Tuesday, 1 October 2013

‘Have a global day!’

Is the world becoming more or less polite?

As the global population grows, our world has somehow seemed to shrink.  Walk down the main streets of London, Paris, New York or Tokyo and you will see many of the same brand names –MacDonalds and Starbucks immediately spring to mind.  This process of ‘globalisation’ refers to the way in which the world is becoming more uniform or ‘homogenised’.  This has been attributed to the influence of American culture and one aspect which is of interest to linguists is the expression of politeness and impoliteness.  This has been explored in some service industries in Britain where typically American expressions like Hi, how are you? and Have a nice day! and customers’ first names are being more widely used.   Such innovations are often disliked as they seem counter to our traditional British reserve and are often thought to be impolite.

Maria Sifianou explores this issue in great detail in a recent paper, arguing that globalisation cannot be seen simply in terms of homogenisation, especially with regard to the issue of politeness and impoliteness. Having carried out her own investigations in the Greek and English contexts, she makes some interesting observations:

  • ·       The emphasis that American culture puts on a casual approach to business interactions is perceived as impolite in some societies where politeness has traditionally been associated with formality.  American English is therefore blamed for introducing impoliteness.  However, could it be that culture itself is changing in such places?  For example, in Britain there has been a cultural shift towards emotional expression and openness and a rise in the popularity of psychology. Maybe this is just being reflected in our more informal language use?

  • ·       The supposed influence of globalisation may really be dependent on context.  For example, recently Greek politicians have been adopting less formal and more personalised speaking styles, attributed by some to globalisation.  However, it could be that they are actually trying to distract their audience’s attention from sensitive political issues by ‘casualising’ their speech.

  • ·       Sifianou feels that cultural context is especially important.  She notes how, unlike in Britain and the US, it would be unthinkable for a Greek student to use informal language or to address University lecturers by their first names.  In Greece there is a deep seated culture of formality which not only indicates politeness, respect and distance but is also a sign of refinement and good education.  Formal language use indicates authority, expert knowledge and seriousness, so that Greek weather forecasts are highly formalised affairs unlike their English equivalents which tend to use informal expressions like ‘It’s somewhat of a mixed bag weatherwise.’ So it seems that in Greek politeness strategies may not be following American English’s lead of becoming more informal.

  • ·       Multinational companies like Boots, MacDonalds and IKEA have their own training programmes that literally teach their employees what to say to their customers, so that interactions are scripted.  Many believe that these linguistic norms are then spread across the world as the company grows and ‘travels’.  However, Sifianou disputes whether this is really a true threat to local politeness practices.  For example, employees of IKEA in Sweden are instructed to address customers with the informal form of ‘you’, du, and with employees worldwide receiving such prescriptive training we would expect this usage to transfer to other contexts.  However, in Greece this has not happened.  In fact Sifianou says that it would actually be ‘unthinkable’ and impolite for an employee to address a customer with the informal ‘you’.  So language use is still culture bound, even under the influence of globalisation. 

  • ·       Sifianou sees globalisation as a ‘process’ which is just one element affecting language change.  She feels it has been misrepresented as a threat to local languages as linguistic change has taken place throughout history.  She argues that linguistic changes being witnessed currently in communities across the world should be examined within their own socio-historical context.  Just as in the case of the Greek politicians trying to steer attention away from politics, what may at first appear to reflect the influence of globalisation may on closer inspection reveal a very different story.

So I hope, dear reader, that you may graciously agree with me when I say that globalisation is just one factor at work with regard to how polite or impolite we are becoming.

Have a nice day! 


Sifianou, Maria (2013) The impact of globalisation on politeness and impoliteness. Journal of Pragmatics 55: 86—102

      This summary was written by Gemma Stoyle

For  a suggested English A level language investigation related to this topic 

click here

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