Canadian politeness. Truth or stereotype?

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2017 28 Pages

Communications - Language


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Theoretical and Historical Background
a. An Attempt of Defining Politeness
b. Conversation Analysis and Politeness
c. Parameters in a Communication Situation

3. Methodology
a. The Possibly Most Known Twitter Dialogue (Canada)
b. Twitter Dialogue USA

4. Analyses and Results
a. Twitter Dialogue Canada
b. Twitter Dialogue USA

5. Discussion

6. Conclusion

1. Introduction

“Is Our Politeness Holding Us Back” (Souvaliotis 2011)? This very title indicates a major concern about language. The author is thinking about Canada which is stereotypically said to be the politest countries in the world. Or, like the novelist Bissoondath put it in: “We are a country of good heart, a country on the whole of courage and goodwill […]” (2006: 25). Souvaliotis continues and analyzes that Canadians voice their “concerns so gently packaged and tightly buried in their talk that most listeners would naturally smile” (2011). Scientifically, this prejudice seems to be incredible why this paper needs to be written. The title and research question, hence, can be stated as “Canadian Politeness – A never-ending stereotype or just the truth about the friendliest country?” and should outline whether Canadians are more polite than others and if so, why. The hypothesis states in fact a more kindly and friendly way of speaking, though, it just occurs in a sense of habit and not manner.

This paper uses conversation analysis to be able to answer the research question. For its support, two Twitter dialogues will be examined once parameters have been set in the theory section to identify polite or impolite language.

Research analyses revealed that there are quite a few books about Canadian English, Canada with its French influences, and history of the language. Important authors to be named are Bernard Farenkia (French influences), Mark Orkin (English language in Canada), or Richard Watts (history). Bernard Farenkia, firstly, studies politeness in reference to French, which is in fact the complement for the paper. Admittedly, his analyses are very detailed which certainly cannot be reached by this seminar paper, due to limitations. Mark Orkin, on the other hand, is investigating language attitudes of Canadian English and, lastly, Richard Watts is giving a well-structured and researched overview about language history.

Conversation Analysis as the method used in this text was investigated by Rebecca Clift who is to be named as major author, too. She published “Conversation Analysis” which is a well-structured investigation on the method in whole. Nevertheless, a gap could be settled as no single work was to be found dealing with Canadian politeness in general or detail. This underlines the importance of the paper once more as it is vital for linguistics to be capable of analyzing specific differences in usage of the English language. Just Penelope Brown and Stephen Levinson published a book of use which is related to politeness in general. They analyzed different styles of politeness, indicators, and speech-acts. This book will be the basis as it outlines highly important aspects of politeness itself.

The structure of the paper is divided in certain sections: at the beginning, it is necessary to work on the theoretical background which involves definitions, a theoretical analysis of the method, and the setting of parameters (located in chapter 2 and 3). This first part should clarify the depths as one can just study further on with the framework of method and theory. Two Twitter dialogues, on the other hand, are being introduced as second part (chapter 4). They both can be seen as centerpieces of the investigation as they simply are the evidence. For this reason, their selection needs to be well argued and proven. The examination will subsequently take place in chapter 4 which tries to find evidence for the research question. Chapter 5 discusses henceforward the differences, similarities, and results found and hereby finishes the reunion of both theory and empirical evidences. It concludes the topic, answers the research question, and falsifies or verifies the thesis. Chapter 6 finally concludes the entire paper, formulates an overall outlook, and summarizes.

2. Theoretical and Historical Background

The subject background needs to be historically investigated due to the genesis of language which will be of use in chapter 5. Canada was occupied by the British and French and they were and are also friends with one another. One major example is of course Queen Elizabeth II., who is still head of state in both Canada and Great Britain. If one wants to concentrate on more earlier times in which a friendly habit needs to have developed, Canada was one of the most important allies with Britain as they fought against the United States. “Since the American War of Independence, Canada had seemed the most dependable of Britain’s colonies […]” (Ferguson 2004: 110). This was even supported by the War of Independence (USA) as “many of [the Royalists] responded to defeat by emigrating northwards to the British colonies in Canada, which had all remained loyal” (ibid: 100). They even fought together (cf. ibid: 347; or Black 2010: 135) which leads Fee and McAlpine to name a whole chapter of their book “The American Revolution and the Arrival of the Loyalists” (Walker 2015: 44). The mentioned Loyalists are today known as conservatives in Canada (cf. Fee & McAlpine 1997: 131) which in fact closes the circle of time due to their presence in modern day politics and underlines the necessity of investigating not just Canadian, but British habits as well. However, not just the English were involved in skirmishes and hence impacts on Canada. Lieberson states the fact that both “English and French are […] official languages and have stood the test of contact for several centuries without the collapse or disappearance of either” (1970: 16). The difference lies within Canadian English itself as French and English did not spread the same way at the same time[1]. In this sense, some areas were influenced earlier although this is not important for the paper.

These facts result in alterations of vocabulary and its usage, which is the very same point Trudgill and Hannah name as vital in their analysis of the vocabulary differences between Canadian English and American English (cf. 2008: 88). Consequently, this paper needs to take both influences into consideration, as well as a We-feeling, Bissoondath describes (cf. 2006: 34-5).

Previous findings analyzed this approach, as well. Researchers from McMaster University[2] are to be named who examined three million tweets to see how Canada’s Twitter users speak differently. Andrew Russel is convinced that the investigation was the first of its kind and says: “The study is among the first to use the social network to examine differences in English language” (Russel 2016) which is underlined by Terry (2016), as well. His college Samantha Craggs specifies the method used in the study and states that they “also analyzed tweets from England and Scotland and found subtler differences” (Craggs 2016) which underlines the reliability. However, the linguists of McMaster University found out that Canadians use a lot of more polite words than American people; American Twitter on the other hand is ruder (cf. chapter 5 or in this paper Figure 1).

This study is in fact a very important aspect of the paper. Nevertheless, its needs to be investigated further to be able to answer the research question. For this reason, the following sub-chapter should define politeness in order to analyze the two Twitter dialogues mentioned above.

a. An Attempt of Defining Politeness

Politeness seems to have a very easy definition and everybody is aware of its meaning. However, it is necessary to state it as it is not just a major concept of this paper but could be misleading as well. Sorry, for example, seems to be clear-cut. Someone is excusing himself for whatever reason. Nevertheless, as panicked exclamation after a bump of two people it could also be used as subtle way to get an apology from a potential offender. Sarcasm and irony are herewith ruining the clear-cut definition why it needs to be set and made measurable through parameters. Moreover, saying sorry could also be used as politeness strategy in order to have a smooth, norm-abiding interaction, why Canadian politeness could come out as non-polite at all in the end.

Politeness Strategies, as one problem of the definition, are speech acts that represent concerns for the counterpart and minimize intimidations to oneself in relation to social contexts (Clift 2016: 222). In this case, one has to attend to the hearer’s interests for example and avoid negative statements with help of positive ones or compliments. This speech act helps the speaker to reach the goal of speaking without having to face the possibility of a social distraction. For example, the sentence If you wash the dishes, I will vacuum the floor makes the opponent to wash the dishes which is in fact the reason and the intendance of this sentence. The positive outcome of it (I will vacuum the floor) completes the politeness strategy because the other person does not feel like getting an order but as equal part of a team. Therefore, a possibly negative acknowledgement is being prevented. Another possibility of politeness strategies, which has to be taken into consideration for this paper, is an indirect interaction in a non-imposing way in which one tries to avoid offence with deference or questions. A good example is the sentence Perhaps he has taken it, maybe. It shows how difficult it is to separate politeness from politeness strategies as this questioning way of giving a passive answer cannot be separated, at all. Goffman and Garfinkel recapitulate this division of politeness strategies with the term of face-keeping[3]. They mention that, whatever a speaker says, there is always a sociological intention to keep one’s face in a conversation (cf. Clift 2016: 36).

Gudrun Held summarizes these different forms of appearance of politeness as spontaneous within a situation, routine, or ritual, and mentions the strategical part as very central, too: “Patterns of behaviour [sic!] and phraseological elements are seen as important components of communicative competence” (2008: 148). This chapter will discuss later on why it is, on the other hand, not very important to separate politeness and politeness strategies. It is just vital to be aware of the distinction.

Canadians, to become more specific, are very likely to use such politeness strategies mentioned above. Farenkia outlines this statement, displayed in Figure 2. It shows, while investigating the different varieties of French, that Canadians tend to give more simple answers to a compliment as Cameroons (cf. Farenkia 2014: chapter 6). In detail, Cameroons are more likely to give a complex response to a compliment (74,88% vs. 66,34% in Canada (cf. ibid: 136)) whereas it can be stated the other way round for simple verbal responses (Canada 33,66% vs. 25,12% Cameroon (cf. ibid: 136)). The comparability, however, of both English and French in Canada (as well as the mutual influences) were already discussed why this point can be stated for the entire country.

To finally define politeness for this paper, one has to consider all the mentioned aspects. Firstly, the Canadian Oxford Dictionary defines politeness as noun for polite which is set as “having good manners; [being] cultivated, cultured, refined [or] elegant” (Barber 2004: 1201). The Guide to Canadian English Usage, however, underlines this definition regarding Canada with claiming that “manner born” is “widely used” (Fee & McAlpine 1997: 315). Though, considering the revealed irony and strategical concepts as well, these definitions are uneven and hence result in difficulties. For this reason, the paper defines politeness as a way of behavior or a spoken act that makes someone else feel good. In this case, irony and sarcasm are excluded and politeness is therefore clear set.

On the other hand, impoliteness needs to be defined as well, as it is not just the absence of politeness (cf. Watts 2008: chapter 1). For this paper, it can be set as “a form of […] behaviour [sic!] designed to maintain, change or break the relationship between the parties involved in communication” (Wlodarczyk 2015: 153).

With these definitions, the paper is able to identify politeness in the two Twitter dialogues later on. Nevertheless, science needs to be scientifically, why this chapter must focus on method and measurable parameters, as well.

b. Conversation Analysis and Politeness

Language is a “route into understanding language in social life” (Clift 2016: 1). Seeing that, one clearly has to analyze language and communication processes to answer the research question, whether Canadians are more polite than other nations. In detail, one has to use a turn-talking[4] analysis because Twitter dialogues are in one sense written oral speech. Clift concentrates in chapter 4 on this part of Conversation Analysis and examines the most important points of the foundational work of Sacks et al. She examines that in the turn-talking model only one speaker is communicating at a specific time (cf. 2016: 95), with “no gap [and] no overlap between turns” (ibid: 95). This is of course ensured by the functionality of social platform interaction as one simply cannot interrupt the counterpart. The model itself not just investigates the spoken (in this case: written) language though it also takes care of “silence, choral talk” and hence, smileys (ibid: 95). “Moreover, what the speaker does – or is able to do, before the next speaker comes in – is the fundamental concern of […] turn-taking […]” (ibid: 96). So, it is vital to understand what kind of “actions [are] done through utterances, in time” (ibid: 96), hence the discourse level is the major point of concern.

In other words: for the purpose of analyzing politeness with conversation analysis, one has to look underneath the surface of language (cf. Liddicoat 2007: chapter 1). One has to dig deeper into the meaning and sense of something said/ written and take its emotional part into consideration, as well. For this reason, the method needs to be quantitatively and qualitatively because the bare number of politeness in Canadian and US Twitter dialogues is as much as important as its purpose.

To summarize the method, the paper has to qualitatively and quantitatively analyze the two Twitter dialogues later on. It depends in which way the speakers are interacting with each other and, specifically, in which intention they do so. This also includes, as mentioned above, gaps, silence, and meanings, conveyed through smileys (for instance). Seeing these requirements as major part of the second section of the term paper, the definition of politeness can be confirmed.

c. Parameters in a Communication Situation

Clift names various parameters of politeness (cf. 2016: 222) while discussing conversation analysis. However, they are not all useful for this paper. She names the difference of asking for a favor as relevant and discusses this example with the variance in an order: “A pint of Guinness” differs a lot from forms of lexico-syntactic formulae like “Could you…”or “I wonder if you could …” (ibid: 222). This consideration, however useful it may be in theory, is not sufficient for the seminar paper, as it still could be misused in sense of sarcasm or irony (cf. chapter 2). However, seeing the definition as barrier for this parameter, one still can use the distinction stated by Clift in another way because there is a clear difference between the two examples mentioned. The first actual parameter hence includes any formal, passive, and well-intentioned utterances, which are not changed to contrary through sarcasm. This selection, though, is teleologically obvious as it is the implementation of the definition of politeness itself why it still needs further scientific distinction.

Brown and Levinson describe this division in speech acts with their argument of face-saving and face-threatening acts. They define face as “the public self-image that every member wants to claim for himself” (2009: 61). They moreover distinguish between a positive and negative face. In other words: claims to freedom and personality (cf. ibid: 61) which is not relevant for this paper because it does not differ in the way speech-acts are conveyed. What is, however, important is the continuation of their analysis characterizing acts of face-keeping and face-threatening as the paper can derive parameters out of this differentiation.

Face-saving/ keeping

Face-saving acts are situations of a conversation in which one of the speakers tries to keep the others face, (in other words) his integrity, and, casually spoken, his comfort zone. This could include any activities of politeness, for instance deference (cf. Brown & Levinson 2009: 178), agreement, perception of concerns, apologies (cf. ibid: 187), solidarity, or even a request of reason (cf. ibid: 128). Brown and Levinson continue to describe this gentleman-like behavior with: “The desire to agree or appear to agree with [the hearer] leads also to mechanisms for pretending to agree, instances of ‘token’ agreement” (ibid: 113). The speaker herewith avoids disagreement and acts passively which is received as politeness and creates, in relation to the overall definition, a positive feeling for the addressee. Summarizing, the speaker tries to give gifts to the hearer which include “goods, sympathy, understanding, cooperation” (ibid: 129). In addition to this polite way of speaking, it can be seen as polite to be pessimistic (cf. ibid: 173) which functions as another way of acting passively, as well as hedging (cf. ibid: 116).

Face-threatening acts

Face-threatening acts, on the other hand, are “namely those acts that by their nature run contrary to the face wants of the addressee” (Brown & Levinson 2009: 65). Directness can be named as indicator for negative politeness (cf. ibid: 130) which, for instance, includes the direct personalization of the hearer. It damages the face of the opposite speaker if he or she is directly confronted with something, mostly an affront: You did not get it! is a direct offence and requests a foreseeable reaction. The speaker gives no attention to the desires of the addressee why personalized statements are often orders, threats, offences through directness (cf. ibid: 130), or imperatives (cf. ibid: 191).

The second parameter mentioned by Brown and Levinson is the question hedge. The speaker minimizes or maximizes the meaning of his utterance or question by relativizing the object of speaking. “You’re quite right” (2009: 145) is not meant to make the addressee feel good (cf. definition) and is rather used to downgrade him.

Other forms of non-polite speaking acts are any form of disagreement, factuality, please-starts, direct questions, and a general negative lexicon (cf. Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil et al.). Examples from Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil et al. are: “In fact you did link, …” (factuality); “Please do not remove warnings …” (please starts); “What is your native language?” (direct questions); and “If you’re going to accuse me …” (negative lexicon) (cf. Figure 3).

To lastly close this section, the parameters may be summarized as follows: the paper assumes deference, agreement, perception of concerns, apologies, solidarity, request for reason and avoidance of disagreement, as well as pessimistic and hedging utterances as polite. On the other hand, speech acts like directness, personalization, no attention to the desire of the other, question hedge, disagreement, factuality, please-starts, direct questions, and negative lexicology can be seen as impolite.

Finally, the parameters are set and hence prepared to help analyzing the two Twitter dialogues in order to answer the research question.

3. Methodology

For the methodology section, it is necessary to investigate in a sociolinguistic way which means that linguistic “require[s] studying not only the internal knowledge of language but also its usage” (Walker 2015: 24). It herewith tries to “understand how language is used in interaction among speakers, how aspects of language take on social functions, such as constructing and expressing elements of social identity, and how language structure is influenced by aspects of the social context” (ibid: 24). This involves an investigation of rather usage and context of language than its structure which determines an analysis on a micro level in a qualitative and quantitative way (cf. chapter 2). On the one hand, differences of both American and Canadian English could be argued as being variety owing, underlined by Trudgill: “There are thousands of words which either differ in total meaning, or in one particular sense or usage, or are totally unknown in the other variety” (2008: 87). This is of course a limit of the approach chosen as it simply cannot investigate the difference of meaning in any single word. However, this distinction is not absolutely necessary as the parameters are neutral to any variety through the politeness strategy of Brown.

The two examples have been chosen because of the very same discourse level and medium which ensures their comparability.


[1] For further reading cf. Trudgill & Hannah 2008: 54

[2] The original website is already closed. Cf. McMaster University

[3] For further reading cd. Clift 2016, chapter 2.1 (36-9).

[4] For further reading cf. Liddicoat 2007, chapter 3


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University of Würzburg – Neuphilologisches Institut
English Canada Politeness stereotype Conversation Analysis Communication Situation Politeness in Canada Twitter Dialogue speech acts face-threatening acts face face-threatening Face-saving Face-keeping Ian Mendes Daniel Munro Justin Bieber impoliteness polite more polite McMaster University Frontier Thesis Fragment Theory British Great Britain Colonies Colony America USA United States




Title: Canadian politeness. Truth or stereotype?