That’s just rude: why being polite may not be a universal concept

That’s just rude: why being polite may not be a universal concept

A French waiter hit the headlines in March 2018 when he contested his dismissal from a Canadian restaurant for his “aggressive tone and nature”. The waiter argued that his behaviour was due to his French manner, which he described as “more direct” than the Canadian approach, leading to the headline “Fired for being French”. So is politeness a universal concept? Or does our idea of what is or isn’t acceptable behaviour differ according to cultural identity?

Rudeness is defined as behaviour that violates social or organisational norms. Norms are our expectations of which behaviours are, or are not, appropriate or acceptable. For example, most people wouldn’t burst into song in the middle of a library, where the norm indicates you should be quiet.

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In a workplace situation, norms of behaviour tend to be quite implicit, leaving scope for misunderstandings and different viewpoints on respectful behaviour. What one person thinks is acceptable behaviour, might be seen as rude or inappropriate by their colleagues. For example, interrupting someone during a meeting might be seen as acceptable by some and rude by others.

Reducing rudeness

Understanding the factors that influence rudeness is vital, as it is a widespread problem in the workplace. Reports indicate that 98% of employees will experience rudeness, with 50% of those experiencing it at least once a week. This can have a serious impact on well-being and performance, so reducing rudeness is a key focus for many companies.

There are two trains of thought on the issue of perceived rudeness: the first argues that politeness is universal. The basis for this theory is that everyone has a public image, known as “face”, that they want to maintain. This is our impression of how we are viewed by others, whether we are appreciated and our wish to avoid “losing face” or being embarrassed.

The fact that everyone wants to save “face” should produce a universal desire for politeness that includes things like recognising someone else’s interests and apologising if you realise you have upset someone. It’s been suggested that this translates into shared rules when it comes to politeness, such as the use of tact, consideration, empathy and being civil – things that everyone can display, regardless of cultural background.


Read more: You really should be nicer to your colleagues - rude behaviour is contagious


This also acknowledges the darker side of politeness, with the understanding that rudeness is a universal concept, too, particularly when someone is attempting to be deliberately offensive. The flip side of the universal argument is the suggestion that politeness and rudeness are concepts that differ across cultures.

Language and misunderstanding

Many researchers focus on directness as a measure for politeness in different languages. For example, Japanese people tend to use indirect speech tactics, such as hedging: “Could I possibly bother you for a moment?”, whereas the German language puts more emphasis on direct, short, constructions: “We need to talk”.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that German speakers are trying to be less polite than Japanese speakers, but differences in language patterns can lead to misunderstandings and offence where none was intended. Given that many workplaces are multicultural, it’s important to be aware of possible differences and accommodate these in order to avoid unintentional rudeness.

Other researchers have looked beyond differences based on language, or country, identifying differences at a regional level.

Rudeness at work is widespread – 50% of us experience it at least once a week. Shutterstock

An example of this type of variation is the “blunt Yorkshireman” first proposed by linguistic expert Professor Sara Mills – whereby the use of straight talking, or being direct, is prized in Yorkshire. But those same speech mannerisms might be considered rude in the south of England, indicating that perceptions of rudeness can vary across regions, despite each group speaking the same language.

But neither point of view considers the influence of descriptive norms. These are guides to behaviour that we pick up in individual situations; we can see what other people are doing and tend to adjust our behaviour to match, or conform, with the majority.

You can test this influence on behaviour quite simply – the next time you are in a lift, try standing so you face the back rather than the front. It’s quite an uncomfortable experience and flies directly in the face of established descriptive norms, which tell you that you should face the doors when you’re in a lift. Research suggests there is a balance to be struck between our idea of expected or “ideal” behaviour based on past experience, and what we see happening in reality. A mixture of both would appear to guide our behaviour.

So is politeness universal? Unlikely. Is rudeness down to misunderstandings driven by cultural differences? Possibly. Language-based differences are certainly a part of it, but by no means the only factor. The exploration of factors influencing rudeness is important, and the more we learn the better we will be able to explain this behaviour. Perhaps one day we will be able to reduce rudeness at work and avoid accidental offence – including being fired for “being French”.

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