Are Brits or Americans more polite? Let’s see!

The US and UK have a rather different style of politeness. You’ll learn about them both in this video.

In American English it’s often important to show warmth and friendliness. That’s true in British English too, but there we sometimes place more emphasis on not intruding or interfering.

It’s not that one style of politeness is better than the other, but it can lead to some funny differences on when we give compliments and how we receive them.

There’s a branch of linguistics called pragmatics which studies the hidden or secret meanings behind the words we choose. It looks at the intentions behind words and, as a result, it has prompted a lot of research and discussion about linguistic politeness.

This video looks at some ways that face issues impact politeness when it comes to compliments.

We haven’t tried to go into the technicalities of positive and negative politeness, but we show some issues in action that we think will be useful for English learners.

If you’ve enjoyed this video, here are two more we’ve made on some pragmatic features of English:
Why it’s hard to understand English speakers: https://youtu.be/HeDyRUkQA5Q
3 ways to get what you want in English: https://youtu.be/4jJ5zvfxRgc

British and American compliments – different styles of politeness

Yes, I’ll see you at three thirty then. OK. Cheers!
I just love your accent.

This video was inspired by a great comment we had from a viewer called Toure Malone. Have I said his name right?
I don’t know.
Toure, tell us if we got that wrong.
Here’s what he said.
Americans are notorious for saying “Oh my god I love your accent”. I’m one of them! Does it irritate you? He also said ‘We can’t help it. British accents are divine’
We’d better explain what notorious means.
It’s similar to famous, but it’s when you’re famous for something bad.
Yeah. A notorious criminal.
A notorious computer hacker.
And he says British accents are divine – so wonderful, beautiful.
He’s right.
You think my accent’s divine too?
No, I mean it’s true that Americans often say this to you. Are you irritated by it?
Not now because I’m used to it. I like it now, but at first I felt uncomfortable. It was awkward.
Why?
I didn’t know how to respond.
OK. See you soon. Bye.

I just love your accent.
Well everyone speaks like this where I come from.

That’s terrible! It’s like you’re calling him an idiot.
I know. I should be nicer.

OK. See you soon. Cheers.
I just love your accent.
And I just love your… dental work.

That’s terrible too! What’s your problem?
It’s less common to give compliments to strangers in the UK. We have a different way of being polite.
What do you mean?
Well, there are two sides to politeness – two parts. One part is about being inclusive and warm and friendly and agreeable.
Like me.
Yeah.
I’m American and we’re famous for being friendly.
But the other part of politeness is about being leaving people alone.
That’s polite?
Yes, so you don’t interfere. You let them do whatever they want and you don’t disturb them. You don’t intrude.
You don’t want to be intrusive.
Uhuh. Not intruding is polite too.
Well that makes sense.
Both these sides of politeness are important in all cultures, but people give them different weight, different importance, in different parts of the world.
Let me guess. In America being warm and friendly is more important.
Yes. It’s important everywhere, but it’s very important in the US. And in the UK, we think it’s important to stand back and leave people alone a bit more.
We can do that too. But this is about different weightings.
Exactly. If you think about the stereotypes of British people and Americans, it’s sort of connected.

Hi, I’m British and I’m rather reserved. If we meet somewhere like a railway carriage, I probably won’t talk to you. I think it’s polite to leave people alone so they can go about their business without me getting in their way.

Hi! I’m American and I’m super friendly. When we meet for the first time, I’m going to tell you my entire life story in the first five minutes. I’m polite so I won’t hold back. I’m going to share and be open.

Those are stereotypes. They’re not real.
But when you think about the two sides of politeness, you can see where they come from. You know, sometimes my students ask if American friendliness is fake.
So not real?
Yeah, is it fake?
No!
After living here a long time, I don’t think it’s fake either. It’s just the politeness style – it emphasizes friendliness.
Ok, so let’s go back to Toure’s example. When we say ‘I love your accent’, We’re being friendly. What’s wrong with that?
Well it’s also intrusive because it means you’re judging me.
But I said something nice.
Yeah, but what right have you got to judge me?
That’s such a funny way of looking at it.
And there’s another problem. If you say something nice to me, then I might feel that I have to repay you and say something nice back.
Oh, so it sounds like I’m fishing for compliments.
It’s a possibility.
Why can’t you just say thank you?
Ah. If I accept the compliment and then you might think that I’m big headed.
Big headed is a British expression.
It means you think you’re more intelligent or more important than you really are.
You don’t want people to think you’re conceited.
Exactly. You want them to think you’re modest. That’s when you don’t talk about your achievements. Being big headed is bad. Being modest is good.

And that’s it. Thank you everybody.
Wow. I just loved your presentation. It was awesome.
Thank you. Erm… I made some mistakes.
It was really good.
I forgot some things.
I didn’t notice. You were terrific.
Thanks Erm. I really should have practiced more.
But…. but it was interesting.
No, no.
No, really!

Wow, that was awkward. It felt like YOU were fishing for compliments.
I know. I was just trying to be modest and you wouldn’t let me.
Well, you kept criticizing yourself so you forced me to say something nice.
When I first came to the US, I had conversations like that. It was really embarrassing. The Americans were embarrassed. I was embarrassed.
But it’s not a problem now.
Errr. Not so much. I’ve learnt to be careful not to criticize myself.
She’s very modest.
No. It’s not that we’re really more modest in the UK. It’s just more important for us to behave as if we’re modest.
It’s a different style of politeness.
Exactly. And I’m wondering, what politeness is like in YOUR culture. Is it more like the US or the UK?
Write and tell us in the comments. That’ll be very interesting.
And if you’ve enjoyed this video, please share it with a friend.
See you all next week everyone.
Bye.
Bye-bye.

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