Oct 202013


Many thanks to all the terrific, contributors who were able to come along to the webinar on Learning to speak ‘merican today.

Lots of great questions flew by in the chat and I’m going to try to address some of them here. Note to blog readers – it’s almost impossible to frame questions perfectly in webinar conditions so some of these questions could look like they don’t make  much sense if you weren’t there. I’m hoping you’ll be able to get the gist nevertheless.

Question 1. Marjorie Rosenberg, Austria: Do you think that British are less modest on social media? I read lots of posts where people talk about success in ways that I (as am American) find somewhat boastful.

For folks picking up  this conversation now, I haven’t checked with Margie but I’m 99% certain that her question is NOT about whether people from one culture are more modest than people from another.  Muddling personality traits with culture makes no sense and it would be impossible to measure even if we wanted to.

But many theorists would argue that there are universal politeness principles at work here.  Modesty is viewed as a virtue in all cultures and boastfulness is frowned on the world over.  (There’s lots that’s debateable about politeness theory – eg. see here. How practical and accurate can a theory that claims to explain human behaviour in universal terms ever be? Nevertheless, the Brown and Levinson model has endured for many decades now.)

This is a question about the face we present to the world. (See here for more on face.) How is the appearance of modesty achieved in different cultures? Also, modesty may be one perceived virtue, but it’s not the only one. There’s being friendly, being agreeable, not intruding or impinging on others, being open, being direct, being sensitive to the feelings of others, not criticizing, etc, etc? And what happens when these different virtues conflict and start competing with one another? Are they weighted differently across cultures?

So I think this question is also about how different politeness principles compete and commonly get resolved in different ways in different cultures. Specifically, how does the modesty principle seem to fare in British and American English?

It seems to compete with being agreeable when we’re responding to compliments in both cultures (and all cultures). If  someone compliments us and we agree with them, we could appear immodest. If they compliment us and we disagree, that could suggest we think they are stupid to think the way they do.

(Heads you lose, tails you lose! Responding to compliments is tricky the world over!)

Conversational research indicates Americans are likely to accord a heavier weighting  to appearing agreeable than Brits, who are likely to place more weight on appearing modest. Similar things seem to go on in situations like job interviews as well. (Karenne Sylvester wrote a funny guest post here about this.)

Margie you seem to have encountered situations where the opposite was the case. I can think of lots of individual Brits who seem to flout modesty maxims, but without more specifics about  context, it’s hard to comment. It’s quite possible (if not likely) that there would be cultural variations in how far we should go when blowing our own trumpet. I heard of a case here about students from an Asian (negative politeness culture) applying to an American university. Their applications and personal statements came over as  too boastful and over the top and they were rejected. But their previous applications had been rejected too because they were deemed  too modest.  They had tried to adapt but had over adjusted. Pitching things just right is hard.

OK – next questions tomorrow!


Another post on compliments: http://www.merican.vickihollett.com/compliments/

 Posted by at 3:58 am

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