Polite requests

Many EFL textbook activities include some section on ‘polite requests’. Recently, I’ve found the word ‘polite’ problematic. Here is a simple activity I do that highlights this, I think, effectively. On five pieces of paper write five increasing amounts of money, eg. 10c, $1, $10, $100, $1000. In pairs, one student picks a piece of paper and requests to borrow that amount from the other student. Invariably, I’ve noticed that (Japanese) students will vary their level of politeness according to the person they are talking to and not according to the amount that is written on the card. If they are in the same pairs, they will often use the same request for each amount of money. They are often surprised when I point out that, in English, we might expect a more polite form for a larger amount of money. What this means for the classroom, I think, is that the very word ‘polite’ can often have very different connotations for the teacher and the students.

Take the phrase ‘just being polite’, for example. In English, this generally means small talk without any real deeper meaning. What I think it also means is that English places value on the very act of talking itself, which itself varies regionally. If you go into an Australian clothes shop you are often met with a barrage of conversation. This, for the staff, is just ‘being polite’. In a Japanese shop the opposite is true. You are met with one word ‘irrashaimase’, regardless of the type of shop. I read somewhere (I forget exactly where) that the highest level of politeness when offering tea is to anticipate the other’s needs and pour silently. The culture values not speaking as a marker of ‘politeness’. This can, of course, make ‘conversation’ classes challenging…

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