Politeness, Intercultural Communication, E-Mails: Principles and Practices

Politeness, Intercultural Communication, E-Mails: Principles and Practices

Elisabetta Pavan (University of Padua, Italy)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-8128-4.ch003
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In this chapter, the focus shifts from oral communication to written communication, considering the sometimes controversial issue of politeness in written intercultural communication. Firstly, a definition of politeness is discussed; secondly, some key issues related to the topic of intercultural communication are considered; and finally, intercultural e-mail communication is introduced. The aim is to understand how intercultural communication, mediated by the internet, can create compelling and sometime challenging conditions for additional language learning. For example, university students use e-mails a lot. Nonetheless, some issues, amongst which the level of formality when they address university staff, may vary, depending on their own national culture and on the training they receive on the use of this medium. As a result, intercultural clashes may occur. To facilitate foreign language teaching and communication, an instrument to assess politeness in intercultural e-mail communication in an intercultural context will be presented.
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Politeness, A Starting Point

Politeness is fundamental to all of our relationships and plays an essential role, not only in the way we communicate with each other, but also in the way we define ourselves. It is not limited to conventional aspects of linguistic etiquette; it encompasses all types of interpersonal behaviour through which we explore and maintain our relationships (Kadar & Haugh, 2013). Consequently, it is important to consider politeness as one of the key issues in FL pedagogy. It is a complex phenomenon, and there are many definitions of it in the literature, notwithstanding the fact that some authors offer paraphrases rather than new definitions. In the Seventies a form of Politeness Theory was developed, the perspective of which was pragmalinguistics, but later a new perspective was developed, taking into account sociolinguistic issues too (Mazzotta, 2007). The first approach promotes a more universalistic idea of politeness, while the second recognizes, within different language expressions, different ways to conceptualise politeness (Haugh, 2004; Mazzotta, 2007).

There are many definitions of politeness in the literature: for example, among others, politeness is defined by Simmons (1999) as “acting so as to take account of the feelings of others” (p. 515), and by Lakoff (1990), as “a system of interpersonal relations designed to facilitate interaction by minimizing the potential for conflict and confrontation inherent in all human interchange” (p. 34). It may appear odd that politeness is not clearly described in Brown and Levinson’s (1987)Politeness: Some Universals in Language Use (Fraser 1990). This may be because politeness is a complex phenomenon, and, as stated in Eelen (2001), different conceptualisations of politeness abound. As a matter of fact, there has been little consensus among researchers about the nature of politeness, its conceptual meaning, definition, and classification; scholars affirm that the concept often remains vague and confusing (Fraser, 1990; Locher & Watts, 2005). Spencer-Oatey (2000), explicitly rejects the notion of politeness in favour of rapport management, since “the term is so confusing.” (p. 2)

Here are some definitions we can use as a starting point to define the issue of politeness.

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