Monday, November 21, 2005

No please

It annoys me to hear people saying something like, 'in such and such language there is no word for such and such' as if it bears great meaning in regard to the culture of the speakers of that language. It reflects the ignorant assumption that a language is just a collection of words.

A common example of this is a statement I hate, 'a lot of people who learn English as a second language come across as rude because there is no word for please in their language'.

Most English speakers don't realise that saying please is the smallest part of sounding polite. In most sentences, please is just an extra frill which is very liable to sarcastic use. The only time we are genuinely impressed by please is when it's spoken by small children or parrots.

It's a tragedy if people are taught that please is the key to politeness without being taught the importance of:
- tone
- boy language
- modals e.g. could you, can you, would you etc.
- super polite forms - if you don't mind, if it's not too much trouble, if you could that would be fantastic

The reason that some non-native speakers of any languge can come across as rude is that politeness is actually very complicated. This is more true of English (an ugly mess of a language) than it is of most languages which have more organised systems for sounding polite.

Politeness is a feature of all languages but it needs to be taught. It's not automatic that a person who is polite in their first language will be polite in a second. If language is a tool to get what we want then being polite (or persuasive, manipulative etc.) is often just as important as being able to clearly express what it is that we actually want.

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