Thursday, March 15, 2012

the conventions of politeness



my child has a bad habit of never saying "please." it's not that she doesn't ask nicely otherwise, it's just that the word "please" is never included without prompting. this has been bugging the hell out of me of late. in some sense, she comes by it honestly, because danish has no word for please. there are nice ways of asking for things, but no one word that just means "please." mostly, danish uses a kind of distancing technique to ease the blow of what's being asked for. "would you be so friendly as to let me off the bus" (not that anyone would ever say that particular phrase, they just fidget at your side until you get the hell out of their way.) "pray, hand me the remote," "i would like to ask for a cheeseburger." "are you so sweet as to get me another martini?" and the like.  but "please" as a word and even as a concept is curiously absent.

and naturally, this got me thinking about other linguistic politenesses. like "bless you" when someone sneezes. i remember my mom saying when i was a kid that "bless you" was a holdover from a time when people thought you sneezed out your soul, so you needed to be blessed for it go back into place after a sneeze. mom thought that was quite a ridiculous notion, as our souls could not possibly leave our bodies in that way. so we didn't say "bless you" in our family. as a result, i always felt rather awkward when someone blessed me when i sneezed - i never really knew how to react. do you say "thank you," or express some sort of relief that you still have your soul? i never really knew. let's face it, no one really believes that you're sneezing out your soul, it's today a matter of simple linguistic convention/politeness. so really, why is it that we feel a need to acknowledge when someone sneezes? we don't do it when they burp or fart. aren't bodily functions in general best left uncommented?

another politeness convention that i don't get is the notion of telling someone hello through another person. this is one that there is a word for in danish - at hilse. when signing off a phone conversation or parting from a friend, they will often say, "hils familien" - "tell your family hello." and like with "bless you," i never really know what to do with that. i end up mumbling some awkward, "please tell YOUR family hello." but really, why on earth should they do that? if i want to greet them, i'll do that myself. and if they want to greet my people, they can do it themselves. plus, there's the whole fact that i don't do it. i don't pass along their greetings. it's too awkward and frankly, my family doesn't mind. they think nothing of not being helloed by whoever i talked to on the phone that day.

what weird linguistic conventions of politeness puzzle you?

12 comments:

Mandy_Fish said...

I too have wondered about that "say hello to your family" business. I never remember to anyway. ;-)

NuminosityBeads said...

I really loved at an airport in India when the man on the loudspeaker said "May I have your kind attention please?" so proper and polite. or someone said to my husband..."and what is your good name, sir?"

I always hear my husband say to his family on phone calls " We send our love" which is sweet but perhaps a bit of distance from "I love you"

I think I do that " say hello to everyone for me" business myself and my husband thinks it's weird when I call my sister and my BIL answers and I don't do a bit of perfunctory chat with him before asking for my sister. I've tried to change that now but thought perhaps he'd rather get off of the phone sooner than later.
Yeah, the bless you always seemed awkward to me as well.
and what about this
"xoxo" business I always leave on blogs. Am I really leaving hugs and kisses? I just didn't know how else to close up my comments.
xoxo Cheers! Kim

CiCi said...

What time of day did you take this photo? It seems to be late evening. Really nice photo.

I never really thought of it, but it is odd to tell someone to say hello to someone else.

I rather like my way of asking after the other people, like when I talk to my brother I ask if his wife and kids are all doing fine.

eggdipdip said...

Now, I always thought that "bless you" originated during the last bout of bubonic plague. Sneezing was one of the 1st symptoms, so "bless you" was a quick 'prayer' to the powers that be that the sneeze wouldn't develop into full-blown plague. You learn something new everyday!

Anne said...

I've come to prefer "gesundheit," which at least has some relevance in that there's probably a reason the person sneezed, and you're wishing them health. Steve doesn't say "bless you," and despite my total agreement with you that it's silly to bless someone for sneezing, it never fails to bother me that he doesn't in some way acknowledge it. So I understand your frustration with the lack of a simple word.

I find other languages' constructions for "I'm sorry" (or phrases approximating that meaning) rather curious, particularly Italian's, which translates directly as "it displeases me." For some reason, compared with phrases like "je suis desolee" and "es tut mir leid" (or even "entschuldigung") "mi dispiace" feels more like you're more put out than sorry, and perhaps even annoyed with the person for being the bearer of bad news.

Wendy said...

I hate when people bless me, mainly because I usually sneeze 3+ times in a row and after the third "bless you" I feel like I'm irritating them, and I'm irritated because they're still paying attention to my sneeze attack. Leave me to sneeze in peace!

As a result I feel awkward blessing other people but since it's such an expected convention I feel rude not doing it. From here on out I'm making a resolution not to bless people any more.

Thanks :)

Spilling Ink said...

Teh Swedes and the Danes are the same apparently. I never grew up saying please and found it really awkward to have to say it all the time when I moved to Australia. Equally I tend to say "Say hello to your family from me" when I end conversation over the phone, for example, and it never fails to confuse people.

Spilling Ink said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Magpie said...

I love that photo.

I say gesundheit, because bless you makes me squeamy. What I hate, though, is "have a good one!" - a good one what?

Lynne said...

That photo is absolutely wonderful. Are you selling copies?

I'm with Magpie on 'have a good one'. Hate it! Our TV weatherpeople use it as a sign off line and it makes me crazy. Makes everyone in my family crazy too, because they have to hear me moaning about it night after night

julochka said...

mandy - i'm glad i'm not the only one.

kim - i do the xox too - i've decided it's my blog sign-off. but i'm pretty sure they're air kisses.

cici - the photo was actually taken on a very foggy morning - this sepia processing does give it a dusky feel tho'.

egg - that may very well be the reason, the soul thing was just what my mom always said. however, i'm not sure she's an authority on the origins of "bless you." :-) your explanation seems plausible as well.

anne - gesundheit, but decided i couldn't spell it. it does seem more fitting. in danish, they say "prosit," which also has nothing to do with momentarily losing one's soul. and as for i'm sorry - in danish, it's undskyld, which literally translates as "without guilt," so they're not really that sorry either. but it turns out ok, since they rarely use that word.

wendy - glad to help! i totally feel awkward about it too!

spilling ink - somehow tho', the swedes strike me as generally more polite than the danes. :-) and better-dressed. but that's the stuff of another blog post.

magpie - have a good one is annoying - i've always thought it was sort of a copout goodbye and a bit sarcastic.

lynne - i'd not planned on selling the photo, but perhaps i should. :-)

Sammi said...

i agree with egg about the plague thing with bless you. i remember growing up and between the ages of about 10-13 believing that you should *never* say thank you because that meant you were killing fairies (.... yup ...)

a canarian expression used to annoy me, it was used instead of "you'll turn into" if you eat a lot of the same things, they say "you'll get the face of". i can't quite imagine having the face of, say, a chocolate bar.... ?