Is politeness universal?

Is politeness universal?

Parliamo inglese per condividere un codice linguistico. Basta così? basta la lingua per riuscire a comunicare e capirsi?

Give a look to this video.

More than 80 % of international meetings where English is used, take place without native speakers of English being present.

Against this background, the English used in international encounters is currently being recorded with the help of three computer-based corpora, each focusing on predominantly European, Asian and academic use. And each containing over 1 million authentic items. Based on data provided by these and a growing number of empirical research projects, it seems clear that pragmatics should play a predominant role in intercultural training, since it refers to questions of politeness.

It is politeness, understood as a process of establishing positive and trustful relationships through communication and interaction, which is the first and most important prerequisite of interculturally appropriate use of English.

The following guiding questions may help distinguish culture-specific requirements in each case:


  1. How do you show respect to rhose with whom you are communicating?
  2. How do you attempt to establish credibility?
  3. Is it polite to answer a question when you are asked directly? 
  4. Is it best to discuss conflict with the person with whom you disagree?


All these relate to how we use language. Here is an example:

How many British or US-Americans are aware of the fact that the level of assertiveness expressed in much of their every-day communication, although absolutely normal to them, may appear strange or even offensive to people from other parts of the world?


Similar questions may be asked concerning the level of directness/indirectness, formality/informality, enthusiasm, indulgence, self-promotion, personal disclosure and more. 


Clearly, intercultural competence cannot be achieved language-free. For it is in practical communication and interaction that we establish our identities, roles and relationships. In other words: What we do and what we say, and how and when we do and say it, is what counts. The teaching of English (English as a Lingua Franca = ELF) should, therefore, go along with the teaching of cultural differences, of practical ways of dealing with otherness, and, most of all, of ways of dealing with unexpected and/or difficult situations, behaviour or utterances. For it is politeness, understood as a process of establishing and/or maintaining positive and trustful relationships, which makes intercultural communication effective  –  or otherwise.


The ICE Blended Learning Course provides input, exercises, role plays and case studies to practise a variety of communication strategies.

Rudolf Camerer

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