Apr 202009
 

There are two contrasting aspects to politeness. On the one hand we want to gain the respect of others, and on the other hand, we want the ability to do whatever we want without other people impeding us. So politeness involves both awarding esteem (positive politeness) and not getting in anyone’s way (negative politeness).

AmE employs more positive politeness. Being considerate and courteous involves including people and showing approval with warmth and friendliness. The stereotype of the garrulous American who gives you a run-down of their entire life history within five minutes of meeting them is rooted in this. It’s just not polite to hold back. You’ve got to show solidarity, share and be open.

Meanwhile BrE employs more negative politeness. Being considerate and courteous involves not imposing or intruding on people. The stereotype of the aloof, standoffish and reserved Brit is rooted in this. It’s polite to leave people alone so they can go about their business without your getting in their way.

I’m using the terms ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ here in a technical sense. It’s not that American politeness is good and British politeness is bad. They’re just different, like electric currents can be termed positive or negative without being better or worse than one another. Both aspects of politeness are important in both cultures (and indeed all cultures). But we’re looking at a difference in weighting here.
I maintain that this difference is core to understanding how the UK and US came to be separated by a common language.

 Posted by at 7:44 am

  16 Responses to “Politeness”

  1. […] you how indebted to you I am, and how important you are to me.’ In short, another positive politeness strategy. (Americans – please put me right if I’m wrong about […]

  2. […] other posts related to this:   Politeness    Whimpish Imperatives    Impositions    Polite modals var a2a_config = a2a_config || […]

  3. […] our thoughts etc. that makes us seem unhelpful and aloof. I think differing US/UK styles of politeness are playing a large role. We’d rather appear standoffish than […]

  4. […] Artikel spricht über zwei Arten von Höflichkeit: negativ Höflichkeit und positiv Höflichkeit. (link) Negativ Höflichkeit ist etwa nicht lästig. Positiv Höflichkeit ist über Vergabe […]

  5. Seems like a healthy way to view the different forms of politeness. Would ‘active’ and ‘passive’ politeness sound/read more neutral than the positive – negative terms? Perhaps not to American ears/eyes?

    Rob

  6. Great to hear from you, Robert and thank you so much for stopping by.

    A seminal work in this field was by Brown and Levinson and they drew on Erving Goffman’s writings, where he had coined the terms ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ to talk about ‘face’. It would be easier if he hadn’t though, because they have the potential to confuse.
    I once gave a long talk about positive and negative politeness to an audience in the US, and only at the end did I realise they had been thinking I meant positive = good and negative = bad. Duh! Lesson learned and I know to explain that’s not the case now, but I agree, it would be nice if we weren’t stuck with these terms.

  7. […] blinkered? I hope not. Nevertheless, I do think the clip might illustrate something that relates to the different weightings placed on positive and negative politeness on each side of the pond. If you’re inclined to hesitate before you dismiss things, you probably have to accept more dross […]

  8. […] think it stems from politeness and positive face issues. As a Brit, I’m uncomfortable being addressed as ‘professor’ […]

  9. […] do it is very cool. Leave a lectern and mike in NYC and this is what happens: A lovely example of positive politeness at […]

  10. […] saying ‘thank you’ more. It’s tied up with the different weightings we give to positive and negative politeness. I wouldn’t like to ‘do a Gwyneth’ for example. She was torn apart by […]

  11. […] our thoughts etc. that makes us seem unhelpful and aloof. I think differing US/UK styles of politeness are playing a large role. We’d rather appear standoffish than […]

  12. […] other posts related to this:   Politeness    Whimpish Imperatives    Impositions    Polite modals  Posted by Vicki at 11:25 […]

  13. […] saying ‘thank you’ more. It’s tied up with the different weightings we give to positive and negative politeness. I wouldn’t like to ‘do a Gwyneth’ for example. She was torn apart by […]

  14. […] think it stems from politeness and positive face issues. As a Brit, I’m uncomfortable being addressed as ‘professor’ […]

  15. […]   Indirectness is an interesting feature of politeness (which I’ve written about elsewhere). Like most people, I don’t always say what I mean. So for example, I might say, ‘Do you […]

  16. […] this then becomes 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 […]

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