Department of Linguistics & English Language, Lancaster University

Four Myths About Impoliteness

Myth 1: People are predisposed towards being impolite

A popular myth is that impoliteness is assumed to be an unfortunate behavioural aberration, a predisposition, or even to be the consequence of a genetics. In fact the expression "genetically impolite" is slang for "someone who is of detestable nature, or lower intelligence, bitch , asshole , idiot " ( There is no clear evidence that impoliteness relates to genetics. It is plausible, however, that certain personality types are more likely to be impolite. It has been proposed that Type-A personalities are characterised by competitiveness, being in a hurry and being aggressive (Rosenman and Friedman 1974). The connection between Type-A and aggression has been confirmed in a number of studies (e.g. Carver and Glass 1978, Strube et al. 1984). One might reasonably expect Type-A personalities to be more likely to engage in impolite behaviour and be more expected to do so. However, the evidence that impoliteness is hardwired into people is still very thin. It is much more plausible that people acquire impoliteness behaviours through socialization. Research has suggested that aggressive behavioural routines in particular situations can be learnt and enacted (e.g. Perry, Perry and Boldizar 1990), and it seems likely that this is the case for impoliteness too. So why does this myth exist? There is a very close connection between judgements about behaviours and judgements about people and the social groups of which they are a part (and indeed where they were socialized). Describing someone as impolite is both a comment on their behaviour and a comment on them as a person and their cultural background.

Myth 2: People are more hurt by physical acts than verbal ones

Research suggests that the saying "sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me" is not always true. Michele Burman and her colleagues (e.g. Burman et al. 2002) found, for example, that teenage girls viewed non-physical or verbal behaviours as intended and/or experienced as potentially more hurtful and damaging than physical violence. Greenwell and Dengerink (1973: 70), working in a very different tradition of research on aggression, had arrived at a very similar conclusion: "while attack is an important instigator of aggressive behaviour, it appears that the physical discomfort experienced by a person may be subordinate to the symbolic elements that are incorporated in that attack". Symbolic attack is very much the business of linguistic impoliteness.

Myth 3: The British are becoming more impolite as the years go by

Many British people have the impression of a massive explosion in the use of impolite language. However, if we go back over 1,000 years to the Old English text Beowulf , we will find jaw-dropping - from our modern perspective - brusqueness. Similarly, a study I made (with Dawn Archer) of over 1,000 requests in the period 1640-1760 discovered that approximately half were produced with a direct imperative (e.g. " Give me water", " Get thee to bed") and no other device to soften the request or signal politeness. In contrast, studies of present-day direct requests suggest that they are rather rare - fewer than 10%. The point is that impoliteness is perceived to be a big deal today because perceptions of what counts as impolite usage are changing. What is driving this change? The linguist, Deborah Cameron (2007), suggests that it is two factors. One is the rise of popular psychotherapy advocating the expression of emotions rather than suppression; the other is the rise of corporate culture advocating direct expression amongst employees rather than than indirect. These factors have helped create conditions in which the free expression of emotions and direct talk are positively valued. The problem is that this new cultural ethos flies in the face of traditional values whereby emotions are controlled, and talk is circumspect. One might say that the new "let it all hang out culture" is clashing with the "beat about the bush" culture. A result of this clash is a sense amongst traditionalists that their values are under attack.

Myth 4: Impolite language is a debased, simplistic form of language

For some, impoliteness is the nasty scum on the margins of language. The idea that impolite language is simplistic also tallies with the view that it is merely an emotional reflex. In fact, whilst many of my examples of impoliteness are convention - even banal - there are also many which are skilfully creative. Compare the following two (vocative) insults:

you bitter yorkshire pie munching ale drinking sheep fucking poof

Lancaster University library desk graffiti

Thou clay-brained guts, thou knotty-pated fool, thou whoreson obscene greasy tallow-catch!

Shakespeare, Henry IV (Part 1), Act II, scene iv

Insults rarely exceed three words in length, but both these break that norm for creative effect. Moreover, both use non-conventional elements. For example, Shakespeare uses the metaphor of the "greasy tallow-catch", whilst "pie munching ale drinking" are rather unusual epithets for insults. The elements in the graffiti example are also syntactically and metrically patterned (parallel) for effect (/ = stressed; x = unstressed):

  /  x
bitter [adjective]

  /      x
yorkshire [adjective]

  /     /     x
pie munching [noun post-modified by an adjectival participle]

/      /   x
ale drinking [noun post-modified by an adjectival participle]

    /      /   x
sheep fucking [noun post-modified by an adjectival participle]

This is hardly the stuff of a simple emotional reflex.