Wednesday, December 21, 2005


I play on a sim based on the ancient Chinese novel and modern games of Romance of the Three Kingdoms. And my friend posted what has to be one of the politest implied threats during the course of role play. This got me thinking about politeness as a facet of language, in general ...

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We know that some cultures are known for politeness. The Japanese have such a reputation. As do Englishmen in Romance novels, Southern Gentlemen and so on.

But why be polite? Let me give an example.

One day I was serving at a Sunday Mass. We were preparing before Mass, and I noticed the chalice was not ready. But the sacristy was packed with the lector, members of the St Anne's Altar Society and so on. So, I gently asked Father if we would be using his own chalice for this Mass. He remarked that it was a very polite way of telling him to get a move on. But he said it with a smile.
Politeness is a kind of manner of preventing offence as a default. Consider. If you know someone is sensitive about his weight, you wouldn't make fat jokes if you wished to respect his sensitivity. But you can't know everyone the world over. So we have developed the concept of politeness to save us from embarrassing ourselves, causing gaffes, etc.

But that's not the only cause. Surely, in cultures where face and honour are important, or where one can be judged on one's use of language, politeness can help us navigate the "game."

Finally, artful politeness is an indicator of a well-oiled mind. And we delight in a clever turn of phrase. This is particularly true in the case of my friend's implied threat. The darkest, most violent concept was couched in the nicest of terms. If his opponent takes the "out" he is offered, the politeness will have achieved its best possible result.

We shall see if that happens ...

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