of the internet after the horrific London bombings a few years ago that expressed that sentiment rather neatly:

“The British are feeling the pinch in relation to recent terrorist bombings and threats to destroy nightclubs and airports, and therefore have raised their security level from ‘Miffed’ to ‘Peeved.’ Soon, though, security levels may be raised yet again to ‘Irritated’ or even ‘A Bit Cross.’ Brits have not been ‘A Bit Cross’ since the Blitz in 1940 when tea supplies all but ran out.”

Gosh, we don’t make it easy for other folks to take us seriously, do we?  Does anyone have more examples to share?

Answers: 1.c,  2.d,  3.g,  4.h, 5.b,  6.a,  7.f,  8.e

Thanks for the inspiration Sputnik

 Posted by at 5:43 am
Jan 112010

Lahic, Azerbaijan by indigoprime.

Many thanks to Andy Hockley for sharing this lovely story:

I was once told by someone from one of the Baltic States (sadly I can’t remember which one), that it’s necessary in that culture to turn something down 3 times, and on the 4th go accept it. I probed into this as it sounded fascinating, and it appears that this number is fixed and you really really have to accept on the 4th go. So in fact it seemed to me that it was all an elaborate game with an unchanging outcome, but she assured me that it did work in practice. I still don’t really know how.

Fascinating indeed. I read somewhere about some Americans who had someone from Azerbaijan staying with them. Their guest seemed to settle in OK and she was very pleasant until it came to meal times. Whenever they offered her food or drink, she refused and they were getting worried. Did she not like their cooking or was it their company?

They later discovered that in Azerbaijan it’s customary practice to refuse an offer the first time it’s made. It’ll get repeated and you can accept it politely later. I’m not sure whether it was on a specific third or fourth time or just thereabouts, but clearly it’s a habit Azerbaijanis will want to lose fast when they’re travelling, or they’ll get very hungry.

I wanted to include the incident in a book, but finding an Azerbaijani accent was a bit of a challenge for the audio recording crew. A bit of invesitgation revealled similar things can happen in  parts of China, but it seems to be associated with an older generation. And I gather similar things can happen in Iran too where it’s part of a broader system of T’aarof. But again, it’s disappearing with younger generations.

So if anyone knows of countries where this system is alive and well, please share. And I wonder, do you think younger generations in anglo English cultures might be getting more direct as well?

 Posted by at 5:59 pm
Dec 142009

Maa at her desk by ritwikdey.

If I call a colleague in the UK, I’d expect to be greeted with something like ‘Hi Vicki, how are you?’ And it’s much the same in the US. I’d expect a ‘How are you doing?’ and, sure, time is money, so I wouldn’t be thrown off guard by a hard pressed ‘Wazzup?’. In fact I’ve often felt ‘Wazzup?’ had a certain sort ‘down to business’ charm about it.

In Japan folks said ‘Moshi moshi’. In the two years I lived there I had no idea what it meant, but Marisa  Neal and @sugarjo have suggested thinking of it as a handshake.

But I’ve just learnt a new one. Apparently if I call a colleague in India, they would likely greet me with ‘Tell me’. Not ‘Tell me what’s new in your world’ or ‘Tell me why you’re calling’, though clearly that’s the implication. Just a simple ‘Tell me’. And the missing object is intriguing. To my British ear it’s like there’s so little time they can’t even finish the sentence. And wow – they’ve managed to hone it down to really time efficient communication.

I learnt this at another blog, and here’s an extract:

We had an American employee in Infosys who started using ‘Tell me’ in his phone conversations. I asked him why. He said that he heard the phrase a lot when he called his Indian colleagues, so he was getting used to it. Plus it was perfectly understood. When you say ‘Tell me’ it is understood that you want the caller to start talking about what he called you for. No ambiguity there.

I’m not convinced that ambiguity is a bad thing at all, but nevertheless, I think I might be inclined to say ‘Tell me’ if I were that Infosys employee. Would you? And if so, what would be your motives?

 Posted by at 8:37 am
Oct 222009

Many thanks to Sabrina and Chris for their lovely observations of how we say goodbye. They have reminded me of something curious. We have an expression in British English which doesn’t seem to exist in ‘merican: ‘saying our goodbyes’ (plural).

Mime waving bye bye by Hanumann.

In ‘merican it would be ‘saying goodbye’ and of course we can say that in BrE too. But saying our goodbyes  is an apt description of the long drawn out process I’d expect in BrE when we’re bidding farewell. We tend to fidget around a bit and mutter things like ‘Is that the time?’, ‘Really should be going…’ ‘Well, anyway…’  So we teeter on the brink for ages and then, just when we’re on the point of getting out the door, someone will say something that means going back to the beginning and starting over again. And as Sabrina points out, from an American point of view, it seems like we don’t have handy phrases like, ‘It’s been nice talking to you’ and ‘Catch you later’.

So farewells can be a protracted process in the UK, but I think it can happen a bit in ‘merican too – just not on the same scale. In fact a US sociolinguist, Nessa Wolfson, commented on it sometime back and when she was describing her very cool theory called ‘The Bulge’. She noticed that the speech behavior of middle class Americans varies depending on whether they are talking to people they are intimate with or strangers, or whether they are talking to one of the people in the middle ground. So a brief  ‘Give me a call’ or ‘Bye’ could be all we need to accomplish a parting from our best friend or the person who has just served us something in a shop. But the process takes longer with people we know a bit but not a lot. Here’s Nessa (and her article can be found here):

I call this theory the bulge, because of the way frequencies of certain types of speech behavior plot out on a diagram, with the two extreme showing very similar patterns as opposed to the middle section, which displays a characteristic bulge…we find again and again that the two extremes of social distance – minimum and maximum – seem to call forth very similar behavior, while relationships which are more toward the center show marked differences

So we behave in similar ways with people who are intimates and strangers – which prompts the question: what do they have in common? Well Nessa reckons it’s that it’s to do with the certainty and stability of the relationships. We know how things stand and what’s expected in our relationships with close friends and family members in much the same way as we do with strangers. It’s where things are changeable that we start saying things like, ‘We really must get together again soon’, or ‘Well, we really must be making a move… early start… err…’ . It’s because things are open to negotiation. As Nessa puts it:

The lengthy negotiations over future meeting time reassure both participants that even though they may not designate a definite time when they will see one another again, they both value the relationship enough to want it to continue.

So anyway folks… Er, must press on… Things to do… Hope it’s not too long before we… er…/ It’s been nice talking to you and catch you later.

 Posted by at 5:30 pm