Take the following quiz:
- Someone surprises you with a beautifully wrapped gift. You’re so appreciative! You…
- Tear it open enthusiastically and express great admiration for the object, whatever it is, and thank the giver.
- Accept the gift, warmly thank the giver for his or her thoughtfulness, and put the unwrapped gift, whatever it is, on the table behind you.
- You’re seated on the airplane next to someone of the same gender who looks nice. You…
- Strike up a friendly conversation.
- Quietly mind your own business.
- You’re at a reception where few people know one another. You…
- Approach someone, extend your hand, and introduce yourself.
- Find the host who will then make an introduction for you.
- A member of your office staff comes in one day looking upset, maybe they’ve even been crying. You…
- Approach them in the break room and say, “Are you okay?? Did something happen to you?”
- Pretend you don’t notice so they won’t feel embarrassed.
If you tended towards the “A” answers above, your cultural style might be one of “expressive” politeness. If you had more “B” answers, your cultural style may be one of “reserved” politeness. This dimension of culture was introduced by social scientists Penelope Brown and Stephen Levinson, who termed these differences “positive” and “negative” politeness. (To avoid any confusion about the original terms, we use here the terms “expressive” and “reserved,” respectively.)
“Politeness strategies” are the customs, often unnoticed or unconscious, by which we express favorable attitudes toward others. But it is important to remember that not every culture uses the same strategies to do this.
Expressive-politeness cultures generally show good intentions by reaching out actively to others. They have a tendency to reveal emotions before knowing whether the approach is acceptable or not to the other person. Reserved-politeness cultures tend to show good intentions by never imposing themselves on another without first knowing the other person’s attitude.
Both of these cultural styles are polite, but they are different ways of demonstrating it. The same behavior that may be considered polite in one culture could be considered rude in another culture. Remember those examples in the quiz above?
Some cultures traditionally thought of as reserved are British, German, and Japanese, while characteristics of expressive cultures are found in US American culture (especially Southern and African American cultures), Australian, Mexican, and Italian. Which style resonates with you most?
It’s important to remember that not all expressive cultures are alike, and not all reserved cultures are alike. While each culture is unique in how it shows politeness, knowing something about this dynamic can help people be more accepting of unfamiliar styles. It may also help individuals become more aware of how their own behaviors and actions may appear to others. This additional cultural self-awareness allows the opportunity to adjust one’s behavior to actually be polite—from the viewpoint of someone culturally different from oneself.
Check out some of the critical incidents in Cultural Detective Online to see the cultural variations of politeness in action, and learn to navigate them more effectively. Use Cultural Detective Self Discovery to clarify your own values and styles, and develop a better ability to explain yourself to those who are different.
Brown, Penelope and Stephen C. Levinson. 1987. Politeness: Some universals in language usage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-31355-1