Forms of Politeness in the Middle Eastern and Western Culture

As the world becomes more culturally complicated and pluralistic, the importance of topics related to intercultural communication increases. Due to the expansion of cross-cultural contacts, representatives of different linguistic and cultural communities are becoming the participants of such communications. Differences in verbal and nonverbal communication between people belonging to different cultures can lead to misinterpretations of feelings, attitudes, and intentions of communication partners. The success and efficiency of interaction is determined not only by language skills, but also by knowledge of national-cultural specificity of verbal and non-verbal behavior, knowledge of the socio-cultural norms, the dominant features of communication, national politeness systems.

Numerous studies on intercultural communication clearly show that in communication with foreign people grammatical and lexical errors can be easily forgiven as they are explained by the lack of linguistic knowledge, but foreigners are very sensitive to violations of social and cultural norms of communication because they believe them to be violated intentionally to cause offense or insult (Watts, 2003; Holliday, 2004; Spencer-Oatey, 2003).

Such communication mistakes can cause cultural shock, conflicts and failures in interpersonal and inter-ethnic communication. Cultural distance is also associated with major geopolitical consequences. It is believed that in the near future the main source of conflicts will be not ideology and economics, but cultural differences (Huntington, 2002).

Theoretical aspect in constructing politeness strategies

The main reason of differences in communicative behavior is the type of culture, communicators belong to. In the process of adaptation to the environment people develop language communication, social norms, rules of behavior, normative etiquette ”“ categories regulating social life in the community. In the course of historical development of the nation, its past experience is fixed in traditions, customs, habits of people, as well as in the norms of behavior, way of responding to the environment, actions in standard situations.

From this viewpoint, politeness is usually associated with the culture of speech, speech etiquette, which is traditionally paid much attention to. In recent researches, there is a tendency to allocate politeness in a separate issue, causing interest among professionals of the humanities. The increased interest towards politeness points to the importance of this issue in human relations in general and in intercultural communication in particular. Politeness is the moral and behavioral category, which refers to the ability to respectfully and tactfully communicate with people, willingness to compromise and listen to opposing points of view.

One of the most significant theories in this perspective is Scollon and Scollon’s politeness systems theory, observing three systems of politeness: solidarity politeness system, deference politeness system and hierarchical politeness system. In the solidarity politeness system, the interlocutors may have no power difference (-P) or social distance (-D) between them. The deference politeness system makes a system, where communicators are considered as equal, but deal with each other at a certain distance. The hierarchical politeness system is widely applied within government, corporations, and other organizations, where the communicators use various politeness strategies, which depend on their level of power. The distinction of these systems is based on whether there is power difference (+ P or -P) and social distance between the participants of communication (+ D or -D) (Scollon & Scollon, 2000).

In this study, we also use the theory of Brown and Levinson, who remain one of the most authoritative expects in this area and give us an effective tool for understanding the communicative behavior of the interlocutors in the process of communication. The key concept of the theory is the concept of FTA (Face Threatening Act), where “threaten” indicates that we are talking about aggression in speech. They also state that every person in the society possesses two kinds of face settings: negative and positive. “Negative face” in the terminology of Brown and Levinson indicates the speaker’s personal space, his time, body and clothing, equipment, and information space, i.e. a set of ideas, feelings, information an individual possesses; while “positive face” is a positive image, communicators aspire to present. Every interaction is potentially a FTA to both negative and positive face in form of criticism, reproach, scorn, sarcasm, insults, self-criticism, confession, apology, indiscreet questions, order, prohibition, request or even advice (Brown & Levinson, 1987).

Thus, the participants of communication are in a constant state of defense and have to apply politeness strategies in response to FTA. At the same time, despite the universality of politeness, emphasized by the authors, its implementation has specific national circumstances.

In order to be polite in intercultural communication, it is not enough to have language skills, i.e. to know etiquette formulas existing in the language of communication. They are often untranslatable, even despite their apparent equivalence. But it is necessary to know, in which communicative context they can be used, what their pragmatic meaning is, which communicative actions should be performed in certain communicative situation: to thank or to give an estimate, to focus on one’s own desires or to ask about partner’s wishes, to state or to ask a question, to implement communicative influence or to comply with the principle of communicative integrity (Holliday, 2004).

Since it is impossible to anticipate and to remember all the communication situations, taking into account the peculiarities of the communicative context, the most promising approach, from our viewpoint, is the knowledge of politeness strategies, which are typical for the studied culture, and the ability to use them in speech communication. Regular usage of certain strategies leads to the development of definite communicative dominants and ultimately, to the formation of the national style of verbal communication.

Comparison of Middle Eastern and Western cultures’ politeness strategies

Each culture has its own logic, its view of the world. What is significant in one culture may be irrelevant in another one. Therefore, it is important to respectfully treat the partner belonging to a different culture, because being different is a natural right. Respect includes not only interest, but also knowledge of some features of life. People of different cultures may even have different priorities for food, clothing, time and space, etc., as well as different principles and understanding of politeness. Further we cover the main common and different features in politeness strategies of Middle Eastern and Western cultures.

One of the basic linguistic and cultural principles of politeness both in Western and Eastern world is the reduction of impositiveness, i.e. of imposing something (tastes, opinions, advice, etc.) to the interlocutor and of the attempts to threaten his time and other resources. For instance, in English the use of indirect speech acts rather than direct one is actively applied for reducing impositiveness, in particular the use of interrogative sentences instead of affirmative and imperative ones in formulation of requests, orders, critical comments, advice, etc.

Obviously, acquaintance with non-impositiveness as a value orientation and with the means of its verbal embodiment should occur simultaneously with the development of linguistic competence, being a component of intercultural competence (Watts, 2003).

In addition, politeness is realized in most cultures through the mechanisms of adverbial indicators (such as a little, some, not really, enough, quite, very), used in statements in the meaning of restrained criticism or restrained positive evaluation. Confirming the thesis that indicators of this group are standard linguistic means for implementing the strategies of politeness in both cultures, is their functioning in the context of standardized metalinguistic patterns, marking the speaker’s efforts to respect the principle of politeness (Watts, 2003):

a) the marker “let’s say”, signaling about some conditionality of the chosen formulation and implying that another version of the formulation is possible;

b) the marker “to put it mildly”, signaling that the selected estimation is reduced and implicating that the sharper estimate would be quite fair;

c) the so-called markers of frankness “frankly, honestly speaking”, “I should confess”, serving as a preface to the unpleasant statement. Thus, through the joint use of a marker of frankness and abovementioned adverbs, the speaker is trying to prevent a conflict in advance, imposing the following pragmatic meaning to the recipient: “I cannot completely abstain from critical comments, but I present it in a “weakened” form”.

The modification of critical comments toward reducing their categoricity, implemented through minimizers is caused by the necessity to comply with the maxim of approval and the maxim of agreeing. Thus, at external saving of “face”, the speaker addresses criticism to the interlocutor or a third person. The function of exponents in the statements of this kind is reduced to the function of a “communicative flexion spring”, softening the categorical negative evaluation. In the result of the transformation, a statement uniquely interpreted as containing litotes is produced, i.e. containing estimates characterized by deliberately reduced categoricity (Spencer-Oatey, 2003).

Summarizing the results of the analysis of linguistic material, a universal strategy of politeness can be formulated, which is used by the speaker in his aspiration for conflict-free communication: reducing the intensity of the predicate in the estimative utterance increases the chances that the recipient will accept it without objection.

However, it should also be taken into account that in high-context cultures (like, in the Arab cultures) information is expressed not only in words, but also non-verbally. Besides, a very important factor and a unique form of communication is silence. Such cultures suppose it is necessary to have certain knowledge about the interlocutor, before starting of communication and to establish relationships, before moving on to discussing business issues, for example. Depending on the reaction of the interlocutor “yes” can mean “maybe”, “we’ll see” or “yes, if you think so”. For instance, texts of contracts are simplistic, the details are usually not prescribed, since they are impossible to predict in advance (Holliday, 2004).

On the contrary, in low-context cultures (Western countries, like the USA, Germany, Great Britain, Switzerland) information is expressed directly. Representatives of such cultures are result-oriented and usually talk a lot. “Yes” means agreement, approval. All the procedures are defined in written form, which allows avoiding ambiguous interpretations.

Depending on the type of cultural differences, strategies of politeness differ too: in low-context cultures, politeness is manifested implicitly; in high-context cultures, there are more strategies, for example, one of them is to refuse the terms of a deal several times and accept them only after persistent requests from the interlocutor (Middle East).

Numerous strategies of politeness are reduced, ultimately, to two types: “negative politeness”, which consists either in avoiding speech acts that would threaten the face or the territory of the recipient (order, critics, embarrassing questions , request), or in their softening, or, if the “threatening act” has already taken place, in its correction; and “positive politeness”, supposing a desire to praise the positive face of the recipient, in every way showing interest and sympathy for someone, who is striving for mutual understanding and harmony (Brown & Levinson, 1987).

Communicative styles specific to a particular culture, are mainly characterized by different ratios of negative and positive politeness. Many researchers agree that in Western cultures negative politeness is prevailing. This fact is explained, apparently, by a special or even sharpened sense of territory, which is characteristic of Western man (Cabrera, 2008).

Representatives of the Western cultures strive to protect their territory, much more than representatives of Arab culture. This especially concerns the protection of personal space and personal time. Therefore, spontaneous visits without an invitation in Western societies are extremely rare, and phone calls are reduced to a minimum. Colleagues often prefer to exchange electronic messages, rather than to clarify a question on the phone, in order not to invade one’s personal space once again. Another typical example of violation of cognitive areas is the so-called “indiscreet questions”, i.e. those relating to age, salary, political or religious views, as well as personal and intimate life.

Cultural distance between communicating Arabs is generally shorter than it is accepted among the Europeans. Average distance in conducting communication makes about 20-40 cm. Communicating individuals in Middle Eastern countries are almost touching each other, which indicates mutual trust. As soon as the Arabs try to be at their usual distance, the Europeans may feel the invasion into their personal space; they will immediately try to move away. In response to that, an Arab will try to approach again, which in terms of Europeans will be interpreted as a manifestation of aggression (El-Enany, 2006).

Men meeting in the Arab countries hug slightly touching each other’s cheek, and pat on the back and shoulders, but these gestures are only acceptable among their countryman and are not applicable to foreigners. While the European greeting is short and cold, the Arab one turns into a whole procedure: it is accompanied by questions about health, business affairs, etc. Even if the interlocutor is in a hurry, he still needs to listen to Arab interlocutor and his wishes for prosperity (El-Enany, 2006).

At first acquaintance, the Arab interlocutor usually expresses generosity and kindness, which is not pretence, but a tribute to tradition: among the Arabs the dominating idea is that only such conduct is worthy for a Muslim. However, the further conversation can be less smoothly. Moreover, Arab interlocutors avoid certainty and clear answers like “yes” or “no”. Instead, they would rather use vague phrases, like “Inshallah” (“If Allah wills”) (El-Enany, 2006).

Arab understanding of etiquette prohibits applying straightforward responses and being categorical. Arabs also avoid nervousness and haste during the conversation, always trying to preserve both their own and interlocutor’s dignity. It is considered necessary to leave the opportunity for further contacts. For example, refusal from a business deal is accompanied by reservations, praises in favor of the proposal under discussion, expressing denial in the most softened, veiled form.

Authoritarian management style is traditional in Arab countries; that’s why the level of business meetings is very important. Arabs are extremely committed to their national traditions, that’s why Arab business people don’t trust novelties promoted by Western authors like the method of principled negotiation and prefer the traditional long-term bargaining (El-Enany, 2006; Holliday, 2004).

While the Western culture is clearly measures the time and, for example, delay is regarded as a fault, the Arabs are usually not surprised by a delay. Moreover, if one wants to be treated seriously enough, one needs to spend some time on random (ritual) conversations. Besides, one should not be hasty, since it may cause a cultural conflict: the Arabs consider drinking coffee and talking as “doing something”, while the Americans consider it a waste of time (Spencer-Oatey, 2003). Accordingly, the Arabs regard the exact dead-lines as a personal insult, regarding long-durable business as a very prestigious one: the longer, the better. Different nations have different views on hierarchical relationships. They are much respected in Eastern countries, while the Americans are trying to demonstrate equality (Watts, 2003).

Western businessmen are trying to conduct their negotiations in a confidential atmosphere, face to face. In the Arab culture other people are present in the room, and to a request to speak in a different atmosphere, the Arab will only bring his head closer to the interlocutor.

Contradictions of such different views can easily lead to a conflict. While visiting and viewing the house one is invited to, it is important to be careful in expressing admiration for the paintings, carpets, cuff links or other things of the host, because he can gift them to the guest and expect the same gesture from him.


In the process of communication, people tend to perceive and estimate each other from the positions of their own culture and its standards, i.e. from the positions of ethnocentrism. Trying to predict the communicative behavior of the interlocutor, they consciously or unconsciously rely on their previous experiences, but if they are representatives of different cultures, their experiences have significant differences, which seriously complicates the process of communication.

Nowadays, when the contacts between people of different cultures are expanding, an especially important task is learning one’s own and other’s ethnic cultures, understanding their similarities and differences and overcoming both ethnic nihilism, and ethnocentrism.

Communicative behavior of people is a component of its national culture. It is regulated by national norms and traditions. Interpretation of the behavior of other cultures should be based on the knowledge of the causes of this behavior (Cabrera, 2008).

Regardless of cultural differences, politeness is a moral quality of a person for whom respect for people is a daily norm of behavior and habitual way of treating others. It includes attentiveness, manifestation of goodwill to all, willingness to help everyone who needs help, friendliness, sensitivity, tact, and modesty. No doubt, being polite and following the etiquette means to assist a close people’s happiness and not to violate another person’s dignity. As R.Emerson said: “Life is not so short but that there is always time for courtesy”.

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