Some of the kids playing in the cul-de-sacs in my neighborhood stare at me when I walk my dog Lucy as if I were a potential child molester that their mother warned them about, and only about half of them say “hello”. Not to say “hello” when you meet an older person was considered very rude behavior for children in Central Europe where I grew up. On the other hand, most of the children who do say “hello” are extremely polite and they call me “Sir” when they thank me for letting them pet my dog, which is common among children who were brought up in the Southern tradition here. They even call their parents “Sir” and “Ma’am”. Children in Europe would consider this level of politeness ridiculous.
Different languages and cultures have different levels of politeness. English is either a very democratic or a very rude language since it has is only one “you” for everybody. Children can’t be polite to people they don’t know in English by calling them an equivalent of “Sie” or “Vous” as children do in Germany and France.
Just about all the kids working as coordinators for a translation agency call me by my first name in their e-mails even though they have no idea how old I am. Most of these coordinators must be very young because this is an entry level job that pays very little.
I don’t like it when people who are half my age and who I don’t know from Adam call me by my first name. It must be the European in me. I don’t mind that much when a paralegal or lawyer calls me by my first name, but that’s because I can charge them twice as much as a translation agency. You pay me fifty percent more for my translation, you can call me anything you want. That must be the American in me.
Coordinators of translation agencies in Germany always call me “Herr Vitek” in their e-mails and refer to me as “Sie” until they get to know me better at which point we may start calling each other by our first names.
I thing that the big business culture in America took its toll also on what probably used to be a more polite culture at some point. People are not thought of as persons that much anymore. They are perceived mostly as consumers. When I asked a customer service representatives who works for T-Mobile here and who must be very young too why was he calling me “Steve”, he said that he wanted me to consider him his friend. I am not your friend, buddy, I thought. But I did not say anything. I have my polite moments too. It would be useless anyway. The instruction to call customers by their first name must have come from the management. The lady with Southern (North Carolina?) accent who works for my local phone company still calls me “Mr. Vitek”. She sounds older too. I will probably switch my cell phone service to that company.
American English is a strange animal. It has no words for things that every other language has, such as “Bon Apetit!” or “Gesundheit!”, but it invented ingratiating phrases that sound oh, so polite, like “Have a nice day!”. Or is it originally a British invention? I remember that when I said it for the first time to a customer when I worked as a customer services rep in San Francisco, my Japanese colleague Ohno-san turned to me and said with a smirk on his face “You sound so American!”.
Japanese of course has many different levels of politeness that would be unimaginable in English, German, or French. There are more than a dozen words that mean “I” in Japanese (watashi – neutral standard, watakushi – much more formal, boku – informal but humble, ore – masculine, kind of macho, atashi – feminine or effeminate, etc., depending on how polite you want to be, or whether you want to be perceived as a man or as a woman). However, most of the time, the “I” is missing in the sentence completely, presumably to confuse the other person. Women have special “feminine” particles, such as the particle “wa”, which have no real meaning other than to bring attention to the female gender of the speaker after every 5 words or so.
You can use the honorific prefix “o”, which vaguely means “yours”, with words for things like health and tea, with some words you basically have to use them (お金 o-kane = money), you can use respectful language (敬語,keigo), or humble language (丁寧語) teineigo), etc.
I remember that my boss in Japan always referred to the coworkers in my office in Japan as “kun” which is a suffix added to first or last name to indicate familiarity or superiority of the speaker, but he always referred to me as “Vitek-san”, which is the polite suffix. I was the same age as my coworkers and at the same salary level, but a higher level of politeness was required because I was a foreigner.
I think that the main reason why Japanese does not have many curse words, at least not many compared for example to English or Russian, is the fact that you can be extremely rude in Japanese by using the many grammatical features indicating levels of politeness of the language without having to resort to cursing.
Isn’t it a wonderful language when you can be extremely rude to somebody by simply using a different ending for your verb?