2021.06.16 Positive and Negative Politeness

How can politeness ever become something negative?

Negative politeness is when we refrain from doing something we were otherwise inclined to do. If I know you are terribly busy, I may decide not to disturb you. You will not even know that I did you a favor by staying away.

This is a different type of politeness than acknowledging the existence of the next person in the super marked checkout line by asking how they cook the ham hocks in their cart. Reaching out is positive politeness - but in some cultures it may be seen as rude intrusions on other people’s privacy.

I was introduced to politeness science by a Danish-American connection, Lars AP, who wondered why he was so much more joyful when he spoke English than when he spoke Danish. He put on his American positive politeness persona when he spoke English but his more restrained negative politeness persona when he spoke Danish.

So he started a movement to make the Danes reach out more and be actively kinder to each other. It is called “Effing Friendly”. (Kid you not, the FF name is easy to remember. Apologies.)

It gradually works: I am not as odd as I was 20 years ago when I talk to the next person in the checkout line when I am “back home” on vacation.

And I am not even joking when I wrote politeness science; there is plenty of research into the subject as confirmed by Prof. Dr. Elin Fredsted, to whom I reached out after hearing of her research from Lars.

USA are among the countries that to the highest degree uses positive politeness. People will readily talk to you if they are sitting at a neighboring table at a restaurant; there may be some chat on the commuter train (at least there was before the smart phone); and when LinkedIn was younger, it was about five times as likely that an American would accept an invitation to link from a person they didn’t know compared to Danes. (No, not my research.)

Supposedly, positive politeness comes from the need of immigrants to get to know new people and prove themselves to be kind to build much needed trust. Then it is passed down to the next generations.

Using less scientific terms, when we name cultural variants Peach and Coconut cultures, we are referring to the same thing.

It is easy to engage with the outer layers of a Peach, but there is a hard kernel it may be difficult to penetrate. In contrast, it can be very hard to get through the shell of a Coconut, but once you get in, you are friends for life.

It is not positive or negative; it is just different.