These few paragraphs are designed to place politeness within the discussion of culture in communication.
The politeness principle is probably universal across all cultures (Brown & Levinson, 1987). Cultures differ, however, in how they define politeness and in how important politeness is in comparison with, say, openness or honesty. For example, not interrupting, saying “please” and “thank you,” maintaining a focused interaction with appropriate eye contact, and/or not criticizing someone in public are all examples of politeness messages but their importance differs from one culture to another.
Cultures also differ in their rules for expressing politeness or impoliteness. Some cultures, for example, may require you to give a long speech of praise when meeting, say, an important scientist or educator; other cultures expect you to assume a more equal position regardless of the stature of the other person. The varied forms of polite greetings provide excellent examples of the different ways different cultures signal politeness, cleverly signaled in the title of one popular guide to intercultural communication, Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands: How to do Business in Sixty Countries (Morrison, Conaway, & Borden, 1994). Chinese and Japanese will greet you with bows. In Chile, Honduras, and many other Latin countries women may pat each other on the arm or shoulder. In the Czech Republic men may kiss a woman’s hand. In many Latin and Mediterranean cultures the polite greeting is to hug, a type of greeting that is gaining in popularity throughout the United States. And in many of course the proper greeting is the handshake but even this varies. For example, in the United States and Canada, the handshake is firm and short (lasting about 3 to 4 seconds) but it’s soft (resembling a handclasp) and long (lasting about 10 to 12 seconds) in Indonesia (Morrison, Conaway, & Borden, 1994). For more on the handshake, see Chapter 8, pp. 000-000.
And, of course, cultures differ in the punishments they mete out for politeness violations. Asian cultures, especially Chinese and Japanese, are often singled out because they emphasize politeness more and mete out harsher punishments for violations than would people in the United States or in Western Europe (Fraser, 1990, Mao, 1994; Strecker, 1993).
There also are large gender differences (as well as similarities) in the expression of politeness (Holmes, 1995). Generally, studies from several different cultures show that women use more polite forms than men (Brown, 1980; Wetzel, 1988; Holmes, 1995). Both in informal conversation and in conflict situations, women tend to seek areas of agreement more than do men. Young girls are more apt to try to modify expressions of disagreement, whereas young boys are more apt to express more “bald disagreements” (Holmes, 1995). There are also similarities. For example, both men and women in the United States and New Zealand seem to pay compliments in similar ways (Manes & Wolfson, 1981; Holmes, 1986, 1995), and both men and women use politeness strategies when communicating bad news in an organization (Lee, 1993).