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Politeness is in the eye of the culture

Written By: katie_k on November 29, 2007 4 Comments

Since we’ve been studying politeness in one of my classes, and how what is considered polite differs from one culture to the next, I thought I’d share an experience that demonstrated it. I spent the summer in Russia, which most definitely has a different culture. Certain things were easier to adapt to- for example, reading the metro signs (different alphabet, no English)- and others are so ingrained into our sub-conscious that we don’t even realize we have to adapt them. One of the simplest examples is raising your hand to say “thanks for stopping” to the driver of a car when you’re crossing the street. It doesn’t even involve English – it’s a hand signal so it seems like it would be “universal”. But, when one of the students did this while we were crossing the street, the driver had no clue what was meant – at first she looked puzzled and then she just laughed, imitating the gesture. So what was meant as politeness had absolutely no meaning for the Russian. And the student had done it without thinking, because in the US, it’s just what you do to acknowledge a car stopping for a pedestrian. Yet another automatic politeness is saying “excuse me” when you bump into someone. This means “извините” comes out automatically (it did to me!), but actually Russians don’t say this. If you get on the metro without bumping into someone, it’s amazing; it’s just considered a part of taking the metro, so there’s no reason to apologize if it happens. Anyhow, that’s a bit about my experiences. Have other people noticed this tendency to automatically be polite according to your own culture, even though the other culture may not have the same “rules”?

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4 Responses to “Politeness is in the eye of the culture”

  1. readingredhead on: 29 November 2007 at 2:57 pm

    I find that the first phrases I learn in any foreign language are “pardon me” / “excuse me” and “thank you.” They’re also the ones I use most frequently in foreign countries. I’ve never thought about whether the people in the cultures I encounter feel like such gestures of politeness are necessary — I’ve always just assumed that it was better to be too polite than to be thought rude.

    On a side note, I think the idea of interactions on the metro is an interesting microcosm for the interactions that occur in mass culture. How similar is the etiquette for riding the metro/underground/subway in different cultures? I’ve only used underground public transportation in the Bay Area, London, and Rome, and the experiences have all had distinct similarities.

  2. katie_k on: 30 November 2007 at 10:35 am

    I agree that it’s always better to be too polite – it just marks you as an outsider, but at least it’s in a positive way (instead of proving the “rude American” stereotype).

    As for the interactions on the metro – I’d never really thought about it, but I suppose there are several similarities no matter where you are. Though I had a bad experience with trying to buy metro tokens in St. Petersburg once, and because I was too polite, it aggravated the situation and took longer (the person didn’t want to give me correct change and, because I was polite, thought it would be easy to just not give it to me). That was kind of interesting.

  3. jaime_lambert on: 3 December 2007 at 6:30 am

    My family and I lived in the Suburbs of New York City until I was 16, when we moved to California. Even though these are two states in the same nation, I noticed many examples of the culture differences that you’d see from one country to another. I think that part of the reason that New Yorkers are “rude” is that the rest of the US has so many arbitrary politeness rituals. For example, on my first day of high school in California- I must have shouldered into 20 other students on my way to class. I didn’t think anything about it, because my old school had narrow hallways and there was no way to walk from room to room without being physically stuck to the person next to you. I found out later in the first week that people had been talking about my impoliteness. I’m still not friends with those people who I bumped into, although I’m pretty sure now that I know who they are. The politeness cues in CA don’t mean anything to people from New York. They should post signs around schools, or hold an induction ceremony where you learn that kind of stuff! It’s very difficult to keep up with, and very embarrasing!

  4. katie_k on: 4 December 2007 at 10:34 am

    Yeah, it’s one of those things that people take for granted, and so they don’t consider how hard it is to adapt. The difference between different states is interesting – I wonder if there’s been an interstate study of politeness variation?

    On an induction ceremony – someone once told me that it should be mandatory to teach linguistics in K-12, first just to learn about language and understand its basic components (making it easier to understand grammar lessons, etc.), but then part of that course should be pragmatics/studying how cultures (especially one’s own) approach interpersonal communication. It at least would make people more aware of the variation that exists.

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