What Does It Mean to Be Polite?

This month on YouTube I continue to explore topics that boost conversational skills, such as expressing surprise and giving compliments, and I find myself asking whether everyone has the same definition of polite. The concept of good manners can vary from culture to culture, and even from one social circle to another, people’s understanding of what’s acceptable changes. I recall a young international student explaining how saying no is rude back home, so he would rather say yes to an invitation and simply not show up. The way he sees it, that’s a polite refusal. Of course, if he did that at a social event I was hosting, I’d likely be miffed.

Declining invitations and refusing requests will be one of my future video topics. If you choose to share any of my suggested phrases with your learners, I’d recommend having a discussion about expectations. In this day and age, many of us use evites and calendar invites that require a response: Yes, No, or Maybe. Clicking on Maybe is usually an unspoken promise that you’ll make your final decision closer to the time of the event. Many Americans appreciate certainty in these matters, and head counts are especially important for party planning.

Speaking directly vs. using softened speech (i.e., using hedging devices or sugarcoating our words) also warrants some discussion. The very next lesson I’ll share on YouTube presents suggestions for softening opinions and suggestions. Ideally, students should have the opportunity to discuss the wisdom of word choice in these matters:
– In what contexts is clear, direct speech appreciated?
– When should we exercise some caution in expressing an opinion or delivering feedback?
– How can we avoid sounding too forceful?
– How can we not come across as weak and indecisive?

Swearing, expressing anger, and postponing a conversation are additional points to reflect on. Does doing any of those actions make you a rude person?

If you’d like to allow students to reflect on social dos and don’ts in small groups, please see my list of suggested questions: understanding politeness_handout. Discussion would be especially enlightening in an ESL classroom with a good amount of cultural diversity, but a mix of age groups could also lead to a healthy exchange of ideas.

In my search for a rule of thumb for students to follow, I recalled a line from the corny, but endearing 1999 film Blast From the Past, where one character passes along some insight from a man who’s mentally and socially stuck in the 1950s: “I thought a gentleman was somebody who owns horses. But it turns out…the short and simple definition of a lady or a gentleman is someone who always tries to make sure that the people around him or her are as comfortable as possible.” (See full scriptWatch the scene.)

Photo credit: Men, Dark, Gentelman, Courtesy by yiwunzhang. Retrieved from the Public Domain at https://pixabay.com/en/men-people-dark-gentleman-courtesy-3239245/.

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