Questions about Politeness in BELF
Last Sunday about 50 TEFL heads joined Chia Suan Chong’s BESIG seminar on the language of politeness, ELF and how non native speakers can be polite with limited language.
I found this talk extremely well presented and insightful. I particularly took away the fact that Chia’s research showed that many of the politeness gambits I had been teaching for years are not used, even by proficient non-native language users. This made me rethink the breadth, depth and accessibility of the functional language I present in all areas of the classroom. So, seriously big thanks.
However, following up the idea of politeness, I rediscovered this video on mutual knowledge in speech acts that I had watched last year via Viki Hollet’s blog.
This led to a train of thought that has caused me some disquiet about the ELF and particularly the BELF movement when applied to professional learners with real need to use English to complete work based communicative tasks.
The RSA video introduces the concept of ‘mutual knowledge’ (an inherent part of ‘game theory’) and applies it to speech acts.
Why do we ask the pretty girl ‘if she’d like to come up for coffee’ at the end of the date and not ‘do you want to have sex?’
The answer is to preserve lack of mutual knowledge. If I ask her ‘do you want to have sex?’ and she says no, I know exactly why she refused – she doesn’t want to have sex me, she also knows why I refused and we both know each knows. This makes it very difficult to preserve any relationship.
On the other hand, if she says ‘I don’t like coffee’ I am free to continue pretending that she does really want to have sex with me, she just doesn’t like coffee. The girl can also deny that I know she doesn’t want to have sex with me, she thinks I think she doesn’t like coffee.
Thus, the shell of friendship can be preserved.
OK, back to BELF. The type of face saving interaction outlined above is part and parcel of business life. In meetings, negotiations, ‘difficult conversations’ between manager and staff and myriad other cases, business people need to allow their interlocutor ‘plausible deniability’ (refusing to make something mutual knowledge so that relationships can be maintained).
The pragmatics and linguistic dexterity required to achieve this is quite high but is also possessed by a large number of native and non native speakers.
Therefore, if our aim is to provide professional learners with the tools they need to perform in the work place, we have a duty of care to arm them with the weapons of extreme politeness because anything less will result in poor performance.
A while ago, a colleague told me that the German managing an international team is rarely sent on a language course because his poor English is causing problems at work, it’s because he’s German. This means he lacks the ability to recognise different pragmatic expressions of politeness and other speech acts and reacts inappropriately.
Therefore, offering a simplified form of politeness will not improve his workplace performance. He needs his awareness of all forms of politeness raised and to be provided with strategies for recognising these face saving gambits. He also needs help in how to respond in an appropriate way. Anything less than this limits his ability to do the job.
This extract from a recent conference in Japan on the future of the Euro illustrates the point further:
Moderator (Japanese): Jesper, given your German blood, do you think, what my friend tells me, that the German is not going to let the Greece leave has some reality in it?
Jesper: Well, we just going to invade them. (uncomfortable laughter) That would be the old solution. (awkward pause) look…
For me, this shows the danger of being too simple. We all understand the moderator’s message and can accept that he doesn’t mean to upset anyone. He even trys some softening with ‘has some reality in it’. Even though the question is directly about Germany maintaining the Euro, the bald phraseology causes problems. If he had said ‘Germany is determined to maintain the Euro’ or a similar, less direct utterance, there would have been no problem.
We know the history, we know what people say, but we don’t know (or need to know) that others know that people say it. This maintains social cohesion.
Common knowledge is not the same as mutual knowledge. Even if we know it, we shouldn’t always ‘put it out there’. The moderator’s error is not missing a formulaic politeness marker; it’s a lack of a deeper cultural understanding and linguistic dexterity.
Inadvertently, his message makes uncomfortable common knowledge ‘mutual knowledge’, leading to an unnecessary moment of awkwardness. Can you imagine what could happen if money were at stake?
I know this post may buck the trend but I also think it raises some important questions. If anyone had anything to add, it’d be great to hear from you.