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Review of  Politeness in Europe

Reviewer: Susan Meredith Burt
Book Title: Politeness in Europe
Book Author: Leo Hickey Miranda Stewart
Publisher: Multilingual Matters
Linguistic Field(s): Pragmatics
Issue Number: 16.2998

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Date: Tue, 11 Oct 2005 18:32:55 -0500
From: Susan Burt
Subject: Politeness in Europe

EDITORS: Hickey, Leo; Stewart, Miranda
TITLE: Politeness in Europe
PUBLISHER: Multilingual Matters
YEAR: 2005

Susan Meredith Burt, Department of English, Illinois State University


The goal of this volume is to provide "an empirical snapshot of issues of
politeness in their respective societies" (p. 1) in Europe. The
Introduction, by the editors, makes clear that in addition to providing
these snapshots, they hope that the individual chapters will address
issues raised by current theoretical frameworks of politeness, several of
which they outline briefly, while noting the explosion of recent work in
the field. The brief critiques of these politeness theories make clear
that one of the goals is to allow readers to compare politeness practices
both between and within chapters; the editors re-iterate some of the
criticisms of the theoretical framework of Brown and Levinson (1987),
noting that key notions of that framework (power, distance and the weight
of imposition) are hard to "calculate," even before attempting comparison
across cultures.

Twenty-two chapters follow, each focused on a separate country in Europe,
grouped into four rough geographical sections, Western Europe, Northern
Europe, Eastern Europe and Southern Europe.


Western Europe
The section on Western Europe is the largest, containing nine chapters.
Juliane House's chapter (which sports the catchiest chapter title of the
volume, "Politeness in Germany: Politeness in GERMANY?") sets the bar high
for the other contributions. House makes clear that while individual
speakers can be polite (or not), linguistic forms or structures cannot be
polite in and of themselves. Rather, "behavior that is adequate in
context" (p. 16) meets an underlying politeness norm. House notes that it
is unrealistic to attempt to collect data only from everyday conversation,
and so, relies on a variety of data types; open role-play, notes on and
reports of "critical incidents," audiotaped narratives by English-
speakers in Germany, and audiotaped authentic interactions. Based on
these data, House asserts that Germans are direct, particularly in
comparison with English speakers; following Blum-Kulka (1987), however,
she argues that indirectness is not necessarily polite, as it requires a
lot of processing on the part of the hearer. House gives both cultural
and historical explanations for the German preference for directness, and
notes that Germans are beginning to add certain politeness routines to
their discourse nonetheless.

In "Politeness in France: How to Buy Bread Politely," Catherine Kerbrat-
Orecchioni, shows from her data on interactions in a bakery in Lyon, that
both customers and shop-keepers employ, in Brown and Levinson's terms,
both positive and negative politeness strategies in the interactions.
Interestingly, she introduces the notion of a "face-flattering act" (or
FFA), as a complement to the "face-threatening act" (FTA) of Brown and
Levinson's theory; this is useful for her ultimate conclusion that French
politeness seems to be situated between the more "northern" systems of
restraint and negative politeness and "southern" conversational qualities
of warmth and involvement.

Service interactions are also the focus of the chapter on Belgium by
Emmanuelle Danblon, Bernard de Clerck and Jean-Pierre Van Noppen. The two
languages of Belgium, Dutch and French, are in "a relationship of
interaction and interference" (p. 45). The authors note that choice of
language is in itself a politeness issue, and recognize the sociopragmatic
ambiguity inherent in any choice a speaker may make, if compelled to
choose between her first language and that of her equally bilingual
interlocutor (see also Burt 1994). Nevertheless, Dutch speakers are more
likely to speak French than the reverse, and so, Dutch becomes a source
for the transfer of pragmatic markers into French. But the main focus of
the article is on service encounters in small shops; 100 of these were
recorded in each of three regions, Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels.
Politeness routines were recorded in all parts of interactions, the
initial requests, the delivery of the requested item, the request for
payment, change-giving, and the farewells (not every interaction had all
these parts, obviously). Interestingly, in Flanders and Wallonia, where
the shopkeepers and customers were socially closer than those in Brussels
were, there were up to one and half times the number of politeness
markers than in Brussels; the authors note that contrary to the politeness
formula of Brown and Levinson (1987:76), here, social closeness seems to
lead to increased politeness. Nevertheless, these markers were not evenly
distributed; there were far more politeness formulae spoken by
salespersons than by customers. The authors further suggest that contrary
to Brown and Levinson, the high level of politeness usage does not seem to
arise because buying and selling are such threatening activities, but
because a ritualized confirming of relationship seems to be a part of
cooperating in these activities.

Johannes Kramer's chapter on Luxemburg presents the country as a
linguistic and cultural crossroad, with its multilingual and multiliterate
citizens learning different politeness strategies as they learn
languages. French is the prestige language, Luxemburgish the in-group
language, and German "a necessary evil" (p. 61). Politeness routines show
the results of this linguistic layering. Kramer cites the formula "wann
iech glift," used when handing something to someone, and gives the history
of this unique expression, which involves influences from German, French
and Dutch. Such calques are not unusual in Luxemburg.

Rob Le Pair's chapter on "Politeness in the Netherlands" is explicitly
comparative. Using a Discourse Completion Task, he elicits requests from
native speakers of Dutch, native speakers of Spanish and Dutch learners of
Spanish. The native speakers of Spanish are far more direct, using the
imperative more than twice as often as the Dutch learners of Spanish do.
Although differences in the configuration of power, social distance and
context can complicate the relationship, the Dutch speakers out-do the
Spanish speakers in their use of conventionally indirect requests.

The chapter on Austria, by Silvia Haumann, Ursula Koch and Karl Sornig,
ranges over a broad expanse of politeness phenomena, from the unique
Austrian greeting formula (Grüss Gott and its variants), to taboo topics,
to the regional variation in preferred address pronouns. There are lists
of devices (such as indirectness or impersonalization) speakers can use
for politeness purposes. Certainly this is useful material, but this
chapter seemed to me to offer somewhat fewer connections to recent
theoretical frameworks, and I was disappointed that the work of A.J. Meier
(1996, 1997) on Austrian politeness was not consulted.

Giuseppe Manno's chapter on Switzerland briefly discusses the well-known
regional model of multilingualism of the country and its classic
diglossia, but focuses on politeness features that are shared across the
regions and languages. Harkening back to Kerbrat-Orecchioni's chapter,
Manno characterizes Swiss politeness as involving both the avoidance of
FTAs and the production of FFAs. Second person pronoun usage is
revealing: in both German and French, use of "du" and "tu" is gaining
ground. Speakers for whom reciprocal "vous" (or "Sie") is the default
tend to be over 50, while non-reciprocal address pronoun usage is
restricted to adult-child interactions. Similarly, the use of elaborate
titles (Frau Professor Doktor) is not favored. Despite a preference for
a consensual over a conflictual style, there is nonetheless a reluctance
to disturb others; in other words, negative face is highly valued, leading
to a preference for conventionally indirect politeness strategies.

Miranda Stewart's chapter on Britain also stresses the multi-ethnic nature
of the country. Here, too, negative politeness is valued, although
address forms are likely to reflect social stratification (the tu/vous
distinction remains only in Quaker speech). Using data from feedback from
supervisors to Spanish tutors, Stewart shows that the British prefer
negative politeness and non-conventional indirect strategies. In these
written feedback texts, face-enhancing comments typically precede more
critical comments, and non-conventional criticism serves to protect the
face of both reader and writer. There is a great deal of hedging, as in "
I felt your marking was slightly generous," an example that also shows the
use of the past tense to distance writer from the critique. Stewart
concludes her comparison of both British and Spanish feedback writers
with "to be British a healthy degree of paranoia can help" (p. 128),
although I wonder whether data drawn from outside the academic world might
have provided a lower paranoia rating. Stewart's analysis of the data is
sensitive and revealing, but her choice of data prevents her from being
able to say much about class variation in British politeness, which would
surely be of interest.

The section on Western Europe closes with the westernmost county, Ireland,
as focus of Jeffrey L. Kallen's chapter. In Ireland, negative politeness
strategies are "elaborated and developed" (p. 130). Silence, Kallen
maintains, is a part of face needs, although hospitality and reciprocity
are also strongly valued. Politeness characteristics of Irish
conversational style include "conversational understatement, hedges,
minimization, conventional pessimism, reciprocity, reference to common
ground, in-group identity markers and conventional optimism" (p. 139).
Kallen illustrates each of these features with examples, such as the
example of clause-initial "sure" used to elicit agreement in the
conventionally optimistic attempt (to get a guest to stay longer, one
assumes), "You won't go just yet, sure you won't" (p. 142).

Northern Europe
The section on Northern Europe opens with Thorstein Fretheim's
chapter, "Politeness in Norway: How Can You Be Polite and Sincere?" Norway
is stereotypically conceived of as very egalitarian, and thus Norwegian
is "remarkably short on conventional markers of positive politeness" (p.
145). Besides the lack of the tu/vous distinction, items that would seem
to convey positive politeness are felt to be insincere. However,
Norwegians "thank profusely" (p. 146), with thanks serving even as a
greeting ("thanks for yesterday"). Requests are made polite with
conventional indirectness, using a question with "kan" or "kunne": "Can
you send me the butter?" Attempting an extra dollop of politeness, as
in "would you be so nice as to send the butter?" signals impatience, and
indeed the formula which translates as "be so nice as to" is often used
by children simply as a request marker as in "Can I be so nice as to get
one more cookie?" (p. 154). For the requester to shift the request to
past tense is the safest politeness strategy, since "too much linguistic
embroidery for the sake of mitigating requests is normally
counterproductive" (p. 157).

Similarly, the chapter on Danish, by Elin Fredsted, portrays Danish as
largely informal, where "hierarchies are largely invisible or hidden" (p.
158). Fredsted focuses on address forms, conversation openers and
closers, and politeness markers in her analysis of 120 conversations at
Danish and German tourist information offices. Choosing appropriate
address forms is complex, with age, gender and regional dialect variation
leading to uncertainty, and thus, avoidance, on the part of Danes
themselves. In getting into and out of conversations, Danes seem to be
more direct than Germans; a Danish tourist would open the conversation by
asking "What can I see here?" (p. 162) while a German tourist is more
likely to begin with a greeting. In fact Fredsted finds " a remarkable
frequency of verbal politeness markers in the German, with the obvious
conclusion that the German speakers express somewhat more verbal negative
politeness and much more positive politeness compared to the Danes" (p.
168). Nonetheless, the Danes, like the Norwegians,
employ "tak," 'thanks,' a great deal and with a variety of functions.

Cornelia Ilie's chapter on Sweden focuses on personal pronouns and
politeness strategies in parliamentary talk, and the comparison she
chooses to make is with British English, using as data transcripts from
the Riksdag and the House of Commons. In both institutions, speakers may
use both second person and third person to refer to an addressee; if the
third person use conveys distance (and thus, deference) in both cases,
second person use by the same speaker can come to sound confrontational,
even though members of the Swedish parliament use only the vous
equivalent, "ni," with each other. In both Swedish and English, the use
of the first person plural can be employed to increase the speaker's own
authoritativeness, but only in the Swedish transcripts is the same form
used to have an "inclusive and mobilizing" tone (p. 184) in attempts to
move the members towards consensus.

Valma Yli-Vakkuri's chapter on Finland closes the Northern Europe
section. Because Finland was annexed to Sweden for much of its history,
there are similarities in speech and behavior, and "standards of
politeness are, in principle, pan-European" (p. 189). But there are also
pressures from a colloquial variety of Finnish which lead to somewhat less
formality. Thus, although Finland shared in the use of the second person
plural pronoun as a formal address term, it also allows the omission of
personal pronouns in first and second persons; Finns may bring into any
interaction a variety of preferences on this issue, and so "reference to
the addressee is avoided at all costs" (p. 191). The chapter describes
several avoidance strategies, such as the reminder on the door of a
changing room, which translates, "Was anything forgotten?" while the
Swedish version of the sign translates, "Did you forget anything?" Rather
than using particles or phrases for such strategies as mitigating, Finnish
has grammatical devices for these functions, such as suffixes or case
changes; the partitive case can serve as a polite substitute for the
nominative or accusative. The fact that "politeness norms in standard
Finnish are largely based on loans from other languages" (p. 201) means
that many Finns may find the use of this style uncomfortable at best.

Eastern Europe
The four societies representing Eastern Europe have in common relatively
recent transformations of government and economy, and thus there is reason
to look for changes in politeness practices. Leelo Keevallik's chapter on
Estonia, for example, notes that while the change to a market economy has
led to changes in service encounters, a simultaneous move towards
informality has left older speakers less than pleased with the politeness
practices of younger speakers. Estonian maintains the tu/vous
distinction, and the analysis of Brown and Gilman (1968) shows up as
remarkably robust here, in that a solidarity semantic seems to prevail in
Estonia, with symmetric second person pronoun usage the norm. Otherwise,
there is a certain amount of "reference avoidance" (p. 208) as in Finland,
greeting routines are not elaborate, compliments are rare, silence is not
threatening, and directness is not offensive.

Romuald Huszcza's chapter on Poland postulates, in addition to the tu and
vous forms, "a regular grammatical category of honorifics within certain
verbal forms" (p. 218); these are compared with the honorific system of
Japanese. These honorifics, many of them elaborate developments of the
noun "pan," 'gentleman,' do not necessarily reflect social categories or
social stratification, but are strategically bestowed; " the speaker
decides what rank, higher or lower, to confer on the person spoken to or
about" (p. 223). As in Japanese, terms like 'wife' or 'husband' have
different forms, depending on whether the referent in questions belongs to
the speaker or the addressee. The result is a highly elaborated category
of second person.

Lorant Bencze claims that there is a split in Hungarian society between a
traditional cultural paradigm and a new one; adherents of each paradigm
have different conceptions of what politeness is, and thus, of how to
evaluate verbal practices. The result of this split is that politeness
practices may serve to maximize rather than minimize conflict. Bencze
outlines the numerous variants of both address and reference, and places
these within a system of solidarity and hierarchy, although factors such
as authority, relationship and the presence or absence of the referent
from the speaking situation also play a role. In Hungary, too, the
tu/vous pronoun system is moving in the direction of increased use of
symmetric tu, although older paradigm adherents find this impolite.

The chapter on "Politeness in the Czech Republic," by Jiri Nekvapil and J.
V. Neustupny also reflects the Brown and Gilman analysis, in that here,
too, the "management of honorifics" (p. 248) is an issue. A new economy
has also changed the power relationship between customers and service
personnel; a mutual use of the ty (= tu) pronoun, however, is the default
case with increasing numbers of younger speakers. Yet the vy (=vous)
honorific use remains, perhaps because of the long contact with Austria.

Southern Europe
The chapter on politeness in Greece, by Maria Sifianou and Eleni
Antonopoulou, is based on a fairly large number of previous research
projects on Greek language politeness. The authors argue that
the "positive politeness orientation" (p. 264) of Greek offers motivation
for analyzing speech acts in terms of their enhancement of positive face
as well as possible threats to negative face, as the Brown and Levinson
framework considers. Furthermore, speech acts (for a number of reasons)
should be analyzed in the natural sequence of conversations, rather than
as isolated acts. Thus, apologies and thanks seem to be less frequent in
Greek than in English-indeed, to socially close interlocutors, thanking
might be offensive, given the positive politeness orientation of Greek
society. Directive announcements in airplanes in Greek are more
personalized than those in English, which include passives and other de-
personalizing strategies. While Greek telephone callers do not self-
identify (expecting to be recognized by their voices), in comparison to
German telephone users, Greeks prefer to have "how-are-you" sequences as a
part of call openings. In panel discussions, participants may on occasion
break into another speaker's turn with a supportive contribution-all of
these practices are evidence of the Greek preference for positive

Marina Terkourafi's chapter on Cypriot Greek acknowledges a diglossic
relationship of this language with Standard Modern Greek; not
surprisingly, the local koine is used 'to foreground sincerity and
friendliness" (p. 279). Using 115 hours of taped conversations,
Terkourafi notes that certain features serve to identify speakers as
middle class, such as the "nonliteral use of the second person plural" (p.
283). On the other hand, Cypriot Greeks tend to dislike non-literal
diminutives ("a small coffee"), which they also associate with the
standard. Direct expressions are not perceived as impolite.

In "Politeness in Italy: The Art of Self-Representation in Requests,"
Gudrun Held takes a historical approach. Arguing that urbanity and
courtesy were part of an early ideal of self-representation, Held
describes how in various periods Italian politeness forms were "exposed to
continuous overstatement and semantic reshaping" (p. 295). She cites
passages from a rhetoric manual dating from 1240, where requests are
embedded in compliment sequences, and passages from the eighteenth century
plays of Goldoni, showing politeness forms "undergoing a semantic loss
which has to be countered by further hyperbolisation" (p. 298). Thus, it
comes as no surprise that from a 1995 questionnaire to young adults
designed to elicit requests, Held is able to cite an elaborate request
sequence, with greetings, minimizers, supportive acts, and even an offer.
In Italian, "Being verbally polite requires high effort, informed by
social competence and psychological pressure in order to maintain
harmonious efficient interaction" (p. 303).

Maria Helena Araujo Carreira ("Politeness in Portugal: How to Address
Others") describes Portuguese culture: "gregarious relationships,
consensus and tact are favored over confrontation, frankness or the
protection of an individual's territory" (p. 308). With this particular
combination of traits, there seems to be an elaboration of politeness
routines for numerous situations, such as routines for the deferral of
leave-taking, some of which may seem too over-the-top to non-Portuguese.
There are similarly numerous options for address terms; Carreira finds the
Brown and Gilman (1968) model somewhat inadequate, and lists the variety
of address forms that can replace "voce" or the zero-pronoun and combine
with a third-person verb as a polite form of address. This variety of
options, and the "fuzziness" that results, the author argues, helps render
all of these options more polite than the tu form of address.

The final chapter, "Politeness in Spain: Thanks but no 'Thanks'," by Leo
Hickey, describes Spaniards as admiring negative politeness but rarely
engaging in it. Kindness and friendliness are highly valued, and Hickey's
observations lead him to conclude that Spaniards prefer a high involvement
style (Tannen 1984). Part of a positive politeness style are "lavish
compliments and expressions of praise and appreciation," which are not
perceived as flattery, but as "cornerstones of friendship and solidarity"
(p. 320). Interestingly, however, Hickey shows that in gift-giving
scenarios, explicit thanking seems to be rare, though expressions of
appreciation are not, yielding what Hickey labels "non-formulaic, non-
self-humbling, non-deferential thanking" (p. 329).


The editors, in speaking of these chapters as "snapshots," are candid
about their goal. Reading these chapters is indeed like looking at a
friend's travel photographs: the viewer is somewhat frustrated at not
being able to see more, or to experience the pictured space first-hand,
yet happy at the opportunity to see at least this much vicariously. Thus,
while each chapter is necessarily short, there is a great deal of
information in this volume. The breadth of territory covered does come at
the expense of some depth: little is said, for example, about minority
languages in some of the countries surveyed here, such as Frisian in the
Netherlands, one case where politeness issues might be important.

Nevertheless, the goal of offering material for comparative purposes is
clearly met. Thus, Spanish is explicitly compared with English and with
Dutch, German with Danish and with English, and so on. But in addition,
there are certain kinds of politeness issues that recur across these
chapters, such as request-making and address forms, hardy perennials of
politeness research, so that a certain amount of comparison between, say,
address terms in Polish and in Portuguese is possible, should a reader be
so inclined. Ultimately, however, each chapter relies on its own type of
data; there was no uniform assignment for data-collection passed out to
the authors. But the uniqueness of focus of each chapter increases rather
than decreases the interest of the volume, which should appeal to scholars
in cross-cultural pragmatics, anthropology, second-language acquisition
and language teaching, as well as to scholars of politeness.


Blum-Kulka, Shoshana. 1987. Indirectness and politeness in requests:
Same or different? Journal of Pragmatics 11: 131-146,

Brown, Penelope and Stephen Levinson. 1987. Politeness. Cambridge: CUP.

Brown, Roger and Albert Gilman. 1968 [1960]. The Pronouns of Power and
Solidarity. In Joshua A. Fishman (ed): Readings in the Sociology of
Language. The Hague: Mouton.

Burt, Susan Meredith. 1994. "Code Choice in Intercultural Conversation:
Speech Accommodation Theory and Pragmatics." Pragmatics 4,4: 535-559.

Meier, A. J. 1996. Two cultures mirrored in repair work. Multilingua
15,2: 149-169.

Meier, A. J. 1997. What's the Excuse? Image Repair in Austrian German.
The Modern Language Journal, 81, ii,: 197-208.

Tannen, Deborah. 1984. Conversational Style: Analyzing Talk Among
Friends. Norwood NJ: Ablex.


Susan Meredith Burt is Associate Professor at Illinois State University in
Normal, Illinois. She is currently researching changes in politeness
practices in the language of the immigrant Hmong community in Wisconsin.
Her most recent publication is "How to Get Rid of Unwanted Suitors" in
volume 1, number 2 of the Journal of Politeness Research.

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