Home > Business Theories, Intercultural Communication, Linguistics > Questions about Politeness in BELF

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…

(Watch the full video here [14.10 minutes in])

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.

  1. February 7, 2012 at 7:23 pm

    Hi Ed,
    Really enjoyed this post, thank you. I just wanted to reaffirm what you´ve written about how learners who need English for communicative activities at work don´t exactly need to learn “how to be polite”, but rather the strategies, which most native speakers take for granted, about how to create mutual understanding and avoid friction with international colleagues. However, I´m sure, as Chia indicated, that these strategies have to be different if the learner is conversing with a native-speaker or non-native speaker. I´m a native speaker and I´ve had conversations with German-speakers (I live in Germany) in English where communication has ultimately been unsuccessful, as far as I´m concerned at least, due to the fact that my counterpart was not sufficiently well-equipped with the strategies you need to employ when making small talk in English in order to avoid misunderstanding and potential conflict–not because he/she wasn´t polite enough. As you point out though, all people working internationally need to avoid misunderstanding and conflict to get the job done, especially when money is at stake. Following typical/ traditional ideas of politeness alone will not help them to achieve that I don´t think; it´s all about successful communication strategies creating mutual understanding.

    Look forward to reading more of your blog posts.
    Best, Claire

  2. February 8, 2012 at 6:59 am

    Hi Ed,
    Thanks for another fascinating blog. From a psychoanalytic point of view, it is often said that it is not the Emperor wearing no clothes who misses the point, but the boy who tells everyone he is naked. Social cohesion relies on maintaining a form of plausible deniability, on subscribing to the unsaid, and by saying the unsaid we break that bond. Look at the chaos caused in “The Good Soldier Švejk” where the hero follows the path of complete transparency, doing everything he is told but failing to adhere to the unspoken rules.

  3. February 8, 2012 at 9:06 am

    An interesting twist on the angles Chia presented. I haven’t studied pragmatics, nor do I have an academic knowledge of the nomenclature for intercultural communication, but I often know immediately when there’s an ounce of tension in the air. I wonder if that’s something that can be taught. That awareness, that self-monitoring. For what it’s worth, it’s been very influential in my intercultural experiences and I think it helps me to smooth into a culture, and into new social groups.

    For the German that you mentioned in the middle of the passage, I wonder how willing he’ll be to change his habits. We all have different ways of seeing the world and there’s no right or wrong, but if we choose not to go with the flow of the masses, that can be an either very smart or very silly decision.

    As, Claire said, I look forward to catching more of your posts as well. Cheers, Brad

  4. February 8, 2012 at 7:37 pm

    Hi Claire, Tony & Brad,

    Thanks very much for your insightful comments, they’ve really helped me move my thinking forward.

    Claire, I completely agree that formulaic politeness structures don’t provide what learners need, we need to help them explore the pragmatic meaning of words and expressions and try to relate them to their own cultural experience. This is really tough to do though. I tend to do a lot of consciousness raising activities rather than tackling language issues head on for this point, that’s very difficult to do practically.

    I think Brad’s comment is extremely insightful. The level of self monitoring of people differs greatly and this almost certainly has a cultural aspect to it too. However, is this emotional intelligence dictated by culture or personality and how does language interact with emotional intelligence? I don’t have an answer to that.

    In psychoanalysis, your ability to feel discomfort in social situations suggests high emotional intelligence. This echos Tony’s point that people with high emotional intelligence can ‘feel’ when people don’t want the truth and those with lower empathy cannot.

    Taking this into account, we have to assume that any attempt to teach awareness of cultural sensitivity will have varying levels of success.

    However, if you take all the ‘how to talk to anyone’ and ‘how to win friends’ self help books available, people clearly believe this is trainable in L1.

    Would semantic programming overwrite this in L2? Probably but I think there’s a lot of experimentation needed before we have a definitive answer to this.

    Once again, thanks for reading.

  5. February 10, 2012 at 12:03 am

    Hi Ed,
    Thanks for your insightful post.
    Your analogy of ‘Would you like to come up for coffee?’ is a great one that clearly exemplifies how the flouting of Grice’s maxim of Manner (‘Avoid ambiguity and obscurity of expression’) creates an implicature that states, ‘You know what I really want but please let me pretend this is indeed ambiguous and don’t expose my real intentions for face-saving reasons’.

    The term ‘implicature’ was coined by Grice (1975) to account for what the speaker implied, suggested or meant, as opposed to the semantic meaning of the words said. The conveyance of implicature enables one to determine the meaning of an utterance via inference because of the assumption that the participants of a conversation are adhering the Cooperative Principle and its maxims.

    So, in other words, you and I both know what ‘Would you like to come up for a coffee?’ means because according to the norms of our society, that sentence implies that you want to get intimate with me and that is the standard phrase to indicate your intentions (alongside ‘Would you like to see my paintings?’).

    But what if you were dating a girl who came from a society with different norms? What if you were dating someone who came from a society where ‘How many funny faces are you able to pull in 11 minutes?’ is the standard question to indicate that one wanted to sex with the other? To this girl, ‘Would you like to come up from coffee with me?’ would not be seen as you flouting the maxim of Manner. It would simply be you asking her for coffee.

    There are countless of these norms that we take for granted, things that we have assumed as normal because that’s the way it’s always been. And to see it a different way would be uncomfortable and strange.

    And there are norms to govern every context and every situation. Norms as to what one does in the restaurant, sitting at the poker table in a casino, in a breakup, meeting someone whose name you don’t remember, exchanging name cards, giving compliments about clothes,… and the list goes on…

    These norms are could be bound by the culture you are in, and culture could be determined by country, region, institution, social group/class, organisation, etc.

    To make things more complicated, these norms could change as interaction unfolds and new norms could be formed along the way…

    Such is the dynamic and fluid nature of interaction and perception-creation. This is why it is dangerous to reduce politeness strategies simply to teaching students a bunch of formulaic language and ‘universal truths’.

    Actually, Ed, I think we might be on the same side here. There seems to be a common misunderstanding that ELF is about a simplified or simplistic version of English, and this is simply not the case. On the contrary, it is able paying attention to the accommodation and adaptation strategies that are used in intercultural and international communication and being as communicatively competent in the given context and scenario.

    And you are right, it is something that it difficult to ‘teach’, but we can certainly raise awareness of it in the classroom and encourage discussions that would get our learners 1. to see how different pragmatic and politeness strategies can cause misunderstanding, 2. to notice when they are faced with strategies or norms that are different from theirs, and 3. to learn to adapt and accommodate when encountering such situations.

    This has been an amazing debate so far and I must thank you for this blog post. Pragmatics and Politeness have so far remained in the academic arena of Applied Linguistics and have not really made its way into pedagogy. As a practitioner, I think that this division needs to be bridged especially as English solidifies its position as the global lingua franca.

    There is a lot more discussion to be had about this huge topic, and I certainly look forward to continuing with it.

    See you at the PCE in IATEFL Glasgow?

  6. February 11, 2012 at 9:35 am

    Hi Chia,

    Thanks for you complete and insightful reply. I originally joined the webinar because I think ELF does provide a powerful tool to help learners overcome the intercultural confusion that they bring to me in every lesson.

    However, questions like how we deal with issues such as use of ‘implicature’ and intentional vagueness raise interesting questions for what we do in the classroom and whether they are linguistic, cultural or interpersonal communication questions is interesting. They’re probably a combination of all of these and more.

    I freely admit that I overlooked the fact that imlplicature is not the same in every culture and this needs to be remembered.

    I also wonder how those non native speakers who do master these areas achieve it and if they’re overtly aware of the strategies they’re using.

    I’m working on another post addressing these issues and will let you know when it’s done.

    I agree that we’re on the same side and think it’s great that there’re many people looking at these issues from different angles.

    Can’t wait to discuss it more in Glasgow.

    Thanks again for starting the debate and your comment here.

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