Post No.: 0266
All cultures incorporate politeness but their norms – such as when, where and to what extent they are applied – can be very different. The context matters too – for instance, people are not expected to be quite so polite in an emergency or other urgent situation! There can of course also be differences between different individuals within a culture, but anyone who exhibits too much deviance from the present culture or context they’re in will likely be considered rude or strange.
Politeness changes or sets the social situation and involves taking into account the ‘face’ (as in respect) of the speaker and the ‘face’ of the recipient – where sometimes to serve the face of another person, one must threaten one’s own face. As an example, when non-royal people properly address members of royalty – if a non-royal person spoke to a member of royalty like they would to another non-royal person, they may attempt to preserve their own face (by not displaying their own lower relative status) but in doing so will threaten that member of royalty’s face instead.
If you’ve ever felt distaste when someone called you by your first name rather than by your title and surname when you didn’t invite them to, or felt awkward when someone you highly revered asked you to call them by their first name, then you innately feel somewhere inside of you a sense that hierarchy, authority and obedience matters as a moral principle and are important to consider when being polite.
There is a ‘positive face’ (you want to be appreciated by others, or you want your furry existence to be acknowledged and respected), and a ‘negative face’ (you don’t want others to hinder your actions, or you want to preserve your freedom to do whatever you like).
Suggesting to a guest during a visit to your house, “Go now” threatens that guest’s negative face (because he/she might not want to leave yet); but stating, “It’s getting late” threatens it less because it implies that the guest still has the freedom to choose whether to go yet or not, so is considered relatively more polite.
Saying, “It’s been great having you over tonight but…” can serve your guest’s positive face and is therefore polite (because his/her company has been appreciated); whereas saying, “I’m sure I’m being a horrible host to have to rush you away now but…” will lower your own positive face and also be polite.
Raising their positive face, lowering your positive face, and not threatening their negative face, can be combined in any way to be polite. For instance by saying, “It’s been great having you over tonight but it’s getting dark.” Or you could say nothing at all, which would lower your own negative face because it’ll impede on your own desire to go to bed!
Regarding different languages, there are a variety of cultural conventions across the world. The Japanese language, for instance, has almost rigid cultural rules regarding using the correct precise words depending on whom one is and whom one is speaking to, to be polite to the recipient and to in effect honour them and humble oneself. In other cultures and situations, to be overly polite to a friend makes one not feel like a friend because the relationship will feel too formal, as if they are more like a teacher or client than a friend. Post No.: 0261 noted that in some cultures, writing a gratitude letter to someone might be considered insulting, as if it’s implied that their acts were not the expected norm. So being polite is a complex thing and one is best off learning the cultural etiquette of another country before visiting it.
A culture where people don’t say, “Thanks” all of the time is not necessarily a sign of rudeness – it might in fact indicate higher standards because I guess we shouldn’t expect ‘applause and a medal’ for doing selfless things that should really be considered pretty routine in a civilised society. It’s sort of like we shouldn’t really boast on social media or expect an extrinsic reward of cake for going to the gym, or indeed for brushing our teeth or wiping our own bottoms after a poo! This would definitely indicate that we’d have quite low standards(!) (Having said that, I’m quite proud of the medal I got for wiping my own bottom. Hey how many puppies can do that?! I’m a good dog :D.)
Despite these nuances of frequency, detail and context, it seems that across different major or popular cultures and languages (and therefore by inference the more survivally fit cultures and languages) in the world today at least – whether through phrases like, “Please”, “Thank you” and, “Sorry” or some other verbal or non-verbal expressions or rules of etiquette – politeness evolved to be common, normal and apparently necessary for upholding social harmony rather than is a waste of breath or effort.