ESRC: Rude Britannia – what our politeness says about our nation

Britain is still a nation of polite people and fears that texts, tweets and Facebook are making people ruder is a myth, according to research from Lancaster University's Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS).

The British are famous for their reserve, indirect way of saying things and a love of queuing. However, new research shows that what we find polite, and what we find rude is unique to our culture and can be very different to notions of rudeness in other cultures.

The research carried out by Professor Jonathan Culpeper, an expert in linguistic politeness, will be presented at an event as part of the Economic and Social Research Council’s annual Festival of Social Science, which runs between 2-9 November 2013.

Professor Culpeper, who is ERSC funded, studied 500 diary reports of incidents of impoliteness experienced by people living in Britain, Germany, Finland, Turkey and China. The study revealed that people belonging to different cultures get offended by different things – because those cultures have different values. He found that whilst personal image and appearance was most important for Brits, social rights and fairness, and how they were perceived within a group, was most important for the Chinese and being told, for example, that you were a bad leader would be very offensive.

"This fits the idea that British culture is more individualistic, whereas Chinese culture emphasizes one's position in the group and social reciprocity, for example reciprocal gift giving and returning favours," says Professor Culpeper.

The study also dispels a popularly held belief that we're getting ruder – and reveals that 400 years ago everyday language was far more plain and direct than it is today. Professor Culpeper, said: "A thousand or so years ago in Old English, it was fine to use brusqueness which is jaw-dropping from our modern perspective. Our impression of a massive explosion in the use of impolite language is partly the panic reaction of those with more traditional values meeting new values – values which encourage more direct ways of expressing emotions and doing business."

He went on to add: "The new 'let it all hang out' culture is clashing with the 'beat about the bush' culture. A result of this clash is a sense amongst traditionalists that their values are under attack."

Professor Culpeper's research also showed that when people talk about things they consider impolite, they actually refer to a very limited number of things in specific contexts. Using the two-billion word Oxford English Corpus, a mind-bogglingly large electronic collection of various writings (newspapers, weblogs, science writing, etc.), Professor Culpeper found that actions likely to be described as rude or impolite included: 'eavesdropping', 'interrupting', 'pointing', 'ignoring', 'smoking', 'listening (in)' and 'laughing'. And people likely to be described as rude or impolite included: 'doorman', 'bouncer', 'bartender', 'waitress', 'waiter', 'staff', 'guest' and 'customer'. Many of these relate to public service contexts, where people have expectations of service entitlements, which are not always met.

Professor Culpeper said: "Impoliteness often gets a bad press. It is assumed to be a poor, debased kind of language used for dysfunctional social purposes. But impoliteness can also be sophisticated, creative, and can entertain."

Previous research has shown that some cultures have value systems or ideologies in which impolite behaviours are positively valued. This is the case in particular amongst groups for whom masculine identity is important, and where there is a 'culture of honour'. In these groups, male violence is seen as a positive way of restoring social reputation or economic position. In other groups such as urban gangs, 'subcultures of violence' exist where higher levels of violence are accepted as a social norm. A related ideology is that of 'machismo', which places a positive value on aggression as a way of dealing with challenges and differences of opinion.

The word most commonly used by people when describing events in which they had been offended was 'patronising'. This is because we Brits are particularly sensitive to power hierarchies, meaning that people tend to take offence when a speaker adopts a position of superiority to which others feel they are not entitled.

"What British people tend to react to and label as impoliteness are abuses of power, that is, cases where a person or group exerts power over another person or group beyond what is considered legitimate. This means that while asking someone to do something in a normal way is not considered impolite when the speaker is in a position of power, for example a boss asking an employee to do something, even politely worded requests could be deemed to be rude, if the speaker were in a position of very low power.", explained Professor Culpeper.

This research will be showcased at the event, 'Reading between the lines: Language of Society' on the 4 November. It will be hosted by the ESRC Centre for Corpus Approaches to Social Science (CASS), and will allow students to look at what (and who) is considered polite, impolite, and downright rude in a collection of texts.

ESRC Press Office:

Susie Watts
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Sarah Nichols
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Notes for editors

Event: Reading between the lines
Organiser: Ms Amanda Potts, ESRC Centre for Corpus Approaches to Social Science
Date: 4-7 November 2013
5 November – Cardinal Newman College, Lark Hill Road, Preston PR1 4HD. Staff member – Jonathan Culpeper
6 November – Winstanley College, Winstanley Road, Wigan WN5 7XF. Staff member – Andrew Hardie
7 November – Priestly Sixth Form College, Warrington, Cheshire WA4 6RD. Staff member – Claire Hardaker
7 November – South Sefton Sixth Form College, Sterrix Lane, Litherland L30 2DB. Staff member – Tony McEnery
Audience: Schools
More Information: please contact:
Ms Amanda Potts
Telephone: 01524 510827
Professor Culpeper analysed impolite language as part of a three year Economic and Social Research Council Research Fellowship on the subject.
The Festival of Social Science is run by the Economic and Social Research Council and takes place from 2-9 November 2013. With events from some of the country's leading social scientists, the Festival celebrates the very best of British social science research and how it influences our social, economic and political lives – both now and in the future. This year's Festival of Social Science has over 170 creative and exciting events across the UK to encourage businesses, charities, government agencies, schools and college students to discuss, discover and debate topical social science issues. Press releases detailing some of the varied events and a full list of the programme are available at the Festival website. You can now follow updates from the Festival on Twitter using #esrcfestival.
The Economic and Social Research Council is the UK's largest organisation for funding research on economic and social issues. It supports independent, high quality research which has an impact on business, the public sector and the third sector. The ESRC's total budget for 2012/13 is £205 million. At any one time the ESRC supports over 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and independent research institutes.