Department of Linguistics & English Language, Lancaster University


National cultures

Research on impoliteness needs some way of capturing the fact that different groups of people - different "cultures" - have different norms and different values. Values and norms lie at the heart of impoliteness. But culture is a notoriously difficult notion to define. Some academics avoid using it for this reason. I think this is a mistake, not least of all because people use some notion of culture in their everyday understandings (for example, I have heard my rather roundabout way of asking for things attributed by members of other cultures to the fact that I am stereotypically "English"). A strong reason for considering impoliteness across cultures is that this it helps avoid ethnocentrism involving English; that is, to assume that what holds for some notion of English culture applies across all cultures. Spencer-Oatey (2000:4) provide a useful definition of culture:

Culture is a fuzzy set of attitudes, beliefs, behavioural conventions, and basic assumptions and values that are shared by a group of people, and that influence each member's behaviour and each member's interpretations of the 'meaning' of other people's behaviour.

None of this is to deny that cultures are multiple and constantly undergoing change, and that people shift in and out of particular cultures. We also need to be wary that discussion of national cultures does not give the impression that this is the only kind of group that constitutes a culture. Cultures can also be constituted by groups based on geographical communities, genders, ages, and so on (i.e. the local cultures of the following section).

I contrasted diary-type reports of impoliteness events. Informants reported conversational events in which they had experienced offence because of what somebody said. I collected 100 such reports from undergraduates brought up in England, and colleagues collected a further hundred reports for each of the following countries: China, Finland, Germany and Turkey. [ Chinese data was gathered by Meilian Mei (Zhejiang University of Technology, China); Finnish data by Minna Nevala (University of Helsinki; with help from Johanna Tanner from the same institution); German data by Gila Schauer (Lancaster University, UK); and Turkish data by Leyla Marti (Bogaziçi University, Turkey)]. Involving just undergraduate students allowed me to conduct contrasts with students of a similar age and educational background in other countries Of course, my study is limited by the fact that it is centred in "student culture": student informant populations do not reflect the total cultural diversity of a particular nation! Having said that, the bulk of my data involves reports of impoliteness events that are not in university contexts; student culture is not an island unto itself.

Having analysed all 500 diary-type reports, the overall finding was that students from all countries took offence at broadly similar things. However, there were some differences of emphasis. For example, the English data more often involved events in which an individual's face (see Concepts) had been damaged; the Chinese data more often involved events in which somebody perceived a breach of social norms or rights. There were also interesting differences at a detailed level. For example, the Finnish data contained an unusual number of events involving offence taken at comments that the informant appeared to be overweight; the English data seemed to contain an unusual number of events involving offence taken purely because language perceived to be taboo had been used.

Local cultures

Some local group cultures have value systems or ideologies in which impolite behaviours are positively valued . For example, impolite behaviours may project a particular masculine identity which is positively valued in some cultural groups, despite being negatively valued in others. Although not specifically studying impoliteness, there is research which provides support for this general idea. Vandello and Cohen (2003) studied the "culture of honour", a culture that ascribes positive values to male violence as a way of restoring social reputation or economic position, and can be found in various parts of the world including some Mediterranean countries, the middle east, Central and Southern America, and the southern United States. Another cultural ideology, labelled "subculture of violence" (Toch 1969), concerns a subgroup of society, typically an urban gang, in which a higher level of violence is accepted as a social norm. A related ideology is that of "machismo", which places a positive value on aggression as a way of dealing with challenges and differences of opinion, and has been studied in various countries including Italy and Latin America. Tomada and Schneider (1997) linked machismo in some of the more traditional areas of Italy to the higher rate of male bullying in school compared with some other countries. Such cultural ideologies legitimise as positive values values which others may take as negative.

Note that the local cultures mentioned above have dominant ideologies, belief systems that can sustain and normalise patterns of behaviour that serve power hierarchies (cf. Barthes 1970). Insults, for example, particularly those involving social identities and face (e.g. racist and sexist insults), can be a means of controlling others as well as maintaining dominant groups in society at the expense of others. Flynn (1977:66) highlights the motivations for using such insults:

(1) dominant values and norms can be reaffirmed, (2) the insulter might gain status within his own reference group, and (3) the dominant group might have social objects upon which to project their unacceptable feelings and desires.

In fact, the idea that certain groups have ideologies which positively value (at least certain types of) impoliteness is not at all limited to marginalised local cultures. Consider the fact that in Britain (and indeed many other countries) it is generally not considered impolite for parents to use direct requests and threats to their children, but extremely impolite for children to use the same to their parents. Institutional power structures underpin these cultural contexts and give rise to dominant ideologies by which impoliteness is legitimated and (typically) unchallenged (e.g. free from penalities).