Politeness and Pragmatics in NNS interactions by Chia Suan Chong

I am a teacher and teacher trainer currently working at International House London. This article is a brief summary of my MA dissertation: Non-Native Speaker Perceptions of Requests – an empirical study in politeness. There has been a lot of research into politeness over the last few decades in the fields of pragmatics, intercultural communication, and second language acquisition and interlanguage theory. If there is one thing that these researchers of different backgrounds could agree on, it is the fact that the ways of realizing politeness are not always universal. Although Spanish speakers could use different forms of ‘you’ and their corresponding verb forms to express respect, the interlocutor they choose to use the polite forms with would differ according to the country you were in. The Spanish would claim that the South Americans are much more likely to call a stranger ‘usted’. Meanwhile, the Japanese have a complete set of verbs to refer to actions of those respected (aka the ‘polite form’), and another set of verbs to refer to the actions of oneself in front of the respected (aka the ‘humble form’). But when these different non-native speakers (NNSs) of English come together and use English as Lingua Franca, how much of their own forms of realizing politeness affect their expectations of their fellow NNSs?

Prior to becoming a language teacher, when I was living and growing up in Singapore, I was never really aware of my accent. Speaking an educated variety of Singaporean English meant that I was never really negatively judged for the way I spoke. However, when I first started living in London, my staccato-sounding, syllable-timed, use of the English language, alongside several subtle cultural differences, ensured that I was perceived as confrontational, rude and aggressive. Even the simple task of getting my housemates to take the rubbish out became a minefield of misunderstanding. Of course, stress and intonation are insidious things that no one notices when expectations are met, but when they are not met can cause serious misunderstandings that lead to one’s personality (and not one’s accent) being judged.

I spent many subsequent years trying to manipulate the way I used English to create an impression that best reflected who I felt I was. This occupation of mine translated into my teaching. I would teach my students to create different levels of social distance and politeness by using formulaic language such as ‘Could you + bare infinitive?’, ‘Would you mind + -ing?’ and ‘I was wondering if you could possibly + bare infinitive’.

Naturally, when I first encountered ELF and the focus that early research placed on communicative intelligibility, I was sceptical. In fact, I was perhaps more than sceptical, especially when I heard several practitioners openly claim that as long as the NNS gets the message across, it didn’t matter how the message was framed. I found myself rallying against ELF, but what I was really rallying against was the myth that ELF was only concerned with transactional and not phatic communication; the myth that ELF was to be codified as a teachable variety that could serve as a new end-point for our students to pursue; the myth that ELF was all about a simplified, dumbed-down version of English.

Hoping to prove that intelligibility was not all that mattered in interactions, I embarked on my research into the NNS perceptions of politeness in NNS-NNS interactions. Focusing primarily on requests in ELF scenarios, I proceeded to audio-record a day’s goings-on at the reception of an international language school. The requests were then transcribed and analysed, and ten were selected to represent the range of requests heard. These ten requests were then played to NNSs in eight focus groups and six interviews in an attempt to piece together the factors that contributed towards perception-creation in such interactions.

Cross-Cultural Awareness

‘But you know the culture, and you know they don’t mean aggression (…) You take that into account, and yes, then you don’t consider them particularly rude’
Many respondents in both the focus groups and interviews talked about their experiences with politeness living in England, and thus were clearly aware of the differences between the ways politeness is realized. This awareness meant that these respondents had a better understanding of the impact of cultural differences and were more willing to give the speaker the benefit of the doubt if they came across as impolite.

Mutual understanding of being an NNS

‘…so you already are a bit nervous because of the surroundings, you just arrived here (…) So it might be that in the exciting, you might lose control of the, of the structures you’ve learnt, or whatever. So I would understand that.’

Almost every respondent mentioned the sympathy they felt for fellow NNSs, and some even argued passionately that assumptions cannot be made based on the language use alone as English was not their native tongue to manipulate. Having been through the English language learning process themselves, they were able to determine their fellow interlocutor’s level of English quickly and adapt and accommodate accordingly, understand the impact of the environment and emotive factors on fluency, and be sensitive to picking up on para- and non-linguistic cues rather than judging the speaker just based on the utterances themselves.

Clarity & Intelligibility

‘I think being clear of what you want is the most important thing.’

Despite my initial protests, intelligibility and impressions are not dichotomous. The ability to be clear affects the impressions you make. One respondent spoke about how she constantly avoided speaking to a housemate because the housemate’s lack of clarity and fluency meant that making sense of what she said was a chore which the respondent was not willing to take on after a hard day at school.

While it is important to be clear in your requests, one should avoid over-memorising linguistic formulae when attempting politeness. A member of reception warned that the memorisation of stock phrases could cause a mis-judgement of the speaker’s level of English, thus leading to a ‘mis-graded’ reply that the speaker might not follow.

Situational & Social Factors

‘…the bigger the favour, the more polite you need to be, and also, the more, shall we say, unrelated the question is to the business, you need to be more polite again (…) If you go to a hotdog stand and ask for a hotdog, then you don’t have to be very polite, do you? (…) If you have a request which is not directly related, ‘Do you know where the nearest underground is? Could you please…’ You need to be more polite than asking for the hotdog.’

The above respondent eloquently exemplifies the importance of social factors outlined by Brown and Levinson’s (1978) PDR (Power – do the interlocutors see each other as equals?; Distance – how well do the interlocutors know each other?; Ranking of Imposition – how much of an imposition is the request?). It is just as important to acknowledge the fact that much of our behaviour depends on the context model we have of that situation. We would not go into the post office and say ‘I was wondering if you could possibly sell me a stamp, could you?’ simply because it is just not the done thing. Contexts bring with them rights and obligations that speakers have to fulfill and a breach of these rights and obligations could result in a social faux pas.

Implications for the classroom - politeness realized in dynamic and fluid interaction

Much of politeness research (e.g. Blum-Kulka et al, 1989; Ellis, 1992; House and Kasper, 1981) has been focused on perceptions of certain formulaic structures and linguistic features when, in fact, politeness is realized through multiple turns as meaning is negotiated. There is no doubt that the use of formulae and lexical stock phrases does help in releasing ‘brain space’ and allowing learners to focus on other aspects of meaning negotiation. However, as teachers, we should perhaps go beyond teaching stock phrases and provide a platform for our learners to ponder and discuss, and in that process, gain a better understanding of politeness as a multifactorial construct. Case studies that involve recordings of interactions could serve as the basis for classroom discussion regarding whether the speakers were being polite or impolite and why the learners felt that this was so. This presents a good opportunity for awareness of cross-cultural issues to be raised, and the impact of paralinguistic features, such as intonation, to be highlighted.

Meanwhile, on the topic of intonation, a study of South-East Asian Englishes (Deterding and Kirkpatrick, 2006) found no evidence that NNSs of that region concurred with NSs of the West regarding the staccato-sounding abruptness of Singaporean English. I suppose if I had lived with NNSs of English, my request to take the rubbish out would be met with mutual understanding and not have been misunderstood as being impolite. Or maybe I am just an impolite person after all!


Brown, P. and S. Levinson. (1978) Politeness: some universals in language usage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Blum-Kulka, S., J. House, and G. Kasper. (1989) Cross-cultural Pragmatics: Requests and Apologies. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

Deterding, D. and A. Kirkpatrick. (2006) Emerging South-East Asian Englishes and intelligibility. World Englishes, 25/3, pp: 391-409.

Ellis, R. (1992) ‘Learning to communicate in the classroom: a study of two learners’ requests’. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 14, pp:1-23.

House, J. and G. Kasper. (1981) ‘Politeness markers in English and German’. In F. Coulmas (Eds.), Conversational Routine (pp:157-185). The Hague: Mouton.

Chong, C.S. (2012) Politeness and Pragmatics in NNS interactions. IATEFL Global Issues Special Interest Group Newsletter, 28, 47-49.