Mind your manners: Global confab highlights politeness in different societies

By Julian Ryall for BCCJ ACUMEN

The use of honorifics in Japanese, the firm grasp among native speakers of what is being conveyed with the slightest inflection, the respectful bow, and a myriad of other signs, both spoken and unspoken, make this country arguably the most polite in the world.

And that makes it a fertile hunting ground for researchers who specialize in politeness in different societies.

Sponsored by the UK branch of the Sasakawa Foundation, the eighth International Conference on Politeness was held over four days at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. No fewer than one-quarter of the 51 research presentations referred to the Japanese language.

“Research on politeness is actually a rather wealthy area of linguistic enquiry”, Dr Barbara Pizziconi, senior lecturer in Applied Japanese Linguistics at SOAS, told BCCJ ACUMEN.

“Although of course it has a long tradition in Japanese scholarship, it is probably fair to say that it was brought to universal attention by the 1978 seminal work by Penelope Brown and Stephen Levinson, and has been booming ever since”, Pizziconi said.

A journal dedicated to research into politeness was founded in 2005, and the field is constantly expanding as the notion of politeness — which must also take into account impoliteness — is understood in broader terms, she said.

There is also growing recognition that the study of the language of social relations should not be a purview of honorific-rich languages like Japanese, she said.

This year’s conference attracted more than 80 participants. It focused on teaching and learning politeness and exercising social relations through language.

“This aspect of the phenomenon of politeness has not received sufficient attention so far. This is in spite of the fact that the social transmission of politeness norms is a fairly tricky business, both in a first language—children’s education and socialisation to the norms of a community—and of course in a second language, such as the instructions to language learners in language classrooms, textbooks and so on”, she said.

For researchers in this area, in which Pizziconi is recognised as a world leader, Japanese is prominent not only in terms of the theoretical challenges it poses to conventional wisdom, but also in quantitative terms. This is due to the amount and scope of research available on the subject.

And while newcomers to Japan are inevitably impressed at how polite and considerate Japanese people are towards those around them, Pizziconi said it is not possible to quantify politeness in a language.

“Although some languages, such as Japanese, may have dedicated linguistic devices specifically devoted to the expression of politeness-related meanings, polite attitudes and polite behavior can and are expressed in any language—even in the honorific-poor English”, she said.

To illustrate, Pizziconi highlighted the different intonations that can be used for a request and indirect forms such as “would you mind doing this” rather than “do this”.

“Moreover, when we think about politeness, we should not confine it to verbalised behavior”, she said. “Language is not a separate, independent mode of communication, and polite signals can be expressed in many forms, such as body posture, clothing, and various other norms of behavior.

Pizziconi has focused on this topic for 20 years and said she felt, from the start of her research, that much more emphasis needs to be placed on other mechanisms and strategies that are available in Japanese to express polite meanings.

“We must study the whole gamut of signs available to speakers to express their evaluation of status or rank, affective stances such as respect, social distance, disdain or aggressiveness, or even to project specific social personae”, she said. “The manipulation of honorific systems plays only a partial role in this semiotic behavior”.

As well as a theoretical significance, such as the linguistic mechanisms available to verbalise polite meanings, the study of politeness has many real-world implications, she said. This would include the analysis of misunderstandings in communication.

“Second-language users, for example, often find themselves in confusing, stressful, or even conflictual situations, due to the fact that their notion of what constitutes polite or impolite behavior is at odds with that of native speakers”, she said. “Explicit instruction — which politeness research can inform — can help them cope with this incongruence”.

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Considering that all the 'politeness' that everyone seems to be taken by in japanese society is in fact just tattemae in full effect. You could make an argument that japan isn't among the most polite but is easily one of the most passive aggressive societies in the world.

5 ( +10 / -5 )

I think the different forms of honourific speech in Japanese serve more to perpetuate the feudal system, rather than enable people to be polite. You are required to determine if someone is "above" or "below" you in rank and adjust your speech accordingly. In an egalitarian society such forms would not be necessary. It often seems to me that those who deem themselves "above" others are those worthy of the most contempt e.g. politicians, bureaucrats, crooked company officials etc. Usually I will respond in the same form as a person uses to speak to me. If they try to speak "down" to me, I will speak "down" to them.

0 ( +5 / -5 )

If they try to speak "down" to me, I will speak "down" to them.

Example? If you mean they speak "tameguchi" it means they think you are an equal. There are two forms of keigo : sonkeigo, which elevates the other person's rank, and kenjyougo, which humbles / lowers yourself. You cannot really speak down to someone in Japanese, unless you mean words such as "gokurousama" which a boss will say to a worker. If you say that to your boss, it will be like "hey boss, keep up the good work" which is not only strange but rather rude.

2 ( +4 / -2 )

kickboard: I mean the use of casual and polite forms. If an official person I meet for the first time uses the casual form to me it's somewhat impolite. They can expect the same kind of response.

0 ( +3 / -3 )

Politeness on the surface, yes. But below the surface, not so sure. Backstabbing, vicious gossip etc are not the hallmarks of a truly polite, respectful person in any society.

-1 ( +3 / -4 )

It is very difficult to understand speech hierarchy for someone who hails from societies where there is no polite form of speech or body languaage, like in English where everybody can be addressed as "YOU". Many a times a person from societies where there is a respect's form of expression is misunderstood, considered insincere, deceitful, lacking in self confidence or outright dumb.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

language is a tool and it can be used or abused according to the human that uses it; good people and bad people are found everywhere, and Japan of course is no exception, therefore there may be many people who speak kindly to you out of habit or because it's the rule while inside their head they think completely different, but I find that in general Japanese people are much less rude than their counterparts in many other countries, and the language, being an integral part of the culture, reflects and influences that general 'courtesy' mindset. there are a gazillion things I can object to in Japan, but language and courtesy are definitely not on the black list.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Moreover, when we think about politeness, we should not confine it to verbalised behavior, she [Pizziconi] said. Language is not a separate, independent mode of communication, and polite signals can be expressed in many forms, such as body posture, clothing, and various other norms of behavior.

The headline misleads the reader from the writer's actual subject. The article is about verbal politeness, not manners. The norms of behavior that go beyond the lip-service in polite forms of speech and deference according to so-called status (tattemae) is what sets apart people who have flawless manners and those who do not.

People with good manners respectfully consider others. People with exemplary manners not only temper their speech but also demonstrate their graciousness by what they do and do not do. They are never vulgar.

Numerous examples abound, but let me mention a few. People with good manners do not occupy seats on trains forcing the elderly, disabled, and pregnant people to stand. They are not drunk or vomiting or urinating in public. They also don't need to be reminded of appropriate behavior by ubiquitous cartoon posters in public places. People with manners make an effort to include others and put them at ease in social situations. They help others who are in obvious difficulty.

In all of those instances of exemplary behaviour, people of any culture fall short. Even Japan has its vulgar individuals; however, it's possible that its most refined individuals might be among the most refined in the world. That would make a more interesting study.

1 ( +1 / -0 )


You cannot really speak down to someone in Japanese...

Sure you can. The use of for example kimi, -kun and -chan instead of using -san is definitely using language to belittle people in a tricky way. The Japanese language is chock-full of ways to try to convey superiority/inferiority, most easily seen Japanese interact with any employee in the huge Japanese "service industy". The lack of common courtesy is always fascinating to watch. No thank yous, no aisatsu no recognition of their fellow man. Japan is extremely hierarchic and that is important to be aware of. Try using anata to your boss and see what happens... :)

-1 ( +2 / -3 )

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