By Yang Gan Fu
Polite behaviour plays a pivotal role in our daily lives. Used appropriately, it adds value and colour to our lives. To put it differently, it helps to realize our work target and lead to efficient and successful communication. In our daily lives, however, we often come across such situations where some people complain about the behaviour of others either because “the others” talk so loudly or blame/criticize their colleagues or friends or partners straightaway or because “the others” speak in a roundabout way or show no respect for their partners or stand too close to their partner whilst talking, etc.
The problems just mentioned actually concern one issue: what behaviour is seen as polite, and why?
Polite behaviour in communication has been taken as an important communication strategy although different cultures have different ways of expressing and interpreting it. According to communication researchers, politeness is taken as a promoting strategy whereby speakers achieve a variety of goals, such as promoting or maintaining harmonious interpersonal relations. It is also claimed in communication that politeness is a social judgment, and whether or not an utterance is heard as being polite, it is to a large extent in the mind of the hearer.
Due to different cultural backgrounds, different groups have different systems for polite behaviour and different ways of judging polite behaviour.
Chinese, a typical Asian cultural group and the Westerners, a typical Western cultural group, see politeness in a different way.
Examining the philosophical differences between the West and the East, Brew and Cairns claim that the Confucian legacy throughout East Asia promotes social relationships and concerns for others, therefore requiring an essential politeness and diplomacy. The European notion of “politeness”, however, is that particular linguistic formulation (‘say what you mean and mean what you say’ style, for example) is employed in order to avoid conflict.
The philosophies of the West, individualism and rationalism promote freedom of speech, truth, logical thinking and objectivity, leading to explicit speech codes.
The Chinese politeness system has three parts, namely: the notion of “respectfulness” – self-appreciation of the other’s positive face; the notion of “attitudinal warmth” which indicates self-demonstration of kindness and consideration, and the notion of “refinement” meaning self-behaviour which meets certain standards. Clearly, the Chinese politeness system includes all aspects of verbal and non-verbal communication. The way language is used, the intonations of speech and the way people are addressed according to a status hierarchy, are part of this politeness system.
When greeting an old/elder person, a VIP or leader, a senior staff member or expert or professor, honorific terms are usually employed.
This is because such groups of people deserve due respectfulness according to Chinese culture. Respectfulness to old/elder people is regarded as social ethics in the Chinese community. And it is also a strong tradition that old/elder people are given due respectfulness in China.
Society, and especially the families of the old/elder people, are supposed to give very good care to the old to ensure that they enjoy their lives.
That a VIP or leader receives respectfulness, is attributed to the Chinese culture of high-power distance index which requires the public to respect the leaders who, according to Chinese culture, are of the leadership in terms of being wise, talented and intelligent.
In this sense, the staff of an institution or an organization are supposed to show respect for their leaders or supervisors. This culture brings about efficient work in that the leader or supervisor has full power to manage their business, whereas their staff who, growing up in a power-respecting culture, will work hard to demonstrate that they “obey” the instructions from their leader or supervisor.
As a result, Chinese culture pays compliments to the learned experts or professors, who therefore deserve due respect because of the social contributions they make in certain fields and the high social ranks they hold as experts or professors. The society or community expresses its appreciation to those who have made commitments to the development of society and calls for the public to show due respect for these people, and to learn from them as well.
In such cases, therefore, when speaking to these learned people, honorific terms must be used. In line with this culture, the greeting term that many Namibians know very well, ‘Ni Hao’ (How are you?) should be changed to ‘Nin Hao’ (Nin is an honorific term for Ni).
In addition, you should use a neutral tone or soft tone when you speak to your elders, your boss and other people with higher social ranks. Speaking loudly in public is seen as impolite behaviour.
In writing, florid and euphonious phrases are employed to express respect, honour, affection and emotion. And a deferential tone is also used, depending on the rank and age of the reader(s) with whom they might establish some connection or do business. Connection is a key to the success of business. But politeness is a prerequisite for connection to be established in China.
The addressing term is also important in the Chinese politeness system.
Professional title or title of a social rank should be used when you address such people. A director or manager of a company or institution should be addressed as Director XXX or Manager XXX instead of Mr XXX, which could offend such a person or at least make them unhappy. Social rank is indeed a very important element in connection in China.
One issue I would like to emphasize here is the way teachers are addressed in China. Teachers are awarded a very high social status. As an old Chinese saying goes, being a teacher of a learner for a single day makes the teacher the father of the learner in his/her whole life.
To show social respect for teachers who are regarded as the Soul Engineer of humankind in China, September 10 of each year is set by the State Council as Teachers’ Day.
Enjoying the high social status in China, teachers are addressed by their professional title – Lao Shi (teacher). For example, a teacher whose surname is Yang (Chinese use their surnames) should be addressed Yang Lao Shi (Teacher Yang).
They are not addressed as Mr or Mrs or Miss or Ms XXX, as in Namibia, which is certainly an impolite way to address the Chinese teachers.
Furthermore, politeness also encompasses how the body is conducted in terms of posture, giving things and receiving things. It is polite to raise yourself from your seat when greeting a visitor or shaking hands with a visitor. Students should stand up when teachers enter the classroom to show their respect. Young people should also stand up when speaking to a very senior and old/elderly person. It is polite to use two hands to give a name card to a visitor who should also receive the card with both hands. It is polite to receive and see off guests or visitors at your doorway or even at your gate.
The self-effacing verbal style that Chinese adopt, emphasizes the importance of humbling oneself via verbal restraints, hesitations, modest talk, and the use of self-depreciation concerning one’s effort or performance. This is also a very important part of Chinese politeness.
Even if you have done something good or made great progress in your work or study, you still have to humble yourself when others appraise you or pay you a compliment.
Chinese self-effacing is totally different from Westerners’ self-enhancing which requires the communicator to speak out straightaway what they can and to reply with “thank you” when receiving a compliment. However, the reply for a compliment in China – say, “you have done a nice job” – is “Na Li, Na Li” which means “I have not done a nice job. It is just so-so”. Chinese self-effacing really confuses many foreign nationals.
As a result of collectivist culture, Chinese are well known for their mutual and other face-concerns.
As everyone needs face, mutual and other face-concerns become an important communication strategy among the Chinese. In this sense, Chinese employ indirect communication rather than direct communication as Westerners do.
The way in which the Westerners complain about or criticize someone, gives no face to these people according to Chinese politeness.
The straightaway expression of their unhappiness with someone else by the Westerners makes Chinese feel uncomfortable, and Chinese would complain by saying that such people are impolite and that such people don’t know things. Chinese, however, are evasive and deliver an indirect complaint for the purpose of preserving group harmony and giving others face to maintain their relation.
It is clear that different cultures have different connotations, expressions and interpretations of politeness. The Chinese politeness system is to some extent different from the Western one. What is polite behaviour in one cultural group might be offending for another cultural group, and vise versa.