Politeness in English and German: a contrastive study

Seminar Paper, 2003

14 Pages, Grade: 1.7 (A-)


Table of Contents

1. Introduction- Why be polite? Problems in cross-cultural communication

1.1. The popular view- cultures and prejudices, relative vs. absolute politeness

2. The linguistic view- Theoretical Framework
2.1. Leech’s Interpersonal Rhetoric
2.2. The concept of face, positive and negative politeness strategies

3. Realising Politeness in German and English
3.1. Comparing all-German and all-English interaction: requests and complaints
3.2. Mediated German- English requests and complaints
3.3. Politeness markers in academic texts of German and English

4. Conclusion (some personal remarks)

5. Works Cited

1. Introduction- Why be polite? Problems in cross-cultural communication

Almost all linguistic research views politeness as a universal feature of civilized societies, regardless of their background culture, or their language. Politeness is thus seen as an important social or ‘urbane’ value, inherent to successful communication, although its realization may vary across the different speech communities. Politeness offers a good way of emotional control of the individual (House and Kasper, 1981: 158), and is typically means of preserving and maintaining good social relationship between the speakers of one or more cultures. Polite behaviour generally protects the individual, as well as their addressee, and often becomes subject matter of self-help books on etiquette, especially in cases when people belong to a specific hierarchy (royal court, business company etc).

The verbal realization of politeness poses even greater problems when the interlocutors belong to different cultures and try to communicate, transferring their pragmatic knowledge of polite behaviour into the foreign language. Lack of practice and the learners’ concern with rendering correctly the foreign language’s grammatical structures in the first place often lead to misunderstandings, or the so-called ‘socio-pragmatic failures’ (Thomas, 1983)- ‘ errors resulting from non-native speakers not knowing what to say or not saying the appropriate things as a result of transferring incongruent social rules, values and belief systems from their native languages and cultures’. These types of errors are likely to cause a downright insult for both the non-native and the native speakers of a certain language, the native speakers misunderstanding and misinterpreting the intentions of the non-native speaker, and the non-native speakers being over-sensitive to ‘distinctions of grammatical form’ (Brown and Levinson 1996: 35), in a way the native speakers are not. In any case, being polite is essential to maintaining healthy social relations within a specific culture, and even more so, for the communication across cultures.

Cross-cultural communication offers a wide field for research, as the socio-pragmatic failure of one speaker of a certain community tends to be stereotyped for the whole community (Knapp-Potthoff 1992: 203), consequently labeling a nation as rude, over-polite, insincere etc. For instance, one is often confronted with statements like ‘Russians are rude’, ‘The English are hypocrites’, ‘Japanese bow a lot’, all of them resulting from a superficial comparison between the own pragmatic knowledge and the politeness strategies of the foreign culture.

In my paper I will compare politeness practices of the German and English speech communities, looking at all-native communication in the respective language, as well as a cross-cultural one, trying to account for the major differences or similarities of the spoken discourse, and finally I will have a quick look at written texts in both German and English.

1.1. The popular view- cultures and prejudices, relative vs. absolute politeness

In der deutschen Tradition herrscht ein gebrochenes Verhältnis zur Ordnung. Das drohende Chaos glaubt man nur durch das Pochen auf Regeln eindämmen zu können. Das Vertrauen in tradierte Sittlichkeit ist ebenso gründlich gestört."- Florian Coulmas for dpa.

At a first glance, when comparing the English with the German language, one might say that the English tend to be more polite, excuse a lot, and use modal structures more frequently than speakers of German. Germans, on the other hand, are often considered impolite in translating their offers, orders or requests in English, and are often seen as rude in their own language. Germans tend to use a less tentative and more direct language to their children, as linguist Florian Coulmas observed, (however, he compared them to Japanese parent-children interactions), thereby being stigmatised as generally less polite. He sees this tendency in German behaviour as a late consequence of the Nazi-regime and Germans’ traditional love-hate relations to law and order, the German language thus expressing the inherent need of imposing rules and regulations through it.

However, appearing impolite and being essentially impolite are two different things, and one should take into account the ‘different social norms of the two speech communities’ (House and Kasper 1981:158) and their different verbal realisations. To illustrate, it is a common belief that western cultures typically define politeness only in its negative dimension, i.e. the individual’s need to be unimpeded and respected by others (Brown and Levinson, 1996); Mediterranean cultures would rather rely on positive politeness strategies, like stressing group-identity and being familiar and over-friendly, Chinese and Japanese are over-modest and self-effacing with regard to their personal achievements. (Leech 1983:150). In this respect, the German and the English cultures can be viewed as very similar on account of their geographic closeness, and one might expect of both speech communities to define negative politeness as the norm for polite linguistic behaviour in a rather similar way.

Polite behaviour can be measured according to many other factors besides culture, such as age, gender, or some type of hierarchy. Therefore, one should distinguish between a relative and an absolute politeness (Leech 1983: 84), and the absolute politeness can be considered as a matter of pragmatic research rather than the relative.

2. The linguistic view- Theoretical Framework

There have been several definitions of politeness as a linguistic phenomenon in the broader sense, and I will shortly quote them before comparing the German with the English realisation of politeness. Generally speaking, the more indirect and circumlocutionary a speech act is, the more polite it tends to be (Leech 1983, Lakoff 1973). Lakoff states the common rules of politeness as ‘not imposing, being friendly and giving options to your addressee’ (Lakoff 1973), and later linguists would define politeness as a more complex phenomenon than just ‘being civil’ (Leech 1983: 104).

2.1. Leech’s Interpersonal Rhetoric

Geoffrey Leech suggests that politeness is an issue of what he defines as interpersonal rhetoric, which ‘concerns a relationship between a self and an other’. The indirectness and the success of communication between the self and the other can be analyzed by the relation of two principles, viz. The Cooperative Principle and the Politeness Principle (in short the CP and the PP). (Leech, 1983: 79, 131). The CP, or the premise that people agree to interact or cooperate, does not explain the ‘relation between sense and force’ (Leech 1983: 80), especially if under certain circumstances polite behaviour is given priority over cooperation and the exchange of information or vice versa. The PP is defined as ‘minimizing the expression of impolite beliefs’ and is even seen as a higher regulator of communication, upholding friendliness and good social relations. Therefore, there can often be a clash between the two principles, so that one has to choose whether to be more cooperative and informative, or more polite and friendly. Leech introduces seven contributory maxims to boost the PP, namely the tact maxim, the generosity maxim, the approbation maxim, the modesty maxim, the agreement maxim and the sympathy maxim. (Leech 1983:132). All seven state roughly that one should minimize the cost and maximize the benefit to others (meaning hearer or third parties), and for the English-speaking society the definition of politeness can thus be leveled with the above statement, or the maxim of tact. Tact is one kind of politeness, which applies to the directives and commissives of Searle, i.e. the illocutionary acts of giving orders and making requests on the one hand, and those of promising or committing to do something in the future on the other. Leech suggests a cost-benefit scale, and the most direct orders like ‘Peel the potatoes!’ are the rudest and the most forceful, whereas requests like ‘Could you possibly answer the phone?’ tend to be most polite and giving more options to the addressee. One could naturally exploit the PP in order to achieve a certain effect, resulting thus in irony, as in:


Excerpt out of 14 pages


Politeness in English and German: a contrastive study
University of Bayreuth  (UB Bayreuth)
Contrastive Linguistics
1.7 (A-)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
523 KB
Politeness, English, German, Contrastive, Linguistics
Quote paper
Svetla Rogatcheva (Author), 2003, Politeness in English and German: a contrastive study, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/30085


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