What does it mean to be “polite”? #etymology


What does this sign mean to you?

Do you often add it to your tweets, sms, or quick messages to friends, family, acquaintances?  Why?  If you took it off would it change the message?



On a lazy, sunny, snowy afternoon in Paris I joined 55 others from around the world to listen to Chia Suan Chong share her thoughts and research on Politeness and Pragmatics in ELF. Chia did a marvelous job of interacting, polling, asking us questions and listening to feedback. It was a fine example of how webinars can be great for professional development and I thank the Besig team for making it available to us all.

I finished the presentation with two strong take-aways.  One, that politeness is truly complex and VERY subjective, and two that it thus lives embedded in our cultures and languages, and knowing one without the other really doesn’t give you a full picture.  Or, as I read on another blog this weekend “learning the code, but not how to use it to make beautiful melodies” will result in failed intercultural communication.

Maybe I’ll write a book about it one day (even if I’d be far from the first to do so), but for today, I would like to tip my hat to Chia and to add a bit of etymological enquiry as to whom the model for “propriety” in European culture was (where propriety comes from those having property according to etymonline).


Comes from polire in Latin and gives us polish— as in to get rid of the dust and make clean.  A well-polished individual, a polished resume, a polished literary style is becoming of a sophisticated…

From French gentil, (13thcentury) meaning one of noble birth, and in modern French it means nice, a cousin to the English word gentle.  Funny that all gentlemen were originally…

From Latin, nobilis meaning “well-known, famous, of noble birth” and hence the noble families of Rome of that time.  Of the same origin but from greek comes gnostic (or agnostic), those who “know“.  Of course nobles knew how to be…

So, the Nobles behaved courteously at court… which means they were…

Con = with, and sidus=constellation, hence considerare in Latin meant “to look at closely, observe,” and etymonline says perhaps even literally “to observe the stars”.  This makes sense to me as those who are most considerate are those who are most aware of their surrounding, context and treat all with…

or re-spect… where spect means “to look/see” as in spectacles.  Hence,  they re-look, or are, again, very aware of the situation, above all if there is an opportunity to be…

Those who are considerate and respectful are obviously aware of their surroundings and it might be because they have a higher perspective… from atop their horses!!!  Yes, the noble gentlemen who rode a “cheval” (horse in french) were those who chivalrous.  Interesting enough this word disappeared from both French and English in the 1600s and only came back into use thanks to late 18c English romantic writers.


By the way, what’s the opposite of polite?

VULGAR… or in Latin, vulgaris:of or pertaining to the common people



1) Our ideas of politeness come from our upbringing, which comes from our family history, which comes from our cultural history, which amazingly is still visible in our language.

2) Cross a border and it’s often not the same, so we then have to pay close attention, and yes, “When in Rome…”

3) Treat your students courteously with re-look, as if they were gentle Roman noblemen and women gazing at the stars on top of their polished horses.


Related posts:

About Brad

--- i'm a learner-teacher, language geek, outdoorsy kind-of-guy --- U might miss the next tweet... Wanna subscribe by email ? ;-)
  • http://vickyloras.wordpress.com/ Vicky Loras

    Hi Brad!

    I love this post after Chia’s fantastic webinar. As always, I like how you have explained the etymology of all the words pertaining to politeness…or lack thereof ; )

    The three points you make are so important about politeness. How it comes from our family and shows in the language (I learned a lot about politeness and what is okay here in Switzerland), how we should adapt to the place we are in (that “When in Rome…” includes quite a lot, I should say!) and how we should be considerate to our students and their codes of politeness.

    I think you have just inspired me to write a post!

    Beee zoo,


  • http://vickyloras.wordpress.com/ Vicky Loras

    Hi Brad!

    I love this post after Chia’s fantastic webinar. As always, I like how you have explained the etymology of all the words pertaining to politeness…or lack thereof ; )

    The three points you make are so important about politeness. How it comes from our family and shows in the language (I learned a lot about politeness and what is okay here in Switzerland), how we should adapt to the place we are in (that “When in Rome…” includes quite a lot, I should say!) and how we should be considerate to our students and their codes of politeness.

    I think you have just inspired me to write a post!

    Beee zoo,


  • http://blog.edulang.com Brad Patterson

    Hey Vicky,

    Ah yes, the winds of inspiration pass from one to the other to the other!  Look forward to seeing what you churn up.  I knew a lot of these etymologies, but discovered some new ones thanks to Chia’s talk and my subsequent curiosity.  Cheers, b

  • http://theotherthingsmatter.blogspot.com/ Kevin Stein

    Hi Brad,

    Dig your etymological break-down here.  I think all of us have stories of how L2 speakers used English in a way that rubs us the wrong way.  I know in Japan, people’s use of “should” can put me off.  My coworkers are forever telling me I “should” do something in the classroom and I know that this is the result of both 1st language interference as well as problamatic text books.  But even if I take the time to gently correct their uage (and I do more than not), my ideas of how to properly use should are just that, my ideas, which you so aptly note is due to the way I was raised, the culture I steeped in, etc.  So in an ELF world, should we as English teachers look for the most neutral terms possible?  Should we stress the obvious, that students need to know something about the culture of the people with whom they are interacting?  Or should we try and focus on the discourse in which the language is going to be used and help students see what are the norms within the language community in which they will be partcipating?  I wish there were more clear answers to these questions.  But, at the very least, we can make sure students keep in mind that, while maybe not the focus of any given class, these other things also matter…always matter?

  • http://blog.edulang.com Brad Patterson

    Hi Kevin.

    Glad you enjoyed the break-down.  Pretty wild to see where the words come from, eh?

    I wouldn’t be surprised if we start seeing more “intercultural” classes or ELT classes with intercultural components in the coming years.  Knowing the code really is only 1/2 of communication, and I think we have a long way before effective intercultural communication is well-founded.

    I haven’t studied it, but I’ve lived it, having spent a decade abroad and knowing that it takes a lot of listening and passive interaction at first.  Even then my culture comes through at all times and in subtle ways (as you’ve shown with the Japanese “should”). 

    I think that awareness and a few quick bases go a long way.  We can’t possibly prepare our students for interaction with the thousands of unique cultures out there, however, just as “I statements” are a simple psychological trick of sharing how something upsets you, there must be a few universal truths about communication… but is it speaking less directly?  In China as in Japan, it seems, the “should” or direct advice to someone is actually polite because it shows that you care enough about them to “take care of them”.  There’s less “individual space”.  

    Now I’m wondering if there are universal tricks… hmm…. 

  • http://twitter.com/DavidWarr Language Garden

    Very nice :-)

  • http://blog.edulang.com Brad Patterson

    i love the story of language!

  • Phil Wade

    Nice one Brad!

    I’ve never ever had such a confusing time RE:Politeness as in China. I’m sure you have the same. Everything is related to MIANZI and relationships. I managed to figure out a few things though:

    1)Always be more polite with older people and people with senior jobs
    2)Be SUPER polite to anyone linked to the government
    3)Sometimes being aggressive can get you what you want because people don’t want the hassle of dealing with admin. Such as a teacher who overstayed his visa by 3 months and shouted so much at the visa office they said “give me 100RMB and get lost I don’t want the hassle”.
    4)Find out how you are related to people and use the correct refernce (not family) ie your teacher’s colleague is your SKILL UNCLE, an owner of a shop is OLD BOSS and your teacher is SKILL DAD.
    5)At any formal dinner only sit where you are told. Seating is VERY complicated. For instance, the old people sit on one and the important person is seated first then on his right is the 2nd on the left the third….But opposite him is his ‘gopher’.
    6)Lie or rather ‘give face’ by agreeing with everything.
    7)Wait for number 1 to eat then the others.
    8)Argue and even fight over who will pay the bill.
    9)Drink whatever wine, booze or poison anyone gives you and occasionally do the odd toast to anyone about anything.

    Thus the following got me into trouble:

    1)Scoffing my noodles before anyone
    2)Telling the truth about the food
    3)Asking why military inspectors were oogling over the picture of my wife in my ID card.
    4)Calling a friend of a teacher LITTLE WANG
    5)Sitting down first at a table because everyone else was jostling about who would sit first
    6)Not wanting to drink my 6th BAIJU alcoholic drink for fear of passing out.
    7)Paying the bill sneakily at the bar.

    Can you add any more?

  • Dina Dobrou

    Wonderful, Brad!

    Reminds me of a book: Mind your Manners http://www.johnmole.com/MYM.htm

    It’s from a businessmans perspective but I’m sure anyone would benefit, including EFL, ELF professionals.

    Have a great day and a great week ahead!

    Dina :)

  • http://twitter.com/irishmikeh Mike Hogan

    Nice post Brad with some really nice ideas. Yes, it was a great workshop – glad you enjoyed it and got so much from it. I was a pleasure moderating it together with the rest of the BESIG Online Team, and we’re looking forward to hosting more free online workshops throughout the year. Keep an eye on the website for more info.

  • http://twitter.com/JosetteLB Josette LeBlanc

    Great post Brad! I can think of so many different ways to comment, but I’ll take my lead with Kevin’s comment.

    Kevin, I feel the same way about “should”. One of my favorite expressions is, “don’t should on me” and similar spin-offs. When I hear this modal, I instantly cringe, because I feel like the person isn’t considering my opinion or my ability to make my own decisions.

    I’d like to propose that as language teachers it’s helpful and important to address “should”, and similar communicative barriers, in all the ways you’ve suggested. As Brad wrote, it’s helping them become aware of how they could be perceived, and offer them suggestions on how to “soften” their language. I know that my adult students have been very grateful when I told them their wording gave me a negative reaction. They were simply clueless and needed someone to point them in the right direction. I realize that this may not be the position you would want to take with your coworkers, but they may just be in a similar space.

    Awareness goes both ways though: as teachers, it’s important for us to be aware of why students use certain language, and students need to know how the language they use affects the people who are listening.

    As for the universal tricks, I just think it boils down to intention. What’s the intention behind the language you are using? In my opinion, a gentleman can use the most respectful, courteous, polite language expressed within his culture, but if his intention does not match his expression, the language becomes secondary. I have met many people who know exactly what to say in order to be polite, but I would take unknowing “should” before a veiled “thank you”.

    I guess this brings up another question: Is it our task to teach awareness and intention? I’d like to think it’s mine :)

  • Sue Annan

    You hit the nail on the head Brad. I also really enjoyed Chia’s workshop, and it is true that politeness, or rudeness is often hard for people to pin down. The Poles who work on the island are often called impolite because of their intonation, even when they use standard ‘polite’ phrases. I think it is so deeply embedded in our culture that most people would be hard pushed to explain why they feel unhappy. Thanks for the post, as always.

  • Evan Frendo

    Great post. Following on Brad’s point about the intercultural aspect – yes, this is already the case in a lot of business English teaching, and BESIG conferences always have a lot of workshops and sessions related to this. In fact, I wrote a coursebook a few years ago for German speakers who need to operate in Asia, and the units are full of issues like face and guanxi – you can’t escape these if you are using language in that context. 

  • http://blog.edulang.com Brad Patterson

    The entomologist strikes again!!!  merci 4 the afternoon giggle, Stephen.  

  • http://blog.edulang.com Brad Patterson

    Hey Bren,

    You know, i actually almost never use etymonline… (so you can’t blame me…lol)I have a digital copy of “Origins” (http://www.amazon.com/Origins-Etymological-Dictionary-Modern-English/dp/0517414252)  Amazing resource for the Indo-European language geek.

    DUDE… love that you call me, dude ;-)  Merci 4 the kind words!

  • http://blog.edulang.com Brad Patterson

    Look forward to it.  Blown away by Chia’s session and I have a feeling it’ll be hard to live up to!  Thanks Mike.  

  • http://blog.edulang.com Brad Patterson

    Thanks Dina! I think I’ve heard of that book before, and am going to go check it out now. Hope your trip to Paris was wonderful!!!! Cheers, Brad

  • http://blog.edulang.com Brad Patterson

    Interesting, Evan.  I know there’s a fair amount of literature out there, both viewing intercultural communication from a general perspective and also for very specific audiences (for Germans for Asia).  

    I’m going to shoot you an email.  I’d love to hear more about what you’ve written or resources you might suggest.  I have a lot of international experience (especially in China/Europe/US/Latin America), but would like to add a bit more of an academic sheen to my bag of tricks.  Chia and I have been talking about her dissertation and I’m specifically interested in seeing what’s out there, and what hasn’t been explored.

    Cheers, Brad

  • http://blog.edulang.com Brad Patterson

    This is a comment to open back up a discussion specific to cultural perception of politeness.  Kevin gave a great example of how Japanese speakers might use “should” to tell a colleague or friend what they believe they “should do” (with helpful intentions).  I’ve experienced this before as well while living in China and the immediate thought is that it is not a language issue but an intercultural one.

    My challenge is finding ‘universal truths’… things to arm students with when interacting with multiple nationalities and I’m not sure there are such ‘universal truths’.  Josette used an interesting word to describe how she guides students to “soften” their language.  In Chia’s presentation she addressed indirect communication as a way of expressing ‘discontent’ or ‘making a request” in a more polite manner.  But could this indirectness be considered impolite by others?

    If we live in an individualistic society, then we seek to not ‘impinge’ on someone’s personal space, and yet in a collectivist society, those who seek distance from the group can be considered rude, and ‘indirect communication’ thus offbeat.

    I don’t think we can draw a straight line of truth here, but we can of course guide our students regarding how it feels to us as an individual and from our culture.  Thanks again for the great comments, Kevin and Josette.  I’m actually looking forward to exploring this area a bit more academically.  I’ve lived it before and find “my cool” when I feel a pressurized “should”, but I want to know how to better handle this from an instructive point-of-view.

    Cheers, Brad

  • http://blog.edulang.com Brad Patterson

    Hi Sue,

    I think it’s tough to pin down because it moves so much depending on where and with whom we are.  Tough to pin down because it doesn’t exist in a universal form.  Interesting point you make that it would be hard to explain why we feel something is rude/polite.  

    Merci 4 the kind words n talk to ya soon ;-)     Cheers, Brad

  • Chia Suan Chong

    Great post, Brad! Glad to see that the BESIG online workshop has provoke such thoughts and discussions. And a huge thank you to those who have made such lovely comments on my talk here…thank you for coming and let’s continue discussing this!

    I suppose when it comes to learning about the pragmatics and politeness in a different cultures, we teachers who often have the experience of slowing understanding and adapting to different realisations of politeness have countless priceless anecdotes to tell. If there is one thing that I wish I could have done in the online workshop, it would have been to hear from the participants, and their anecdotes of coping with politeness strategies in the different countries they have lived in.
    As you will see from the dissertation I’ll be sending you, Brad, the pragmatics of politeness, and politeness, alongside intercultural theory, have been discussed relatively separate from ELF pragmatics research. This is probably one of the reasons I got interested in it. I was convinced at the beginning of my research that ELF proponents had missed something because of them constantly harping on about mutual intelligibility. I kept asking myself, ‘Intelligibility aside, what about the impressions we are creating of ourselves?’ This perhaps comes from my own experiences of living within a different cultures and my insecurities and ability to portray the personality that I intend to within these cultures. But it certainly led me to thinking about how we judge others and how certain factors that influence our perceptions of politeness are so ingrained within us that we might not even stop to think twice about it. We might mistakenly assume someone to be impolite without realising that it was due to their intonation or use of para-linguistic features that led us to have that impression. 

    And, as useful as intercultural studies have been, they can also be viewed as essentialist and stereotyping. After all, interactions are dynamic and fluid, and so are the creations of our identity. How many times have you heard people saying, ‘Yeah, my culture is supposed to be like this, that and the other, but I am different’?

    These multiple factors that affect perception-creation are truly fascinating. It would seem impossible to ‘teach’ students about how to create the right impressions they would like to convey in their daily interactions in English, but we can certainly raise their awareness of the complexity of the task and the issues involved.

    And such pedagogic implications are what I hope to deal more with in the BESIG Pre-Conference Event at IATEFL Glasgow this year. 

    Meanwhile, I’d love to see this discussion take flight in Blogosphere and Twitter.


  • http://twitter.com/leoselivan Lexical Leo

    While I don’t consider myself a super polite person there are a few things that rub me the wrong way too. Not “should” as in Kevin’s example – perhaps I probably “should” people a lot myself :) – but when my Hebrew speaking students declare “I don’t agree with you!” in exchanges with each other. Looking at different polite ways of disagreeing in English (“I see what you mean but don’t you think…? That’s one way of looking at it…”) doesn’t seem to help they revert back to “I don’t agree with you”.
    Thank you for this etymological journee, Brad!

  • http://blog.edulang.com Brad Patterson

    Hey Leo.

    Always glad to go on an etymological journée and lovely when folks come to join the fun. Funny “I don’t agree with you” rubs you the wrong way. I specifically address this in my classes because I love doing devil’s advocate/debates. For RSCON3 I did a pres on “sharing values in the class” and mentioned simple habits like “I don’t agree with THAT IDEA” as opposed to you, leading it away from a personal issue into simply a discussion. Little tricks seem to go a long way, but that doesn’t mean that everyone will choose to adopt them! To each his own, eh… Cheers, Brad

  • http://blog.edulang.com Brad Patterson

    Your research is inspiring, Chia. I’ve just started to dig in (surrounded by beautiful snow-capped mountains, tea in hand). I really wish I could be at the pre-conference event but I just don’t think IATEFL will be able to happen this year.

    I think I’ll explore doing a post after reading your dissertation, and maybe we could even co-author a post. Thanks again for the great pres, and insightful comment here. Cheers!

  • http://blog.edulang.com Brad Patterson

    Have started in our your dissertation, and want to thank you again for your willingess to share it and the hard work that went into that.

    Interesting that you say “It would seem impossible to ‘teach’ students about how to create the right impressions they would like to convey in their daily interactions in English”. I know why you put “teach” in paratheses because that’s just not the right word, as it almost always feels a bit off anyhow. Either way, they are going to contemplate the issue and become aware of certain intercultural differences, linguistic formulations, or they are going to slide right on past the idea and continue thinking of the world as they will. No right or wrong, but there are certainly actions/reactions!

    Your pres and topic really got a lot of thoughts buzzing around for me… thinking back over my intercultural experiences and wondering what kind of generalizations I can draw. Just stopping by Ed Pegg’s post as well and the thoughts continue in new directions. Fascinating area this is and for me, at this point, it really opens up more questions than it provides concrete answers…. which is kinda cool, eh!

    Cheers, Brad

  • http://vickyloras.wordpress.com/2012/02/08/now-where-are-your-manners-inspired-by-chiasuan-and-brad5patterson/ Now, Where Are Your Manners? – Inspired by @chiasuan and @brad5patterson « Vicky Loras's Blog

    [...] Brad Patterson has also written a great post as a follow-up to Chia’s webinar, rich in etymology – What does it mean to be polite? [...]

  • http://twitter.com/leoselivan Lexical Leo

    I like the idea of “I don’t agree with that idea” (!) – will try it on my students

  • http://twitter.com/naomishema Naomi Epstein

    Politeness across cultures is sooo very complex! It demands knowing so much more than the right language – simple gestures like the o.k sign are so different! And what about personal space (how close you get to the the other speaker )?
    Interesting to read how all these words connect!

  • http://citandlearn.wordpress.com/2012/02/29/press-review/ Press review « CIT & Learn

    [...] What does it mean to be polite? [...]

  • http://citandlearninfrench.wordpress.com/2012/02/29/256/ CIT & Learn in French

    [...] Que veut dire la politesse ? [...]

  • http://citandlearninspanish.wordpress.com/2012/02/28/revista-de-prensa/ Revista de prensa « CIT & Learn in Spanish

    [...] ¿Qué significa ser educado? [...]

  • http://collectionagen.shikshik.org/2012/03/31/etymologie-cleane/ Etymologie cleane | Collectionagen

    [...] What does it mean to be “polite”? #etymology | A journée in language. [...]