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Katya Shenberg


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Will you please be polite?!

As far as ESL acquisition is concerned, we have to consider the goal of acquiring English speaking skills, - that of successful communication. In this context we should not diminish the role of politeness, both in behaviour and in speech.

Knowledge of the so-called speech culture and speaking according to this knowledge is of great importance when success in communication is concerned. Speech culture naturally differs from country to country, from nation to nation, from different social group to another. Other than that there are certain universal rules about how to speak so that you will get what you ask for and at the same time speak so that your interlocutor will not be offended. General rules of politeness are not interrupting your interlocutor while he or she is speaking, speaking quite loudly and distinctly though not yelling, using normative language etc.

The politeness category is normally reflected in a language in a set of speech formulas characteristic of a certain communication sphere or situation (for instance, there are lots of those concerning speaking over the telephone). Quite formulaic is also speech communication between a client and a provider (seller). Politeness in formal situations tends to be reflected in a great number of such formulas, unlike politeness in an informal context. Undoubtedly, common rules of being polite in everyday communication should be acquired by English learners. To that belongs knowledge of the following:
usage of a certain type of a speech act (e.g. request vs. command), implying certain content (excluding taboo questions like those about income, religion, nationality) and others. According to the data given by several American people, to speak politely means to:

- use good manners in everyday communication (e.g. not have food in your mouth when speaking)
- use respectful language: use kind words and not swear, use certain form of an utterance (“when asking for something say 'May I please have that' - not 'give me that.'”)
- “use a proper tone in your voice so as not to be condescending to the other person”
- look at the person (make eye contact)
- say greeting words, say ‘good-bye’, ‘sorry’ and ‘thank you’ when it is necessary
- introduce yourself/a new person
- not interrupt when someone else is speaking
- listen when someone else is speaking and hear what they are saying
- apologize and ask for forgiveness when impoliteness happens, and try not to do it again

There exist some theories of politeness, one of those being Brown and Levinson’s whose basic notion is ‘face’, or ‘individual’s self-esteem’ [1]. In other words, it implies people’s desire, on the one hand, for freedom to act (negative face), and, on the other hand, to be liked, approved of and included (positive face) [3]. Successful social interaction requires that speakers pay attention to both negative and positive face of their interlocutor; when either is potentially at risk, the speaker must take steps to minimise the threat by saying something in a way that offends as little as possible. So we can state that the greater the imposition and the greater the social distance between participants, the more ‘face-work’ is required [3].

One speech act that is a potential threat to an interlocutor’s face is the request [3]. Politeness is connected with mitigating a direct form of asking for something and expressing an idea “non-directly” which means one applying a different grammatical form in the sentence, in this case the form of a question, most often a modal one. If you want somebody to bring you a definite book you would sooner say “Can you bring me the book?” rather than “Bring the book”. The two phrases are likely to leave quite a different impression on one and the same hearer, the former perceived naturally as a request to bring the book, the latter a command. Phrase #1 serves a good start for a probably successful minidialogue. Phrase #2 can make a native speaker doubt the interlocutor’s intentions and make him or her think of the speaker as a rude person.

So, we can say that speaking politely means saying sentences of the kind “Could you…?”, “Can you…?” and so on. However, once we recall such an enormously important speech feature as intonation we could be struck how significantly it may change our view of politeness. Just pronounce the same sentence “Can you bring the book for me?” with different intonation imagining that you are irritated or annoyed by your interlocutor who won’t bring you the book though he had promised to. If you try this difference when speaking to people, the effect is sure to be different. Intonation is surprisingly powerful in making a conversation either a failure or success. “Will you please sit down” can be pronounced with a lot of variations of voice tone, timbre, loudness, accentuation and tempo and at the same time the speaker will have a certain intention which is going to be reflected in these changes of the intonation of the whole phrase.

Intonation is first to be perceived by ear, rather than the verbal component of an utterance. So any utterance or just sentence has intonation because even if it is not pronounced it is meant to either out loud or in the inner speech. Intonation is a complex phenomenon consisting of pitch, or speech melody, intensity, or loudness, tempo, or rate of speech, sentence stress, or accentuation, and rhythm (though different linguists distinguish different number and quality of the components). It is not only melodic characteristics that can make an utterance polite or impolite. For example, if in reply to my having given her what she had asked for, my friend will say “Thank you” rather quickly and quickly as well will leave me, I wouldn’t consider such “Thank you” polite. There are general rules of speaking politely that must exist in various cultures. They include speaking not very loudly (using moderate intensity); speaking not very fast; speaking with a certain melody (e.g. using not very high tone); speaking with not very high emotion but in a more or less reserved way; not using gruff and rude gestures.

However each language has a set of special rules of polite speaking including rules of usage of vocabulary, grammatical forms and intonation patterns. The way politeness is expressed in the English language must be very interesting to know for non-native speakers. There exists a real problem with the word ‘please’ which can be considered a politeness marker though does not necessarily make an utterance polite. English (as well as Russian) children are taught that it is the ‘magic’ word to be used when asking for something. How does this ‘magic word’ relate to politeness? According to Francis Lide, ‘please’ is a word more optional than necessary for polite communication [2]. If we take a modal question with ‘will’ inserting there ‘please’ and say something like ‘Will you please sit down’ “the most likely situation for this sentence would be when the speaker is angry at someone who refuses to sit down” and would be pronounced with emphasis on almost each word [2]. According to Anne Wichmann, ‘please’ occurs mainly in requests, but not all types of request require ‘please’ [3]. The Compact Oxford English Dictionary says ‘please’ serves to “add urgency and emotion to a request”. On the other hand, the addition of ‘please’ can be considered a further way of softening the force of requests, particularly if they are in the form of imperatives, in which case the force of command is reduced to that of a request [3]. ‘Please’ typically occurs in ‘standard situations’ for example in service encounters, where the right to ask for something and the obligation to give it is inherent in the event [3]. It also occurs when what is being requested is a minimal imposition on the hearer (such as passing the salt at table, e.g. Can you pass the sour cream please). In situations where the imposition is greater or the rights and obligations of the participants are not self-evident, please does not occur [3].

In my opinion, saying ‘please’ when asking for something is a most controversial politeness tactic. ‘Please’ is more a request marker than a politeness marker. It is an independent communicative unit bearing its own meaning which varies, the word being pronounced with different intonation in different contexts: when inviting (Please please have a seat); when offering (Just please let me know if there is anything else we can do); when asking for permission (David, can I look at your notes, please?); when permitting (Please do); when politely turning down an invitation (Please don’t bother). All these speech acts imply the semantics of asking but their pragmatics is different. Also, the pragmatic force of an utterance and consequently the degree of its politeness depends on the way the speaker pronounces it. Differences in realisation of please-requests need to be taken into account when assessing to what extent such utterances are ‘polite’ [3]. The intonation of verbally one and the same sentence can influence its meaning turning a polite request into an insistent or urgent one, or into a plea. The intonation of the word ‘please’ greatly influences the pragmatics of the request on the whole. So, the word ‘please’ possesses a wide range of potential pragmatic meanings, from indicating a polite request to expressing desperation. ‘Please’ as a request marker is used mostly in the final position in modal questions (Could you do this please) and in elliptical constructions (More, please; Dr Skolnick please). The polite ‘please’ is seldom given prominence in a sentence. If it is, it acquires other shades of attitudinal meaning except for being a marker of the polite request. ‘Please’ is more often used in formal settings, whereas in more informal situations usage of only the polite intonation and syntax is more recurrent.

For teachers it is an issue whether to include teaching polite strategies and intonation and in particular the intonation of ‘please’ into the school curriculum. If we should teach this material, we will deal with the issue of different approaches when concerning teaching different age groups. Undoubtedly, teaching politeness strategies in the English language to middle and upper grades pupils must be involved in the process of their education. Such formulas as “Would you mind…” and “Can you…” should be used in communication at a lesson within a class and also between the class and the teacher. Only when pupils get accustomed to the way they talk to each other during their English lessons they will most likely speak to native speakers in this way and thus discover themselves as polite people. Teachers can show the difference between a polite and aggressive way of saying one and the same phrase and that could be of great help for pupils who thus will possibly acquire skills of not only polite but also emotional speaking which is always considered a failure when a foreign language learning at school is concerned. Another issue is that of what English variety to teach since British polite language does not coincide with American. Probably we could distinguish speech acts that are required to sound polite, such as request, and then observe the most popular phrases used widely by the English and American expressing a polite request. Study of politeness is very young and still there are wide prospects for investigating it to make a foreign language learning process more effective.

I started this research as a linguist but as the process went along I realized how deeply it is connected with culture studies and sociology. The questions that have bothered me since I became a teenager and started to understand much more of the adult world do bother me till now. They are the degree of interrelation of politeness and sincerity. Politeness is not meant for every situation. It is not appropriate everywhere and every time. And what I am much interested in is that extent to which the potential politeness expressions existing in a language are used by the people speaking that language, in cases it is their native one and non-native one. The correspondence between the language and the sociocultural development cannot be put on the background. What is politeness anyway? It is not ceremonity, it is something more. It should not be neglected but moreover stuck to. And not just on the surface level. In my opinion, truly polite a person can be called only when he or she behaves in accordance with their own mind being considerate at the same time about others’ feelings.

Of several American people who have so far answered a questionnaire of mine about what is politeness for them, almost everyone connects politeness with such notions as 1) respect for others, not putting yourself first; 2) good manners, behaviour; 3) using good language (avoiding swearing); 4) using Mr, Mrs, Ms, Ma’am, Sir when addressing someone; 4) not speaking on the certain topics (like politics and personal life). A friend of mine has emphasized that politeness has much more to do with intentional rather than reactive saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’. Another friend of mine refers politeness to the religious principles of Christianity according to which a polite person is always considerate about others and does not put himself before other people. Answers of such kind make me think politeness culture is indeed very different in different countries. Unlike Russians, Americans seem to think of politeness as inner characteristics of a personality whereas in Russia we would sooner think of politeness as a form of expressing an idea, using certain good words when we need to get something and not using them in other cases. So, in Russian when we say ‘He is a polite person’ we mean he uses good manners and says right words but who ever knows what kind of man he can be. Polite in Russia can be called mostly only educated people, whereas in America politeness seems to be inherent in the culture in some way. Or was inherent. Most part of the Americans answering the questionnaire said politeness is becoming very rare, especially among younger generations. A very interesting remark, made not only by older but also by younger people, isn’t it?

Resources: 1. Brown P., Levinson St. C. Politeness: Some Universals in Language Usage. Cambridge, 1987. URL:http://www.books.google.com

2. Lide F. Politeness and Polite Requests in English. URL: http://www.eslhoughton.org/teachmater/Politeness.doc

3. Wichmann A. The intonation of Please-requests: a corpus-based study /Journal of Pragmatics 36 (2004) 1521–1549. URL:http://www.let.uu.nl/~Esther.Janse/personal/melrit/Wichmann2004.pdf