More on Using Polite English

Some languages, like Korean, Japanese, Spanish, and German, have polite forms built into them.  Speakers of these languages can choose a special form of “you” for older or important people and a different form of “you” for younger people.  They use a special form of the verb that is more polite.

How do Americans speak when they want to be more polite since our form of “you” and our verbs are the same no matter whom we are speaking to?

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If I were speaking to a powerful person, I would use a polite form of address.  This means that I might use the word “Sir” or “Ma’am”.  For example, if I were saying goodbye to the custom’s official at the airport, I might say, “Thank you, sir.  Have a good day.”  If the person had a title, I would use it.  For example, I might say, “Thank you, Professor” to my teacher at the university, “Thank you, Doctor” in a clinic, or “Thank you, Officer” to a policeman.

In contrast, if I were with my friends, I would say goodbye completely differently.  I might say, “See you” or “Catch you later,” or even just “Later.”  I might use slang and say “Later, bro.”  I would never speak like this to a powerful person.

CourtroomIf I were telling a story in a courtroom, I would narrate it very differently than if I were in a bar.  I would use formal transition words like “First,” “After that,” and “Finally” even when speaking.  However, if I were telling a story to my friends in a bar, I would probably just say “What happened was…,”  “and then,” “and then,”  “and then.”

In a courtroom, I would pronounce all the syllables in the words I was using.  For example, I would say “I saw them coming into the room” instead of “I saw them comin’ in.”  In a courtroom, I would not use slang, and I would be careful about swearing (using bad words).  In contrast, in a bar with my friends, I would relax these rules and speak however I wanted to.

Friends Hanging Out IIMy body language would also change.  To show my respect to someone, I would stand up straight, keep my knees and arms against my body.  I would look them in the eye.  I would nod to show that I was listening.  With my friends, however, I might slump or slouch.  I might put my elbows on the table.  I would hold my arms and legs however I wanted.

In short, people often mistakenly think that anything goes when they’re speaking English.  It doesn’t.  Native speakers constantly adjust their verbal and non-verbal communication to reflect the formality of the situation and the age, power, or closeness of the person with whom they are speaking.  Check it out.  I’m sure you’ll start picking up on how we show politeness, the closer you pay attention.

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