Writing Politely: The Difficulties of Conveying Tone in Writing through Cultural Differences

The other day in our Writing Center staff meeting, we discussed methods of being polite in face-to-face and online sessions. Many of the consultants had used some of the “tips and tricks” in sessions before and shared their experiences with what did and did not work in different situations.

However, I noticed that while the politeness strategies were useful overall, they were very America-centered. Many other cultures have different ideas of politeness than we do, and it is important to take that into account when consulting with clients from other countries.

What is politeness?

Let’s start with a discussion on what politeness is. Generally, when we think of politeness, we think of respect. We use language to convey that we respect whoever we are talking to and are not trying to impose ourselves. For example, if I were lost and wanted to ask a stranger for directions, I would use the phrase “excuse me” to get a stranger’s attention. Saying “excuse me” tells the stranger that I might seem rude by asking a question out of the blue and that they are free to go if needed. I am not trying to impose.

Generally, we have an intuitive idea of how to be polite in our culture. Politeness is cultural and taught to us since we were young. But we must realize that people raised in other cultures have a different idea of what politeness entails.

Take Japanese, for example. In Japan, politeness is so engrained in the language it is its own grammatical structure. You conjugate verbs based on politeness, with levels including short form (for casual use among friends and family), polite form (for most situations), and business polite form (for talking to superiors or in business situations). Take the word for sleep, neru. Neru is the short form, nemasu is the polite, oyasumininaru is the business polite. 

But in English we do not have grammatical structures to denote our politeness, just tone and stock phrases. How are we supposed to explain how to be polite in this situation?

An Example: Polite Subject Matter

The other day, I had a client from Japan who wanted help with a scholarship essay. In Japan, it is polite to not discuss personal matters, especially personal problems, with strangers. She was worried about conveying her desire and need for the scholarship but did not want to speak badly of her family situation. How would you address this situation?

In this sort of situation, there are several tools you can employ. One way is to explain American conventions to the client, how Americans are usually direct and generally have few qualms discussing personal issues. However, it is important to remember that you should not impose your conventions if it makes the client uncomfortable! I ended up advising my client on how to discuss her need for the scholarship without going too much into the details that made her uncomfortable.

Remember: politeness is fluid – there are many ways to convey what you need to say without making the client or reader uncomfortable. You can help the client to navigate American politeness conventions without feeling uncomfortable.

Another example: Explaining tone

Another difficulty in politeness is tone. It is hard to convey tone in writing since you cannot control how the reader interprets your words. I am sure most of us have had issues when a text or email was read wrong, causing a conflict! It becomes even more difficult when navigating cultural barriers.

For example, I had a Korean client the other day who was taking a business writing class. She had an assignment to write an email to a coworker asking about a task that the coworker had not completed on time. The client used the phrase, “It was my understanding,” to describe the task that the coworker had volunteered to do. She thought she was polite, but the Professor told her that she was being passive aggressive.

What happened here was an example of tone differences. In Korea, she said, this phrase would be very polite, so she could not understand what was rude about it. I advised her to read her writing in an angry tone and see the difference. Read angry, “It was my understanding” came off as rude.

What can we do?

In the end, we can only advise the best we can.
·       Be aware that there may be cultural differences in the definition and formality of politeness that the client may not be aware of.
·       Explain American writing conventions as best we can, especially how Americans usually like direct language that may seem rude to other cultures.
·       Offer tips for how to soften language, like phrasing statements as questions, placing blame on yourself, using more words, or using indirect language like “I think.”
Politeness is hard in any language. We can help our clients navigate our country’s definition as best we can.


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