What is politeness?

culture elt politeness speaking Oct 22, 2021

By Dr Jeremy Koay

A limited view

Viewing politeness as a universally accepted norm is an incomplete or even misleading understanding of the concept. In fact, research in the early development of politeness theory, such as that of Brown and Levinson (1987), has been criticised for its lack of consideration of situational and cultural differences. For example, Meier (1997) criticises the view that directness (e.g., imperative clauses) is always seen as being less polite than indirectness. Expressions such as “come in” and “make yourselves at home” are imperatives that express hospitality.

In the context of language teaching and learning, the teaching of politeness tends to focus on what speakers say rather than audience’s perception of their speech. Even if language classes consider listeners’ perceptions, they rarely attend to how learners themselves can respond to impoliteness from others.

A holistic view

Politeness can be seen as maintaining social norms and as showing respect (Mugford, 2007). However, social norms are not universal and expectations may, in fact, vary within a community. Some cultures value directness and others value indirectness (Meier, 1997).

While there is a need to help students communicate in a polite and appropriate manner, Mugford (2007) argues that teachers should prepare learners to respond to impolite remarks. These may include attacks on individuals, social roles and cultures (Mugford, 2007).

Theory and practice

As perceptions of politeness are dynamic and may differ from one culture to another, learners can benefit from awareness raising activities (Meier, 1997). For example, teachers can play an audio recording of a conversation and ask students to discuss whether and why they think it is (in)appropriate.

Because the way politeness is realised is also influenced by the relationship between participants (e.g., parent-child, employer-employee, friends), teachers can draw learners’ attention to this aspect and ask them to comment on it, using recordings as input.

To help learners deal with perceived impoliteness, teachers can ask learners to share impolite experiences and discuss possible ways to respond to these situations. Teachers should also ask learners to provide reasons to support their suggestions.

In any case, it is important for learners to give an impolite remark the benefit of the doubt.

It is also important to encourage learners not to generalise an impolite experience to an entire community (Mugford, 2007).


Meier, A. J. (1997). Teaching the universals of politeness. ELT Journal, 51(1), 21-28.

Mugford, G. (2007). How rude! Teaching impoliteness in the second-language classroom. ELT Journal, 62(4), 375-384.

Dr Jeremy Koay is a New Zealand-based Independent Researcher and a Research & Development Consultant at EduMaxi. He obtained his PhD in Applied Linguistics from Victoria University of Wellington in 2015. His research interests include Discourse Analysis, Genre Analysis and TESOL.

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