Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Honesty and Politeness

I'm going to begin this post with a hypothetical situation:

You're at High Tea at a nice tea shop with friends and family. Everyone is enjoying eating scones, and giggling about drinking with pinkies raised, etc. The tea sandwiches come out, and someone recommends the cucumber triangles to you. You take one bite and really don't like the sandwich. What do you do?

Okay, I will allow for the assumption that you're not going to break your "tea character," fling the sandwich to the floor and stomp on it before storming out of the place, never to return. But what do you do when you don't want anyone ever to give you another cucumber tea sandwich?

a. Don't say anything, and put the sandwich back on the plate with a bite taken out of it.
b. Don't say anything, and leave the sandwich on your plate without eating it.
c. Say, "That's good," but leave the sandwich on your plate without eating it.
d. Say, "I don't like it."
e. Say, "I'm sorry, but I don't like it."
f. Say, "I'm sorry, but it's not my favorite."
g. Say, "I liked the chicken salad sandwich better."
h. Say, "May I try the mushroom turnover instead?"

There are possible complications to each of these options, if (as you may have guessed) you're one of my kids at the table in this situation. Option a will probably get you yelled at. Option b won't get you yelled at, but it's also possible that no one will notice how much you dislike it, or that Mom will conclude you were full and didn't want anything else. Option c, in my family at least, is considered a lie, and even if you don't get called for dishonesty, you'll probably get asked why you didn't eat it if you actually liked it.

Option d was the one my daughter chose (she's 4). Option e was the one my son chose (he's 6). At the time I accepted these without comment and got them different food, but I did wince a little internally. Mind you, we weren't eating High Tea with the queen, but my impolite radar did go off.

On the way home, I tried to think about how to deal with similar situations in the future. This involved running some more options through my head.

Option f is a fancier version of option e. My sense of this one is that it might work, but it still expresses a negative opinion that might be hurtful to someone's feelings (the cook's?). So I kept thinking until I came up with options g and h. The first of these is more direct, since it provides a comparison with something that you like better. The second leaves the disliking incident entirely behind and focuses on a future, and (we hope) better, outcome.

If you've ever lived through a situation resembling this, then you may notice the way that politeness and honesty appear to be at odds a lot of the time. This is true across every culture that I've encountered personally, and is in fact an enormous resource for me of situations that cause misunderstanding and friction.

Which makes you more of a bad person - to be a social disgrace, or to be a liar?

I have a real aversion to dishonesty. To me this means not that I must say precisely what I mean on every topic, but that I should not say what I do not mean - a different kind of criterion in its practical application. Of all the options I outlined above, only option c involves actual dishonesty from my point of view. This aversion of mine has gotten me into social trouble before, particularly when I was living in Japan - very instructive experience.

I've discussed H.P. Grice's Cooperative Principle before on this blog. Politeness is one of the things that we study in the linguistic discipline of Pragmatics. It's relevant here because avoiding the topic of one's dislike completely, and yet talking about something else that one would like to eat, depends for its understanding on the cooperative assumption that one will not say untrue things, and that one will not say less than one needs to. Obviously if I mention that I want something else to eat, that implies that I needed to say that (for some reason) and thus the astute listener can conclude that the reason is a dislike of cucumber sandwiches.

I always find it fascinating how strong our gut reactions are to perceived impoliteness. Funny as it may sound to a child learning it, I really am much happier to comply with a request that is made politely. It's easy for bad syntax, morphology, phonology, or semantics to be interpreted as the mistake of a language learner, but make a mistake of politeness and you're suddenly no longer just making a learner's mistake - you're a bad person. Students of the Japanese language struggle with this all the time, particularly since in Japanese you can't really say anything at all without putting some kind of politeness marker on it - but it's not restricted to Japanese. It happens in English all the time.

One of the places I see it happening a lot is on online forums, where there aren't a lot of external social cues to help people judge one another's verbal behavior. It's hard to know, in a lot of cases. Where is the fine line between politeness and plain dishonesty? Where is the line between honesty and incitement to flame war? I'm not going to say there's one real answer, because there isn't one - online, there isn't even a single culture to establish the rules of behavior. Most "communities" form their own through habit rather than through a written manifesto.

We all live, speak and act on this borderline, every day. It's a fascinating source of stories for me - and something I'd encourage writers to think about.

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