Express Yourself

Why It’s Polite to Say Things We Don’t Mean

Linguists analyze the lengths we take to avoid seeming rude

Photo: Tara Moore/Getty Images

“What’s the magic word?” our parents asked when we stomped into the room demanding they help us find a missing toy. Over time, we learned that our requests could be fulfilled more expediently if we offered up a “please” without being prompted. Hey, what a neat trick!

But then we reached school age and found ourselves berated for breaking other mysterious rules, like pronouncing “give me” as “gimme” or repeating one of the four-letter words we’d heard bandied about. A few years later we began to explore the wonders of the internet and realized that the word “please” must really not have any weight to it at all based on the sheer volume of web users telling each other to “please kindly go f — k yourself.”

There is, of course, more to politeness than saying “please.” So much more, in fact, that linguists have been dedicating entire books to the subject since the 1970s. Perhaps the most well-known of these is Penelope Brown and Stephen C. Levinson’s Politeness: Some Universals in Language Usage, which sought to explain the many intricacies of how human beings observe etiquette through language. Across cultures, they explain, people use subtle linguistic cues to honor (or insult) each other’s “face,” the sociological term they use to describe an individual’s “public self-image.” In other words, we use polite speech in the interest of “maintaining” another person’s face, while impoliteness can be understood as “face-threatening.”

The tactics we employ are numerous and complex, but one of the overarching principles of politeness is downplaying any imposition we’re causing. We often choose words, whether consciously or unconsciously, that indirectly express our desire not to offend or cause a person needless trouble. Minimizers like “just,” “a bit,” and “a little” do the job nicely, and there are the explicit references to small units of time and measurement that we artfully slip into our commands and requests. “The Literals” sketch from The Amanda Show plays on the discrepancy between reality and the language we use when we’re trying to be polite: a request for “Mrs. Literal” to hold a glass “for a second” results in shards of glass scattered all over the kitchen floor.

Mind if I pop round later? Photo: Andrew Magill/Flickr

But minimizers aren’t always just “added extras.” There is a certain breed of verb that comes in handy when asking people for favors or permission.

Would you mind grabbing a chair from the other room?

Can you run up and ask him?

I’m just going to jump in the shower, okay?

These verbs don’t describe the action we actually want to happen — jumping in the shower will likely result in injury — but they all fit seamlessly into polite speech because they refer to transient motion and therefore imply that whatever we’re asking will be completed quickly and painlessly.

The examples above are rather logical, but some other verbs that have come to embody this role are a bit more unexpected, such as “pop” (“Pop yourself down and we’ll get started”), “scoot” (“Do you mind scooting over?”), and “steal” (“Could I steal one of your pencils?”). There’s also “hop,” which for many of us conjures up an image of someone bouncing about on one foot, yet people don’t bat an eyelid (or lift a leg) when invited to “hop into a vehicle.” The Oxford English Dictionary characterizes this usage of “hop” as colloquial, but it evidently goes beyond mere slang — it’s hard to imagine someone saying “Hop in!” who isn’t trying to portray themselves as warm and convivial. (Which is why that one scene from The Simpsons is so funny.)

Minimization is highly ritualized, but the way people do it varies greatly across cultures and languages. In Ireland, it’s relatively common to hear people attach the Irish diminutive suffix -ín, sometimes anglicized as -een, to the ends of English words, as in, “Could I please have another dropeen of milk?”

This is similar to patterns in other European languages, such as Italian and Dutch, whose speakers use the affixes -ino/a and -je, respectively, to make nouns conceptually smaller and, by extension, their requests less burdensome. An Italian customer service rep might ask you to wait “un momentino” (“a little moment”), while a Dutch friend eying your cold beer on a hot day might trouble you for “een slokje” (“a little sip”).

French speakers are less fanatical about suffixes, but many use the minimizer “petit” (little) with such abandon that it sometimes crops up where it makes no logical sense. The following is a real-life exchange that occurred in a French butcher’s shop, recorded and translated by Catherine Kerbrat-Orecchioni:

“I’d like a little steak.”

“A large one?”

“Medium-sized.”

We can minimize the gravity of our requests not just through the vocabulary but in the way we phrase them. Brown and Levinson describe what they call “presumptuous” or “optimistic” petitioning — that is, when we transform questions into statements, as in, “I’ll just help myself to a cookie — thanks!” This is risky business, however, since the addressee might not agree that what the speaker is asking is trivial enough, or that their relationship is intimate enough, to warrant such a blasé approach.

Of course, minimization in all its forms comes with this caveat: being asked for “a few minutes of your time” by a cold caller is particularly irritating when you know their definition of “a few” is probably not the same as yours. Saying things we don’t mean is part and parcel of politeness, but there are situations where your best bet is probably to cut the crap. Don’t ask your friend to loan you “a couple of dollars” if you need more than two. Then again, the boldness of this strategy might be its strength. “A couple? How much, exactly?” “Ten thousand dollars.” You know what they say: If you can make a person laugh, you can make them do anything.

I write about words and run about screaming. Irish, currently doing an MA in English Linguistics and Literature. clarech.carrd.co

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