The Unbearable Politeness of Being: Formality and Politeness in Language

Dear Ms. Smith,

Hi Jackie,

Hey gurl heeyyyy

These are just a few of the ways I greet people when I use written communication online. I opened with these greetings as a way to illustrate how we use different levels of formality and politeness in our speech. Like everything else in language, politeness and formality are all about context and relationships. I would never greet a supervisor at work with “hey gurl heyyyyy”, but a close friend wouldn’t bat an eye if I greeted her (or him) that way. By the same token, I’m pretty sure my friends would think something was amiss if I started writing emails to them that began with “Dear Mr. Thompson” instead of “Hey Bob”. We tweak our politeness styles and methods based on the relationships we have with people.

One thing that I find fascinating about politeness from a linguistic perspective is how much or little it is encoded into different languages. English as it is spoken today doesn’t have that much politeness encoded into the structure of the language. We have to display it through choosing certain words and methods of address. By contrast, Japanese has a fairly complex system of honorifics and pronouns to indicate your relationship with the person with whom you are interacting.

Usually when we talk about the ways politeness is encoded in languages, we start treading into Sapir-Whorf territory — this is the idea that language shapes your thought processes and ways of interacting with the world. You hear it all the time; if you’re a fan of Game of Thrones, you’ll recall Jorah Mormont telling Daenerys Targaryen that there is “no word for ‘thank you’ in Dothraki”, indicating that the Dothraki are not a genteel sort of people. When we talk about Sapir-Whorf/language = thought or culture or worldview, Coulmas (2013) gives a good example: English no longer has a T-V distinction (we used to use thee/thou, but don’t anymore); German has one (du and Sie) with fairly strict rules about when and with whom to use it. Does that mean that German-speaking countries are less egalitarian than English-speaking countries? Leaving economic and social debates aside, probably not.

There are a lot of people who completely disavow the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis; I understand why, since all too often it can veer into stereotypes and oversimplifications. However, I don’t think it’s completely wrong or off-base, just easy to overstate. The way politeness is encoded in a language does influence expression and indicates social distance. When the way you conjugate a verb, greet a person, or ask a question reveals the relationship you have with someone, that’s bound to influence culture.

When I was a kid, I thought being polite was just a way to get brownie points (or literally brownies) from adults; I didn’t understand why I had to say “May I please have a brownie?” when “I WANT A BROWNIE!” got the message across just fine. Now as a linguistics student, I see how politeness in language is used to establish, reinforce, or sometimes change relationships with the people you interact with. Politeness and the various levels of it are ways to signal how we want an interaction to play out, and both parties need to read those signals correctly for communication to be successful. Here, I think, is where culture comes into play. What might seem stiff and overly formal to one person may be another person’s way of saying “I really respect you and want to establish the boundaries of our professional relationship”. What seems overly friendly and familiar to one person may be another person’s way of saying “I want to make you feel welcome and part of the team, and I’ll do that by talking to you like I’d talk to my social equals”.

What do you think about politeness in the way you communicate? How do you modulate or change the levels of politeness you use in your interaction with others?


Coulmas, F. (2013) ‘Standard and dialect: Social stratification as a factor of
linguistic choice’ in Sociolinguistics: the study of speakers’ choices. 2nd ed. (Chapter 2, pages 19-43) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press




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