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Real World English – Politeness

Written by Ed Pegg

Welcome to the eighth in this series of posts on Real World English by Ed Pegg. In this series of videos and blog posts we are looking at how words are used in context around the world and how differences in usage in different countries and cultural contexts can cause misunderstanding. We look at differences between US and British English, some common expressions in other English speaking countries and also give you an understanding of the complex topic of pragmatics – how language is used in context. In the eighth video Ed looks at some differences in the way politeness is expressed on either side of the Atlantic.

I gave a presentation the other day and two of my friends came along. One was from the USA and one was British.



After my presentation, they both spoke to me. My American friend told me how good the presentation was and how much she enjoyed it. Conversely, my British friend told me that she was surprised that it wasn’t as boring as she expected.

Is my British friend rude or is there something else going on here? In the USA, it’s common to give praise openly and honestly. Many British people find this ‘too much’ and it can make them feel embarrassed. In Britain, people tend to give praise less directly and it can be unclear whether they have actually praised you or not.

Another difference is when it comes to small talk. Why are the British famous for talking about the weather? The reason is that most British people feel it’s rude to ask too much personal information when you don’t know someone very well. This means that British people often choose ‘safe’ topics, like the weather. The fact that British people don’t often ask for a lot of personal information can give them the reputation for being ‘cold’ or uninterested in you. This isn’t necessarily the case. British people often like to give you space and don’t want you to feel that they are forcing you to give information you don’t want to share.

On the other hand, many people in the USA value openness and equality. This means that Americans feel very comfortable sharing personal information. As a result, you may find yourself talking to a stranger in the USA about topics you would never share with people you don’t know in your own country. This may feel like the American is being over familiar. They’re not, they’re just trying to be friendly.

These differences can be confusing but the thing to remember is that people’s behaviour is generally positive, even if it seems strange. If you’re not sure why someone is being over-friendly or not being friendly enough, just try to remember that it’s probably because of how they show politeness in their culture, and try to respond positively.

I hope you are enjoying learning about English in the real world and I look forward to seeing you next time. You can catch up on the previous videos and posts, and you can follow my series of monthly blog posts on this topic using the tag realworldenglish.

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Ed Pegg

5 Comments

  • Thanks for the reminder, Stan.
    You can find other posts on the topic by searching on the blog for ‘small talk’.

  • Hi Ed,

    This is a very nice blog that you are maintaining. Thanks as this will be helpful for non-english speakers like me.
    i got the below comment in an email following a review of an assignment from my colleague across UK.
    “Do not worry too much about SWOTs if you don’t have too many ideas – do what you can on this.”
    I wonder if i should take this as a rude way of feedback (i feel so) or is this just a style of casual native style of putting across some suggestion. i am not really familiar of different native styles as of now, so i am at loss to actually understand if i should shrug it off or take it seriously
    Please feel free to dissect all the writing in this email and point out if there are any errors.

  • Hi Sas,

    Sorry for just replying now, I’ve just seen this comment.

    Your question’s really interesting and depends on many things. What is the relationship between the two of you? Who has the power in the relationship? How important is the task? What’s happened before this interaction.

    If this person has power over you (your boss?), needs the SWOT and you have complained about their request before (asked too late, you have too much work etc) then this is likely to be sarcastic and quite rude. If none of this is true, it’s likely to be a friendly comment not to work too hard. Or another meaning is possible, depending on the context. As always, context is king.

    Thanks for taking the time to read/watch and comment.

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