Language and Societies

ANT/LIN 5320 at Wayne State University

A contemporary cross-cultural study of politeness: The universal necessity of politeness in human interaction

A contemporary cross-cultural study of politeness: The universal necessity of politeness in human interaction

Sophocles Sapounas

This paper builds upon notions set forth by linguists and researchers such as Brown and Levinson, Goffman, and Lakoff, while cross-referencing with contemporary researchers such as Terkourafi, Sifianou, Ide, Fraser and Bargiela-Chiappini on the subject of politeness, in an attempt to prove the universality of this notion not in framework, but in necessity in today’s rapidly accelerated world. To these already existing researches I applied a new area of research that has been dubbed “Cultural Intelligence” which is a notion of all-around politeness that is aimed mostly towards business-oriented people due to business’ international scope.  I believe this can be applied to the everyday person due to the increasing connectivity with other people around the globe, via the World Wide Web. In essence, what is Politeness today, and why do we need it? In order to illustrate my point that politeness should be used not only towards people of the same culture, but towards every person one might encounter, I drew upon politeness research from three differing cultures: England/America, Greece, and Japan/China. With this, I attempt to prove that whether one is in the West, the near-West, or the East part of the world, politeness exists unconditionally but with different methods of expression. Future research should focus on how people can focus more on being respectful, and treating others as equals, instead of attempting to follow customs which tend to be broken due to cultural differences.

April 18, 2012 - Posted by | abstract


  1. One of the greatest challenges confronting politeness is posed by new communications media. Emoticons, for exmple, are socially bankrupt: a clear signal that the writer is cutting social corners (whether true or not becomes moot; the damage is done). “Polite” shares its root with “polish,” i.e., to go to the extra effort to make something shine. If you really want to impress (or frighten) someone, try closing a Tweet with “I have the honour, I trust, to remain, sir, your most obedient, loyal, and humble servant.” That’s 90 characters, about twice as many as the rest of the message. But what fun!

    Comment by Dan Harrison | April 23, 2012 | Reply

  2. Notions of politeness, civility, and the like often precisely run afoul of cultural misprision because what is polite in one setting may not be for other people, so the gesture of politeness you are attempting to establish cannot arise in any content or gesture itself, but must be located somewhere else–in, most likely, the attitude of respect one offers to another person. Not necessarily “liking” or respect in the “honoring” sense, but here’s the problem with that. To construe politeness as essentially an activity between two people (or two groups of people) on the one hand requires a mechanism to redress violations of politeness between those people but, more seriously, trivializes it. To use the notion of corporate personhood, how would I be polite to Coke and vice versa? If a government decides I am an undesirable, they simply annihilate me (one way or another)–all of the politeness in the world doesn’t help at that point. This advocacy for politeness toward everyone one meets is a partially desirable idea, but more precision is needed. In the United States, it has led to a culture of agreement 9also the culture of agreeing to disagree) that has served to avoid (and allow to be perpetuated) various social problems, rather than finding solutions to them. It might be undesirable, if one meets a hard-core racist, to simply murder him on the spot for being such a complete inhuman mess, but to be polite toward him in a way that leaves his active, committed racism unquestioned (on the one hand, and much more seriously) free still to roam around to the benefit of institutionalized racism everywhere is a consequence of the culture of agreement 9and the politeness it advocates) that I find socially undesirable. Something more than just politeness is needed.

    Comment by Snow Leopard | June 13, 2012 | Reply

  3. “Something more than just politeness is needed.” Could this something be recognizing the intrinsic dignity of every human being? Even the hard-core racist is deserving of a basic respect of the fact that he (or she) is a human. I need not be polite to him (or her), but I should respect the fact that he (or she) is a person.

    Comment by Danny B. | December 21, 2012 | Reply

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