Are You Being Polite Enough? Read This and Find Out.

Formality is a feature of many languages in Europe, Asia, and other places. Curiously enough, the only language I can think of that doesn’t really have words explicitly dedicated to this is English, and technically Brazilian Portuguese. We dropped the word, “thou,” the equivalent of usted, vous, Lei, você, अाप (aap), and 당신 (dangshin) from English a long time ago. There’s actually a term for this, the tu-vous distinction.

But before we move on, let’s get something straight: “formality,” in linguistic contexts, is often a misnomer. Formality is a quality of language (written or spoken) that you use in certain situations, such as speaking with officials, discussing transactions, and other such scenarios. This consists of a different of set of vocabulary. What most language textbooks and teachers are talking about when they say, “formality,” is actually what most people would call, “politeness.” These are not the same thing, which a lot of people (in my experience), don’t immediately realize. Sure, they’re closely associated, but they can exist separately. “Politeness” describes behavior, how nicely or rudely you speak to someone, such as with your grandparents, or with your teachers at school. You can be polite without being formal, and the other way around. Every language can be formal, but not every language can be explicitly polite.

Now we have the confusion sorted out. I find that people who speak languages where there exists a separate polite pronoun for, “you,” and/or “you all,” the people have a stricter sense of what is good and bad behavior. Whether you’re being polite or not actually changes what you say in many languages. In English, politeness is often indicated by your tone of voice, and the inclusion of the word, “please.” However, in other languages, the sentence can change quite noticeably, such as in the case of Italian. Take the command, “Dammi il sale” (Give me the salt). There are a couple of more polite substitutions, such as “Mi dia il sale (still a bit rude),” “Mi dia il sale, per favore (a bit better than before)”, and “Mi darebbe Lei il sale?” (indirect, uses the conditional).

In Korean, there are four distinct, “styles,” of speaking, which consider both formality and politeness. The first style, formal high (inventive, I know), is both the most formal and most polite. This is what you use with clientele if you run a business, or in a meeting with government officials. In those situations, you do need to be both polite and formal, because you obviously wouldn’t say, “Yo, what’s up,” to the President of South Korea. In contrast, the fourth style, informal low, is used mostly with children and between very close friends. There’s no need (most of the time) to be formal or polite with a child, or with your buddy since kindergarten.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that people who speak English as their first language are less polite. But there is definitely a looser sense of when you need to be polite. In English, I hear people speak to their parents informally much more often than in, say, Hindi. Hindi-speakers will never refer to their parents using, “तुम/तू, tum/tuu”, unless there is a great degree of intimacy or they’re being intentionally rude. Typically, Hindi-speakers opt for “अाप, aap”, which is the more polite way of saying, “you.” In Italian, Spanish, and other Romance languages, you actually have to request or give permission to use the informal form. It is not at all uncommon for Italian speakers, to say something like, “Potremmo usare la forma, ‘tu’?” (Could we use the “tu” form?”)

That’s my piece for today. Maybe this will give you something to think about. Feel free to leave your own thoughts in the comments!

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sr3934@nyu.edu

I'm a student studying at NYU, hoping to pursue a career in diplomatic services, and I'm obsessed with learning and teaching foreign languages. I like to practice Taekwondo, enjoy Square Enix video games, and engage in Asian-American social activism and international political activism.