Anda di halaman 1dari 23

Running head: A MULTICULTURAL EXPLORATION OF IMPOLITENESS

A Multicultural Exploration of Impoliteness


Krista M. Boddy
Colorado State University

A MULTICULTURAL EXPLORATION OF IMPOLITENESS


Abstract
This research paper addresses the topic of impoliteness around the world. Such pragmatic issues
like politeness are relevant in the multicultural sphere of an ESL classroom. It is important to
recognize that behavior of instructors and students can be perceived as impolite or rude. This
study analyzes a multitude of cultures and how they perceive impolite behavior. The research
evaluates features of impoliteness in the United States, Israel, Japan, Thailand, Argentina,
Uruguay, Columbia, Venezuela, Mexico, Panama, Nigeria, Turkey, Jamaica, Suriname, and St.
Vincent and compares them with politeness theories. The cultures presented here show examples
of impolite behaviors relating to collectivism, social norms, conformity norms, habitual norms,
moral order, social obligations, and taboos. Some themes in the report show aspects of positive
and negative face, face-threatening acts (FTAs), collectivism, power relations, ranking of
hierarchy, honorification, social taboos, etc. This cross-cultural review of impoliteness can be
used in bridging the gaps of misunderstandings between western cultures and non-western
cultures.
Keywords: impoliteness, cross-cultural, negative face, positive face, face-threatening acts

A MULTICULTURAL EXPLORATION OF IMPOLITENESS


A Multicultural Exploration of Impoliteness

Impoliteness is a significant issue in the diverse world of teaching English as a second


language. The relevance of cultural behavior is highlighted in a multiethnic classroom such as
mine. As an ESL instructor, it is important for me to know how my behavior, and the behavior of
other students, can be perceived as impolite or rude. One of my goals in teaching ESL is to have
a respectful and positive learning environment. In this study, Ive examined how differing
cultures perceive impolite behavior. I hope to incorporate this valuable knowledge into my
teaching methods.
Culpeper (2011) insists that, there is no commonly accepted definition of impoliteness
(p. 19). He summarizes many proposed definitions from pragmatists, including: rudeness, facethreatening acts (FTA), intentionally face attacking, deliberate aggression, communicative
aggression, and social harm which may involve insults, reproaches, sarcasm, etc. (p. 19-20).
Culpeper highlights two commonalities taken from these definitions of impoliteness. These are
the notions of face attack and intentionality. Brown & Levinson (1978) summarize the
notion of face as something that is emotionally invested, and that can be lost, maintained, or
enhanced, and must be constantly attended to in interaction (p. 66). The authors describe two
aspects of face: positive face: the positive consistent self-image or personality (crucially
including the desire that this self-image be appreciated and approved of) claimed by interactants
and negative face: the basic claim to territories, personal preserves, rights to non-distraction
i.e. to freedom of action and freedom from imposition (p. 67). Culpeper compares these notions
to Spencer-Oateys (2002) three more defined types of face: quality face (qualities that
individuals value in themselves), social identity face (an individuals value within a social

A MULTICULTURAL EXPLORATION OF IMPOLITENESS


group), and relational face (ones value in the context of personal friendships, family members,
co-workers, teachers, etc.) (Culpeper, 2011, p. 28-30).
Culpeper (2011) maintains the fact that non-western notions of face are often left out of
the pragmatic dialog regarding politeness and impoliteness (p. 21). He states, Politeness
researchers have argued that B&Ls (Brown & Levinsons) emphasis on the individual is a
reflection of Anglo-Saxon culture, and not at all a universal feature (p. 26). He further clarifies
the vast differences between individualist cultures and collectivist cultures in their social and
relational identities (p. 26). Collectivist cultures value the group over an individual, whereas
individualist cultures value the opposite.
In the following pages, Ive evaluated numerous cultures with an emphasis on their
features of impoliteness and have compared their characteristics to politeness theories. The
nations described below include the United States, Israel, Japan, Thailand, Argentina, Uruguay,
Columbia, Venezuela, Mexico, Panama, Nigeria, Turkey, Jamaica, Suriname, and St. Vincent.
Each culture presents illuminating examples of impolite behaviors relating to several elements
including: collectivism, social norms, conformity norms, habitual norms, moral order, social
obligations, and taboos. This cross-cultural review of impoliteness is fascinating and useful in
bridging the gaps of misunderstandings between western cultures and non-western cultures alike.
Impoliteness in Argentinean Spanish
Alba-Juez (2007) analyses the language behind the traditional Tango dance, specifically
the relationships between the characters. This form of song and dance is taken from the 1920s
Rio de la Plata culture of Argentina. The author uses Brown and Levinsons (1978) term model
person to describe the rational agent, typically played by an arrogant, sexist male who

A MULTICULTURAL EXPLORATION OF IMPOLITENESS


overestimates himself, and who performs face-threatening acts (Alba-Juez, 2007, p. 42). This
agent acts aggressively and impulsively to get what he wants. When the agent addresses a
woman, the author claims, he often reveals a negative evaluation of her positive face by using
reproach, criticisms, insults, complaints, and so forth (Alba-Juez, 2007, p. 42). A sample lyric
from the song, Pinta Brava, remarks, Dont you realize, you, poor stupid woman, that your old
fox-skin, balder than Alvear, gives you away? (p. 42). Alba-Juez (2007) remarks on permanent
impoliteness on the part of males toward women, noting there are few occasions in which a
woman addresses a man (p. 42). The author explains that the lyrics, emotion, and movements of
Tango generally expresses a negative attitude toward women, who are to be insulted and treated
with impoliteness (p. 42). This social force exposes the power inequality between male and
female relationships in Argentina. Holmes (1995) recognizes that Mens greater social power
allows them to define and control situations (p. 7-8). The author further notes that traditionally
those who are powerless are expected to be polite. Such disparate power relationships are
common across cultures, as we shall discover.
A further insight into Argentinean Spanish speaking culture involves the frequent
practice of name calling and pseudo-insults in invitations, which is used to strengthen bonds
between friends. Garcia (2007) informs us that in close relationships, Argentineans can often be
heard uttering insults in a loving or positive situation. The use of four-letter words sends out
the message that the speaker feels comfortable with his/her interlocutor and that they trust one
another enough to be able to use these words with a positive meaning (p. 295). So rather than
isolating a friend with crude language and verbal abuse, this feature brings friends closer,
enhancing the friendship. This form of behavior between good friends reflects the banter
principle (as cited in Leech, 1983), which Culpeper (1996) restates as mock impoliteness and is

A MULTICULTURAL EXPLORATION OF IMPOLITENESS


understood to be untrue. He further reiterates Leechs (1983) argument that banter reflects and
fosters social intimacy: the more intimate a relationship, the less necessary and important
politeness is (Culpeper, 1996, p. 352).
Impoliteness in Uruguayan Spanish
Alba-Juez (2007) cites a study done by Achugar (2002) consisting of 23 female opinions
about sexual/amorous compliments given by men in public places and the degree of
politeness/impoliteness they judge them. While the older (30 years and above) ladies considered
all the compliments to be polite, the younger than 30 group considered all the compliments as
impolite or as harassment (p. 53). Achugar (2002) explains that when a man gives an utterance,
typically of a sexual/amorous tone, the woman traditionally remains silent. The author claims
this exchange exhibits a culture of power inequality, in which the man (as speaker) has more
social power than the woman (as listener) who is expected to not respond. However, Achugar
(2002) notes a recent shift in the hierarchical system of Uruguayan culture, in that women are
increasingly being given more power in the public arena (p. 53-54).
Impoliteness in Columbian Spanish
Placencia (2007) cites a study by Fitch (1990/91), who investigated leave-taking in
Columbian Spanish with regard to social gatherings. She underlines a Columbian ideology she
calls connectedness, which relates to a culture that values the society over the individual. She
describes the process of leaving a social gathering as comprising of four slots: the statement of
ones desire or intention to leave; which the host/hostess questions; the leave-takers response;
and a further challenge by the host/hostess, as in the following example:
(Fitch, 1990/1991, p. 211)
6

A MULTICULTURAL EXPLORATION OF IMPOLITENESS


1 Guest: Im leaving.
2 Host: Youre leaving? Why?
3 Guest: The little card (wedding invitation) said very clearly that
(the reception would last) from 7 to 10 and now its 10:30.
4 Host 2: But now what
(Placencia, 2007, p. 75).
Though Fitch (1990/91) believes Brown and Levinson (1978) would consider the
host/hostesss behavior as face threatening, due to the directness of their challenges, she
recognizes that the guest is not taking it as confrontational. She explains that this exchange is a
traditional conversational routine in which a guest expects their host to object to their departure
(p. 75). This form of routine exemplifies Culpepers (2001) discussion of habits as social norms.
He notes that regular behaviors develop into expectations, those expectations give people a
sense of certainty, and it is this certainty that has value (p. 33). These types of behavioral
regularities overlap with social conventions, which are standards of behavior that are commonly
understood by members of a social group or culture (p. 35).
Impoliteness in Venezuelan Spanish
Bolvar (2003) examined impoliteness in Venezuelan political discourse and observed
President Hugo Chvezs discourse as using very aggressive language. She noticed the use of
strategies expressing dominance, resistance, opposition, and protest (as cited by Garcia, 2007, p.
99). Bolvar (2003) asserts that Chvezs use of verbal impoliteness greatly influenced his claim
to presidency in 1999, but his offensive language turned more into a negative and vulgar
discourse (p. 99). Bolvar (2003) maintains that such political discourse leads to violence, and
such ideological verbal fights are part of creating national and cultural identities (p. 100).
7

A MULTICULTURAL EXPLORATION OF IMPOLITENESS


Culpeper (2011) explains, Impoliteness is a case where the balance of costs/benefits
often suggests an irrational choice is taken, particularly in the context of the emotions of hate,
anger or simply frustration (p. 32). He goes on stating that a speaker who is characterized as
impolite often damages his positive face. The examples above of Chvezs political discourse
reveals how a man who discredits another is just as guilty as the person he discredits. By
dishonoring anothers image, he shames his own (p. 32).
Impoliteness in Mexican Spanish
Curc (2007) expresses that politeness strategies in Mexican interactions emphasize
maintaining the positive face of the addressee. Studies regarding speech acts in Mexican culture
show that Mexicans have difficulty in expressing disagreement, complaining, refusing
invitations, and making offers, especially when it threatens the interlocutors positive face (p.
115). Data reveals that Mexicans tend to refuse indirectly, and respond with indecision,
uncertainty, hesitation, and ambiguity. Individuals interviewed responded that direct refusals
were too difficult to make, as they felt they had to justify reasons for refusal (p. 116). An
example of this is when a Mexican receives an invitation, they seem to leave open the possibility
of acceptance, even if they know they will not attend. Curc (2007) claims this example shows
their need to show concern for the others positive face (p. 116).
Schrader-Kniffki (2007) has researched the aspect of silence in comparing the urban
Oaxaca culture with the rural, Amerindian Zapotec culture. The author states that often in the
large city of Oaxaca, silence from indigenous people in the setting of Mexican Spanish-speaking
society is perceived as either incompetence in Spanish or noncompliance. She further explains
that in the urban Spanish-speaking culture of the city of Oaxaca, passing by someone in silence
would be thought of as normal behavior, whereas in the rural Zapotec culture, passing by
8

A MULTICULTURAL EXPLORATION OF IMPOLITENESS


someone in silence is interpreted as disrespectful and impolite (p. 314). The author notes Brown
and Levinsons (1978) concept of negative politeness in reference to silence between
strangers, in that it is how people keep social distance (p. 315).
Schrader-Kniffki (2007) next identifies the connection of silence with taboo. She
distinguishes the opposing views of how Western European cultures treat talk of death and the
dead as extremely taboo, whereas in Mexican societies, such talk is normal and part of daily life
(p. 316). In Mexican folk-belief, the living and the dead exist side-by-side, and the dead are often
spoken about and spoken to. The author points out the celebration of All Souls Day as a primary
example, in which people go to the cemetery to communicate with the deceased. Mexican
students have reported to me personally that Americans are sometimes offended by impolite
Mexican celebrations at cemeteries. Mexicans celebrate with singing, playing music, dancing,
and eating in the presence of their dead, while Americans visiting their dearly departed prefer
silence, reverence, and solemnness.
Silence with regard to meal times in both Zapotec and Oaxacan societies have very
distinct meanings in relation to impoliteness. Schrader-Kniffki (2007) maintains this point in the
following statement:
In Oaxacan Spanish-speaking society, a meal in which many persons participate
counts as an occasion per se to meet, to talk, and to exchange ideas and news. Thus,
a meal is accompanied by talking and not by silence. In the Spanish-speaking
context, silence during a meal would express impoliteness and hostility. On the
contrary, in the Zapotec society, there is normally silence during the mealThese
differing conventions of speech and silence might point to culturally different
concepts of a meal. Whereas in the Spanish-speaking society, it is the social event
9

A MULTICULTURAL EXPLORATION OF IMPOLITENESS


that is the center of the meal, in the Zapotec society, it is the aspect of nutrition
provided by nature that makes eating a silent, and almost religious, act (p. 317).
A further example of the differences regarding the use of silence in both cultures is that in
Oaxaca Spanish-speaking society, complements, showing appreciation to the cook, and
discussing the quality of the meal is considered polite. Otherwise in remaining silent, one would
be considered impolite and ungrateful. However, in Zapotec society, people avoid talking about
the meal and remain silent, due to the focus being on the nourishment instead of quality. Not
surprisingly, when Spanish-speaking visitors are invited to a Zapotec meal, they typically violate
the use of silence, therefore coming off as impolite when praising the quality of the meal. The
Zapotecans respond with gestures of refusal, embarrassment, or looking away (p. 317-318). Such
social conventions are commonly understood by Zapotecan society, but misunderstood by
Spanish-speaking outsiders. In collective cultures like the Zapotecan, the conformity norm of
silence at mealtimes is observed regardless of the situation, whereas more individualist cultures
like Oaxaca Spanish-speaking society observe their cultures social norms and habits of thanking
and praising the meal and the individuals who prepared it.
Impoliteness in Panamanian Creole
Snow (2005) investigated the use of vulgar language as a strategy of politeness on the
Panamanian island Bastimentos. His recordings of 30 hours of dialog between English Creole
speakers reveals a fascinating phenomenon of exclamations of foul language in order to function
as face-saving (in outcries of astonishment) or face-threatening acts (in outcries of disbelief and
disgust). The author explains that such obscenities are not viewed as impolite by participants, but
as the opposite. Snow (2005) refers to Brown and Levinsons (1978) ideas about face in relation
to Bastimentos culture. Often when a storyteller is speaking, they want to talk unimpeded
10

A MULTICULTURAL EXPLORATION OF IMPOLITENESS


(negative face) with the hope of being approved of by his peers (positive face) (p. 28). Positive
assessments from an audience, which consist of foul language in this case, are used to signal
astonishment, excitement, and approval of a storytellers tale. These expletives function as both
approving (positive face) of the story and not hindering (negative face) the storytellers desire to
relay the story. When a listener negatively evaluates the story by stating disbelief, they are
antagonizing or threatening the storytellers positive face and/or his character (p. 28). In the
following, Ive summarized the example from Snows (2005) observation. The storyteller
describes a very tall and large man to his audience of listeners. He claims the man is seven feet
tall and weighs 500 lbs. While he explains the details of this large mans massive appetite and
dining experience, the listeners interject with constant mi ras or mi fok (i.e. f**k mes) in
showing their approval, interest and belief in the tale (p. 30). If the listeners had instead used yu
fok or yu ras (which are expletives of disbelief and disgust (i.e. F**k yous) in their
responses, the speaker would have lost face and been forced by convention to cease telling the
story. Once this happens, the floor is given to a new storyteller (p. 34).
Impoliteness in Nigeria, Turkey and the USA
In a similar vein, Faraclas, Gonzalez, Medina and Villanueva Reyes (2005) analyzed
speech acts involving ritualized formulaic verbal abuse in southeastern Nigeria. The community
of Port Harcourt, speaks Nigerian Pidgin (NP), a creolized form of English, and often engage in
insult battles, known as Wording by locals. The authors studied these verbal battles, especially
among the youth of the city. A recorded example of Wording states, Your big belly is like a
white mans buttocks (p. 46). Faraclas et al. (2005) compare this type of ritualized insult
exchange with similar exchanges by young African American Vernacular English (AAVE)
speakers known as the dozens, sounding, signifying, crackin on the kitchen folks, mama
11

A MULTICULTURAL EXPLORATION OF IMPOLITENESS


talk, soundin on the moms, getting on moms, joining, putting the man on the wheel, giving the
man the spoke, and playing (p. 47). Faraclas et al. (2005) use the term Sounding in their study
to refer to a well-organized speech event which occurs with great frequency in the verbal
interaction of black adolescentsand occupies long stretches of their time (p. 47). These
exchanges can involve insulting the addressee or the addressees relatives.
Researchers have discovered similar ritualized insult exchanges in other regions. These
include: the Caribbean, Trinidad, South and East Africa, Papua New Guinea, and the Arctic (p.
47). Faraclas et al. (2005) note this phenomenon seems mostly prevalent in black communities
and tends not to be a common speech event for white groups (p. 47). One of the authors goals
was to ascertain whether the similarities between AAVE Sounding and NP Wording are just
coincidental or if there is a universal phenomenon regarding this type of discourse. The authors
cite one connection between the two cultures in that most of the slaves taken from Africa and
brought to the Americas came from this region where Nigerian Pidgin is spoken (p. 47). To
prove this hypothesis true or false, the authors compared their recorded data to dialogs taken
from Dundes et al. (1972) study of Turkish adolescent verbal attacks, known as Dueling
(p. 47-48). It was determined that Turkish Dueling has many differences from NP Wording and
AAVE Sounding. These are summarized in the following. The primary aim in NP Wording and
AAVE Sounding is clever use of syntax to create well-formed insults, whereas the aim in
Turkish Dueling is to use phonology (i.e., meter and rhyme) successfully. The theme of insults in
NP Wording and AAVE Sounding is broad, covering a variety of subjects, whereas Turkish
Dueling deals entirely with sexual domination of one player over another. Another divergence of
NP Wording and AAVE Sounding with Turkish Dueling is how insults are interpreted. The
former two groups regard insults as untrue and typically dont take them personally, but the latter

12

A MULTICULTURAL EXPLORATION OF IMPOLITENESS


group tries to dominate the opponent by forcing them into a female, passive role, which is
culturally shameful and demeaning. A final dissimilarity between NP Wording and AAVE
Sounding with Turkish Dueling, is that the two former groups produce insults for public
entertainment and are performed by children to adults of both genders, whereas the Turkish
groups are private in their discourse and involve only adolescent males (p. 48). The authors
conclude that their original hypothesis about the universality of the insult discourse may not be
widespread, but that the overall parallels between the NP and AAVE styles of Wording and
Sounding from both communities are connected historically and culturally in sharing West
African roots (p. 49).
Culpeper (1996) expounds this notion of Sounding as relating to Leechs (1983)
banter principle in which the insults are part of a kind of language game that reinforces ingroup solidarity (p. 353). He reiterates that the insults are understood to be untrue and are
created on the basis of shared knowledge within the group (p. 353).
Impoliteness in Jamaica and the Caribbean
In a study on impoliteness in African Diaspora cultures, Figueroa (2005) describes an
oral gesture used in Jamaica and throughout the Caribbean known as Kiss teeth, suck-teeth,
hiss-teeth, chups, cho, chaw and chut. She explains:
Kiss Teeth is performed by an aggressive airstream captured in an air and saliva
pocket created in the mouth through varying configurations of velar, dental and lip
closures, and dental configurations such as pouting or protruding lips, lip slightly
opened to one side, lips flat or compressed against upper teeth. Duration, pitch,

13

A MULTICULTURAL EXPLORATION OF IMPOLITENESS


continuity (steady versus staccato, for example), and intensity vary based on
tongue position, lip tension, ability to hold ones breath, and so forth (p. 74-75).
Figueroa (2005) asserts that the gesture is used to express both negative and positive
affect, and also used to indicate moral positioning. However, typically, kissing ones teeth at
someone else is considered a rude, face threatening, or confrontational gesture (p. 75). The
author informs that lexographers believe Kiss Teeth is used to convey disagreement, disdain,
disgust, contempt, annoyance, displeasure, ill-nature, disrespect, insult, scorn, impatience,
resentment, a sense of being wronged, self-pity, and frustration (p. 78). It is most often an act of
defiance, rebellion, and insubordination. Figueroa (2005) asserts the use of Kiss Teeth is an act
of rejecting powerlessness by seemingly powerless individuals, and a way to restore face through
remediation. In reference to Brown and Levinsons (1978) definitions of face, the author claims
that Kiss Teeth is remediation in both directions, as it is an embrace of negative face (the desire
for freedom) and of positive face (the desire for dignity) (p. 79).
Kiss Teeth meaning is dependent upon uptake, as in the following example from the
authors personal experience. Figueroa (2005) was passing through a guard post while exiting
her brothers University in Jamaica, when she politely told the guard on duty Good Evening.
To which the guard replied the same, but immediately kissed her teeth, making the author
curious about the deed. Figueroa (2005) makes assumptions about the meaning behind the action
from the guard, stating that the guard may have dismissed her and reversed her act of greeting
due to feeling coerced in the politeness ritual. She also ponders that the guard may have been
bored or tired and it was unrelated (p.79-80).
Figueroa (2005) explains that Kiss Teeth is often used in public settings to rebuke,
censor, or punish an offender (p. 87). The use of the gesture to control moral order in a society
14

A MULTICULTURAL EXPLORATION OF IMPOLITENESS


is interesting. Culpeper (2011) describes how moral standards come from internalized social
norms. Ideas of moral intentions, moral emotions, and moral behaviors are formed by broader
belief systems or ideologies concerning social organization (p. 38).
Mhleisen (2005) investigated forms of address in relationship to impoliteness in the
Caribbean context. She describes how personal names are closely tied to a persons identity. For
example, the loss of a slaves original name when brought to the New World changed the slaves
identity through renaming them (p. 198). One observation the author made in researching forms
of address in Suriname involves the avoidance of personal names, as these are secret and tied
with superstitions if used. Mhleisen (2005) explains, while personal names highlight the
addressees individuality, title address attends to the addressees positional identity, his or her
social role and status in a given situation (p. 198). Researchers maintain that name avoidance is
primarily used out of respect for privacy, and to do otherwise would show hostile intent. In St.
Vincent, calling out the real name of an individual is perceived as rude, disrespectful or even
cursing (p. 199). Mhleisens (2005) concept of positional identity compares to SpencerOateys (2002) notion of social identity face in which one emphasizes their value in relation to
their specific role in a community or social group.
Impoliteness in Israel
Blum-Kulka (1992) conducted interviews with native-born and immigrant Jewish
families to examine behaviors and language usage in relationship to impoliteness. The author
notes a divergence of behavior between the public and private spheres of life. Generalizations of
impolite behavior in the public sphere by Israelis include: loud voices, bad language, cutting in
lines, pushing, and shoving (p. 259). Blum-Kulka (1992) maintains that there is no Israeli
pattern of politeness (p. 259). The author claims that with close friends and family, many
15

A MULTICULTURAL EXPLORATION OF IMPOLITENESS


Israelis find politeness as irrelevant (p. 259). The idea is that in intimate relationships (e.g.,
marriage), politeness doesnt matter as it tends to be connected to formality. Israelis perceive
consideration (e.g., praises of a meal, showing one that you love them) as more important than
politeness, and they strive to achieve it. The Hebrew word lefargen, is a cultural term expressing
to indulge, to support, and not to begrudge which goes further than simple public sphere
politeness (Blum-Kulka, 1992, p. 260).
The interview data from Blum-Kulkas (1992) study, reveal that Israelis are extremely
direct in speech. The reason for this is justified by the fact that direct speech leads to clarity in
being understood. When participants compared speakers from other cultures with their own, they
observed that other cultures speak more politely, but you cant understand what they mean,
often misinterpreting whether the answer was a yes or no (p. 264).
Interestingly, Israelis believe Americans often show gratitude and appreciation in the
extreme. One example involved an American friend who profusely thanked her host for letting
her stay in her friends home. The Israeli would have just said a one-time thank you, whereas
the American thanked her friend multiple times (p. 266).
One way in which Israelis attack ones positive face is in answering honestly to questions
like, How do you like my new hair-cut?(p. 265). When one respondent didnt like her friends
new hair-cut, she responded sincerely, yet tactfully in her opinion. This would be called straight
talk in English, and is known as dugriyut in Hebrew (p. 270). Israelis underline the importance
of sincerity and honesty in interpersonal relationships at the sacrifice of offending or hurting the
other. Some cultures would consider it very impolite to hurt the others feelings, even in
speaking the truth, as this is an attack on ones positive face.

16

A MULTICULTURAL EXPLORATION OF IMPOLITENESS


Impoliteness in Japan
Ide, Hill, Carnes, Ogino and Kawasaki (1992) conducted research in comparing
American and Japanese concepts on politeness and impoliteness. The study included a
questionnaire, which was written in both English and Japanese, and 501 American and Japanese
participants. The results of the study reflected a major difference in the way Americans and
Japanese people define the terms polite and friendly. American participants equated both
terms to mean closely the same thing, whereas Japanese participants recognized a sizable
difference between the two concepts, teineina (polite) and sitasigena (friendly) (p. 281-292).
For example, Americans often switch using first names and titles with last names with
interlocutors, while Japanese subjects use both forms of address quite separately (p. 291).
Coulmas (1992) describes a true story in 1982 involving the murder of a Japanese man by
his colleague, who was also Japanese. It seems the motive of the crime was based on one small
suffix -kun, which the deceased man added to his colleagues last name (Tanaka-kun). The
author explains that this suffix is used in Japanese among males who want to refer to inferior
males. The use of the suffix infuriated Mr. Tanaka enough to bash the head of his colleague
against a concrete wall, causing fatal injuries (p. 299). This is an extreme example of wrong term
address in Japanese culture, which highlights the significance of linguistic etiquette (known as
honorific language) in Japanese.
According to Coulmas (1992), honorific speech is complex and not easy to learn, as he
states, An opinion poll of the Japanese national broadcasting station NHK reveals that as many
as 75% of the Japanese wish to improve their command of the language (p. 302). Further,
honorific speech is encoded into the grammar and not simply added on to words. This explains

17

A MULTICULTURAL EXPLORATION OF IMPOLITENESS


the rise in guide books, speech clinics, and radio/TV programs to help people improve in their
honorific speech skills (p. 305).
Japanese culture uses honorific language to signify rank and hierarchy in social
relationships. People of low rank and women tend to use more honorifics, whereas those of high
rank use them less (p. 304). This elevation of polite speech in Japan underlines the value the
culture places on politeness. Coulmas (1992) indicates a functional shift in honorific speech
since the end of WWII, in the following, it can be said that the change involved a shift in
emphasis from using language to indicate ones position in the social hierarchy as well as that of
the addressee to using language as a means of being considerate and obliging towards the other
(p. 305). While the modern society of Japan has become democratic, its linguistic system
remains, exposing a feudal and stratified past.
Impoliteness in Thailand
In his study of Thai politeness, Kummer (1992) illustrates a rule of etiquette, the
higher the rank of a person the higher his/her head can be raised and the lower and more relaxed
the hands can be held (p. 326). He explains that Thais are always aware of their position in
comparison to that of their interlocutor as one is verbally restricted by the variables of sex, age,
kinship, education, and profession (p. 328). Thai society is very much hierarchical with the
King and Buddhist leadership at the top of the pyramid. Older people are to be favored, and
ranked above the youth (p. 328-329).
People from Western cultures often view the Thai strategy of avoiding negative replies as
rude or impolite. Take for example, a house-keeper who does not want to work for the household
anymore. Instead of directly speaking with their superior about their vacancy, the person

18

A MULTICULTURAL EXPLORATION OF IMPOLITENESS


pretends to have a sick relative in a distant town, asking to leave for a few days, but never returns
(p. 328). This exact incident has happened multiple times to friends of mine who operate an
orphanage in Thailand.
Conclusion
In this survey of diverse cultures, Ive studied specific characteristics and descriptions of
how other cultures interpret impoliteness. Common themes represented from this report exhibit
aspects of positive and negative face, face-threatening acts (FTAs), collectivism, power relations,
ranking of hierarchy, honorification, social taboos, and many other attributes. My goal in this
study was to showcase an assortment of impoliteness views from a multicultural perspective. In
discussing and analyzing linguistic conventions of impolite behavior, similar connections can be
discovered cross-culturally.
The implications of this research for classroom teaching are vast in providing background
knowledge and specific examples of impolite behaviors across cultures. Language instructors
living in their home country as well as abroad can utilize such information during interactions
with learners from culturally diverse backgrounds. The better informed a language instructor is
regarding the specific cultural norms, social taboos, and religious beliefs of their pupils, the
better the instruction will be received by the learners. In working in the field of language
instruction, one must be aware and culturally sensitive to behaviors exhibited by themselves and
other pupils in the classroom. What someone considers impolite may not always be obvious, but
cultural sensitivity is an integral part of working in a multiethnic classroom. This enlightening
research has made me more aware by providing examples of how diverse cultures perceive
impolite behavior. I will incorporate this valuable knowledge into my teaching methodology and
philosophy.
19

A MULTICULTURAL EXPLORATION OF IMPOLITENESS


References
Achugar, M. (2002). Piropos: Cambios en la valoracin del grado de cortesa de una prctica
discursive. In M. E. Placencia & D. Bravo (Eds.), Actos de habla y cortesa en espaol
(pp. 175-192). Munich: Lincom Europa.
Alba-Juez, L. (2007). An overview of politeness studies on Argentinian and Uruguayan Spanish.
In M. E. Placencia & C. Garcia (Eds.), Research on Politeness in the Spanish-speaking
world. (pp. 35-57). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., Publishers.
Blum-Kulka, S. (1992). The metapragmatics of politeness in Israeli society. In R.J. Watts, S. Ide,
& K. Ehrlich (Eds.), Politeness in language: Studies in its history, theory and practice.
(pp. 255-280). Berlin, Germany: Mouton de Gruyter.
Bolvar, A. (2003). La descortesa como estrategia poltica en la democracia venezolana. In D.
Bravo (Ed.), Actas del Primer Coloquio del Programa EDICE (pp. 213-226). Stockholm:
Stockholm University.
Brown, P. & Levinson, S. (1978) Universals in language usage: Politeness phenomena. In E.
Goody (Ed.), Questions and politeness (pp. 56-290). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge
University Press.
Coulmas, F. (1992). Linguistic etiquette in Japanese society. In R.J. Watts, S. Ide, & K. Ehrlich
(Eds.), Politeness in language: Studies in its history, theory and practice. (pp. 299-323).
Berlin, Germany: Mouton de Gruyter.
Culpeper, J. (1996). Towards and anatomy of impoliteness. Journal of Pragmatics, 25, 349-367.
Culpeper, J. (2011). Understanding impoliteness I: Face and social norms. In P. Drew, M.
Harness Goodwin, J. J. Gumperz, & D. Schiffrin (Eds.), Impoliteness; Using language to
cause offence (19-47). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

20

A MULTICULTURAL EXPLORATION OF IMPOLITENESS


Curc, C. (2007). Positive face, group face, and affiliation: An overview of politeness studies on
Mexican Spanish. In M. E. Placencia & C. Garcia (Eds.), Research on Politeness in the
Spanish-speaking world. (pp. 105-120). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates,
Inc., Publishers.
Dundes, A., Leach, J.W., & zk, B. (1972). The strategy of Turkish boys verbal dueling
rhymes. In J. Gumperz & D. H. Hymes (Eds.), Directions in sociolinguistics: The
ethnography of communication. (pp. 130-160). New York, NY: Holt, Rinehart and
Winston.
Faraclas, N., Gonzalez, L., Medina, M. & Villanueva Reyes, W. (2005). Ritualized insults and
the African diaspora: Sounding in African American vernacular English and wording in
Nigerian Pidgin. In S. Mhleisen, & B. Migge, (Eds.), Politeness and face in Caribbean
Creoles. (pp. 45-62). Amsterdam, Holland: John Benjamins Publishing Company.
Figueroa, E. (2005) Kiss teeth and negotiation of the public sphere. In S. Mhleisen, & B. Migge
(Eds.), Politeness and face in Caribbean Creoles. (pp. 73-93). Amsterdam, Holland: John
Benjamins Publishing Company.
Fitch, K. L. (1990/1991). A ritual for attempting leave-taking in Columbia. Research on
Language and Social Interaction, 24, 209-224.
Garca, C. (2007a). Politeness studies on Venezuelan and Cuban Spanish. In M. E. Placencia &
C. Garcia (Eds.), Research on Politeness in the Spanish-speaking world. (pp. 91-104).
Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., Publishers.
Garca, C. (2007b). Establishing and maintaining solidarity: A case study of Argentinean
invitations. In M. E. Placencia & C. Garcia (Eds.), Research on Politeness in the Spanish-

21

A MULTICULTURAL EXPLORATION OF IMPOLITENESS


speaking world. (pp. 261-300). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.,
Publishers.
Holmes, J. (1995). Women, Men and Politeness. New York, NY: Longman Publishing.
Ide, S., Hill, B., Carnes, Y.M., Ogino, T. & Kawasaki, A. (1992). The concept of politeness: An
empirical study of American English and Japanese. In R.J. Watts, S. Ide, & K. Ehrlich
(Eds.), Politeness in language: Studies in its history, theory and practice. (pp. 281-297).
Berlin, Germany: Mouton de Gruyter.
Kummer, M. (1992). Politeness in Thai. In R.J. Watts, S. Ide, & K. Ehrlich (Eds.), Politeness in
language: Studies in its history, theory and practice. (pp. 325-336). Berlin, Germany:
Mouton de Gruyter.
Leech, G. N. (1983). Principles of pragmatics. London: Longman Publishing.
Mhleisen, S. (2005). Forms of address in English-lexicon Creoles: The presentation of selves
and others in the Caribbean context. In S. Mhleisen & B. Migge (Eds.), Politeness and
face in Caribbean Creoles. (pp. 195-218). Amsterdam, Holland: John Benjamins
Publishing Company.
Placencia, M. E. (2007). Studies on politeness in Columbian, Ecuadorian, and Peruvian Spanish.
In M. E. Placencia & C. Garcia (Eds.), Research on Politeness in the Spanish-speaking
world. (pp. 59-89). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., Publishers.
Recuero, S. I. (2007). Politeness studies on Peninsular Spanish. In M. E. Placencia & C. Garcia
(Eds.), Research on Politeness in the Spanish-speaking world. (pp. 21-33). Mahwah, NJ:
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., Publishers.
Schrader-Kniffki, M. (2007). Silence and politeness in Spanish and Zapotec interactions
(Oaxaca, Mexico). In M. E. Placencia & C. Garcia (Eds.), Research on Politeness in the

22

A MULTICULTURAL EXPLORATION OF IMPOLITENESS


Spanish-speaking world. (pp. 305-332). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates,
Inc., Publishers.
Snow, P. (2005). The use of bad language as a politeness strategy in a Panamanian Creole
village. In S. Mhleisen & B. Migge (Eds.), Politeness and face in Caribbean Creoles.
(pp. 23-39). Amsterdam, Holland: John Benjamins Publishing Company.
Spencer-Oatey, H. (2002). Managing rapport in talk: Using rapport sensitive incidents to explore
the motivational concerns underlying the management of relations. Journal of
Pragmatics, 34 (5), 529 545.
Watts, R.J., Ide, S. & Ehrlich, K. (Eds.). (1992). Politeness in language: Studies in its history,
theory and practice. Berlin, Germany: Mouton de Gruyter.

23