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Politeness - A Comparison Between Chinese And English

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Table of contents

1. Introduction 2

2. Politeness - a theoretical approach 3

3. the concept of limao 4

4. Request strategies 4

4.1. Request strategies in Chinese 4

4.2. Request strategies in English 5

5. Forms of address 6

5.1. Forms of address in Chinese 6

5.2. Forms of address in English 7

6. Chinese: Politeness across social groups 8

7. Conclusion 9

References 11

1. Introduction

In many parts of this world, former existing borders are removed and people move closer together. It has to be admitted that most of the time this happens due to economical reasons, and the phenomenon of mass media has to be mentioned in this context as well. Therefore it becomes even more important to be able to understand cultures of different life-styles. But the success or failure of communication does not only depend on how well a language is spoken, but also on intonation and body language. Dr. Mehrabian, a prominent and successful psychologist, is perhaps best known for the investigation of the role of non-verbal communication. He published findings indicating that spoken words only account for 7% of what a listener perceives. The remaining 93% of what a listener comprehends originate from the speaker's body language and tone employed in the delivery of the words.

Not only because of studies like this, non-verbal communication plays an important role when studying language in its social context. A very interesting topic in this large field is politeness, since forms of politeness are often misinterpreted and lead to misunderstandings. So I chose to have a closer look at the differences between politeness in Chinese and English.

Since it is very difficult to collect data concerning politeness in the language of Chinese, this paper is theory-based only. Nevertheless, many books that cover this topic can be found. Some of the books used for the research of this paper were written by native speakers of Chinese, which is an indication for the author's competence of the language. Therefore, collecting additional data would not only have been difficult, but also inefficient.

This paper will deal with the topic of request strategies used by speakers of the People's Republic of China and the terms of address in Chinese and English. Besides, it will focus on request strategies across societal structures and social groups. In addition, it will discuss the concept of limao, the traditional concept of politeness in China. This paper will not allow to cover all important issues concerning this topic, but it shall give a rough overview and should give the reader an incentive to have a closer look at this field of study.

2. Politeness - a theoretical approach

The theory of Brown and Levinson, published in 1987, focuses on communicative strategies and how these strategies are realized structurally and lexically in languages. This theory describes two levels of communication, namely the surface level and the underlying level. As Lee-Wong points out, "on the surface level, the maxims are deemed to be infringed but on the underlying level, the Cooperative Principle is still at work, i.e. conversation is still seen as purposive and rational." (Lee-Wong 2000: 18)

Whereas Brown and Levinson look at the phenomenon from a socio-psychological perspective, Leech sees the role of politeness as essentially social. According to him a successful interaction does not only depend on the assumption of the Cooperative Principle, but the Politeness Principle plays an even more important role. So the more costly the request is, the greater the degree of politeness has to be.

Besides these theories there exist a number of theoretical approaches concerning politeness. Other examples would be the "concept of politic behaviour" by Watts or the socio-psychological approach by Janney and Arndt, just to mention a few. Generally speaking, all these theories are either orientated toward the conceptualisation of politeness as a pragmatic means of conflict avoidance or as a form of ritual routine.

Therefore politeness can be seen both as a norm-oriented phenomenon and as a strategy. This perspective emphasizes that politeness is context-bound. So an utterance that is perceived as polite in one context might be interpreted differently in another because of contextual features such as relative social relationship and power.

In order to understand politeness in modern China it is necessary to look at its past since politeness can only be explained with the help of knowledge of Chinese traditions. It is very important to know that China was traditionally a family-based society, which explains that this society is still hierarchically orientated.

3. The concept of limao

The most approximate Chinese equivalent to the English word "politeness" is limao which could be translated by "polite appearance". Limao is a concept that derived from the old Chinese word li. Li was formulated by Confucius (lived from 551 B.C. to 479 B.C.), whose influence is still strongly felt today in the country of China. Back then the country was uncontrollable due to several wars going on between feudal states. Chaos practically reigned over the land. So it was Confucius' aim to restore li, the social hierarchy that existed before in the Zhou Dynasty (1100 B.C.). In order to restore this system, it was necessary to restore sociological definitions and values of individuals in order to put each individual in his or her place according to his or her social position.

There are basically four notions underlying the Chinese conception of limao: respectfulness, modesty, attitudinal warmth, and refinement. Respectfulness is defined as a positive appreciation towards oneself and the admiration of others (face, social status, etc.). Modesty should prevent a person from acting selfish and snobbish, so it could be translated as the term "self-disparagement". Attitudinal warmth

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