No, I'm not talking about Emily Post.
I'm talking about polite words. Please and thank you, obviously, which have been drilled into many of our heads - and which I drill into the heads of my own children! (I do try to do it gently...) But there's also that other stuff: all the things we say to each other which seem to have no real content or meaning, but which we say anyway. "How are you?" when we don't expect an answer. "Fine" when we don't really feel fine. The list goes on and on.
These things are important. Why? Not because they have empirical value, but because they have social value. They express alignment, and to mark us as members of particular social groups. They are largely unnoticed and unconscious, but that makes them all the more problematic.
If a language learner makes a mistake in verb conjugation, we go, "Okay, that was a mistake." And we move on. But if a language learner makes a mistake in politeness, usually we don't say it was a mistake; we conclude that this person is abrasive or rude. Mistakes in politeness (and pragmatics generally) tend to reflect on the person, rather than on the person's use of language.
Here's another one. Where do we draw the line between politeness and lying? If we don't like a friend's outfit, it would be pretty inconsiderate to tell him so - but what do we say if he asks? If we say he looks fine, is that lying, or is it simply polite? It's a tricky distinction, but potentially explosive, and begging to be used in a story.
Then there's mimicry, which came up recently on Kelley Eskridge's blog. Many of us unconsciously fall into the speech patterns of the people we're talking with - it seems to feel better, to help us fit in by aligning us with those people. But how much is too much? How do we know when it might turn into mockery?
I spoke Australian once. I'd been waiting at a train station for half an hour, watching trains go by and fuming, when I suddenly realized that I'd made a mistake in reading the destination signs, and I could have caught any of about five trains that I'd seen. This made me hopping mad (literally! I must have been quite a sight). But when the kind people around me asked what was wrong, some unconscious part of me decided they'd call me stupid if they knew I was American, so I launched into Australian without thinking. Luckily I was smart enough not to try it for long, and I escaped without offending anyone. They assumed (correctly!) that I wasn't from the neighborhood.
How many of you have been part of situations like this?
I'll come back to the topic again soon.