Posted by: patenttranslator | December 3, 2011

The Different Levels of Politeness in Different Cultures and Languages


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?



  1. nazdar Vlasto, tak dneska jsem si moc nepočetl, protože ta MT mašina to zprasila k dokonalosti. Možná večer při sedmičce bílého, to rozluštím


  2. tak koukám, že to neumí ani opsat


    • Ja ti zitra zavolam na Skypu.

      Muzes taky skusit


  3. Hi Steve (or should it be Mister V.?)
    Interesting topic. Nobody in the blogosphere has yet called me Mr. Dewsbery, and translator forums and mailing lists in English always use first names – although some of the members are half my age or less, too. This does not worry me at all – I feel that we are all in it together, regardless of age.
    Forums in German are mixed. Quite a number of people in the forum run by the German translators’ association BDÜ use the more formal “Sie” and surnames, but other mailing lists (e.g. “PT_” and “dejavu_d”) use “du” and first names.
    My German agency clients and direct clients all use “Sie” and surnames. Interestingly, one German agency has an English PM who always calls me Victor, although her German colleagues all retain the formal “Sie” convention. I rarely get jobs from the UK, although I expect that Brits would almost always use
    first names.
    The question of whether children use “du” or “Sie” to adult strangers in Germany is rather mixed nowadays. School pupils are almost always expected to use “Sie” with teachers, but otherwise the social context influences the convention. In some urban areas there is a culture of familiarity and lack of hierarchy (at least on the surface), and “du” is used far more often.
    Another context where “du” is predominant is the sort of church that I go to (the Brits would call it a “free church”, i.e. not part of the state church). We have about 200-300 at the main services, and almost all are on “du” and first name terms, from the youngest kids to the oldest attendees, including the pastors.
    But even in formal churches in Germany, people say “du” when speaking to God. I wonder whether this is the case in other languages, too.


  4. Well, of course, on online forums it is usually very informal.

    But kids working for agencies should be trained to be more polite. But they are not because the kids working there don’t really give a damn about translators. They think of them as easily replaceable hired help. It is appropriate to call cheap hired help by their first name whether they are in their twenties or eighties, just like it was appropriate to call every black man “boy” here in the South not so long ago, regardless of his age.

    In Czech it would be very strange for a child to use “ty” which is the equivalent of “Du” when talking to an older person, unless it is a very young child who does not know yet what the distinction between “Du” and “Sie” means.


  5. Steve, you write: “In Czech it would be very strange for a child to use “ty” which is the equivalent of “Du” when talking to an older person”.
    I’m curious: is that a strict mark of the age difference without any social variants? Would it apply to grandparents? What about old people who are close friends of the family? In these cases, using “Sie” in German would be unusual now (even more so for family members). I believe things were different in German a hundred years ago or more, but not now.
    On another note, I am surprised that you refer to PMs in agencies as “kids”. I expect that most of them are young adults in their twenties or thirties who are relatively new in their career. They may lack experience, they may be not very good at their job, they may have an unhelpful attitude to freelancers who are on their books, I may be unhappy with the way they do their work, but I would not refer to them as “kids”. In German I would be surprised if they called me by my first name (whether I would be taken aback depends on how arrogant or otherwise their written style may be). But in English, use of first names is common practice in many business relationships, so I would not be in the least bit surprised or insulted.


  6. 1. Czech Children would use the equivalent of German “Du” when talking to to close relatives. I should have said “when talking to older persons unknown to them”. It works exactly like “Du” in German.

    Incidentally, not many non-Czechs know this, but the Czech language was on the verge of extinction around the year 1800 because the influence of German language on Czech was so strong over several centuries. If you wanted to go to a university, you had to go to a German school. The language of instruction at my university (Charles University in Prague) was Latin when it was founded in 1348, after a couple of centuries it was German, and then it was split between German and Czech from mid nineteenth century. The Czech language survived only because Czechs who were educated in German schools started demanding linguistic parity of the Czech and German language during a so called Renaissance period in early nineteenth century. One result of this historic development is that just about every idiom that exists in German exists in almost exactly the same form in Czech and you can see the influence of the German language even on the Czech grammar.

    2. I often refer to agency coordinators as clueless kids because most of them really don’t know anything about anything, people in their twenties or even thirties included. Anyway, that is my impression of them.

    3. You are right about how common it is for people who speak English to use the first name of people they don’t know regardless of the age of these people. I think that this is a particular characteristic of English. In German, French or Czech, the equivalent of Herr Dewsbery or “Sie” would be much more common.

    That’s why I said that English is a language that is either very democratic or rude depending on your point of view. In most other European languages, you have to wait until the older person offers to the younger person to be on the first name basis or start using “Du”, but not in English.

    In Japanese it’s exactly the opposite. Even young people who have known each other for years call each other Dewsbery-san, the suffix -san being the equivalent of Mr. I remember how surprised I was when I heard for the first time 2 Japanese students in Prague who were in their twenties and knew each other quite well calling each other Yoshida-san and Takeda-san, although they were using mostly the “familiar” endings for their verbs instead of the polite ones. The various levels of politeness in Japanese are really complicated.


  7. Dear Mr. Steve,
    A middle variation used in English and in some other countries is the Mr/Mrs/Miss/Ms First Name variant. In the US you can hear it used by household employees who are close to the family but still don’t want to, or are discouraged from calling their employers and other family members by their first names. We never had maids growing up, but some of my friends had older “nannies” who called them Miss …. I used to think it was a southern thing (blame Hollywood), but now I know that it’s a polite form used in many parts of the world.

    In Bosnia I got used to being called gospodjica Paola by business contacts and anyone perceiving themselves to be younger or lower on the totem pole than me. People who called me Miss Paula would also use the polite form of address (“vi”) not familiar (“ti”). What I find uncomfortable is the calculation involved — are you my superior; if not, would it be useful to flatter you anyway; can I gain an edge by slighting you by using familiar address. Yuck. That must be the American in me.

    After returning to the US, I found myself being much more aware of the form of address. I enjoy using formal address with people, and if I’m making the first contact, I use Mr. or Ms. and a last name. I tend to take the signature as a hint — first and last name get Mr. or Ms.; a signature with the first name only gets first name treatment. I give hints this way, too. If someone insists on calling me Ms. Gordon and I’m ready to even things up, then I ask them to please call me Paula. With translation agencies, I don’t spend energy being insulted. I think it’s an accomplishment if they get my name right (Paul, Pamela, Carla?).


  8. “With translation agencies, I don’t spend energy being insulted. I think it’s an accomplishment if they get my name right (Paul, Pamela, Carla?).”

    My feelings exactly.

    Talking about titles like Ms., as you know, Slavic languages have many “false friends” – words that sound the same but mean something else.

    Polish is quite similar to Czech but some words can get you into trouble. For example, the Polish word for Miss is “panna” which means “virgin” in Czech.

    When I was on vacation in Poland with my girlfriend Olga a long time ago, every time somebody called her “panna Olga” we would look at each other trying not to laugh.

    The Polish word for woman is “kobieta”, which sounds really funny in Czech, although I wouldn’t know how to translate it, and the Russian word for Miss is baryshnya, which is even funnier to a Czech. From the ending of the word it is clear to a Czech speaker that it is a woman, but it sounds like it would have to be a really fat woman.

    There are Polish jokes about Czech words that are funny to them and Czech jokes about Polish words that are funny to Czechs. I was once at a party with some Polish students in Bulgaria and they were telling me Polish jokes about Czech words and I was telling them Czech jokes about Polish words while trying to minimize the linguistic confusion with pretty good Bulgarian brandy called Pliska.

    Neither side found the jokes very funny. But Pliska saved the day.


  9. Thank goodness for good brandy!
    Bosnians also love word play, and the language has borrowed words from Turkish, Hungarian, German, Italian, French, English, etc. It’s sport to make up an innocent sentence in a foreign language that means something rude in Bosnian, then get someone who doesn’t know Bosnian to say it (or to make it a punchline of a joke). Like teaching kids to curse.
    English names, especially, are fun — pronounced a certain way. mine means “half” (pola), so I had to put up with a lot of jokes in that vein. Although I made use of it myself when I did a radio show called Pola-pola (half-and-half) — it was a mix of Bosnian and English language, local and international music, etc.


  10. […] dicembre 2011 – Ho trovato interessante The Different Levels of Politeness in Different Cultures and Languages, una discussione che include le diverse forme allocutive in inglese americano, giapponese e lingue […]


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  12. Just discovered your blog, and reading it has the additional benefit of avoiding the work I’m supposed to be doing. As an aging translator, I’ve been running into unanticipated dementia problems, as well as generational changes in the use of the familiar. Spanish is my 4th language, so I’m still learning certain cultural complexities. I recently spent several days emailing to get certain business information, with a 20-something Colombian male. I am a late 50’s, American, female. At the end of the correspondence, I thanked him, and suggested in the future that he “tutearme” . He wrote back saying “thank you for your(formal) words.” I was shocked. I’ve never had someone refuse an offer of friendship. And, I was reeling with the possibility that I had become, in the eyes of strangers, an overly-familiar old lady. It was reassuring to find the explanation that all Colombians always use the formal, even with their dog. And, that they always forgive strangers this type of error, since of course, “all foreigners are stupid!”.


    • No need to be shocked.

      You two are just corresponding by e-mail.

      It’s probably some cultural and linguistic thing related to Spanish and Tu that Anglos don’t get. I don’t really speak Spanish, but that would be my guess.


  13. Hi my family member! I want to say that this article is amazing, nice written and include approximately all vital infos. I would like to peer more posts like this .


  14. Dear Vitek-san:

    Here in Mexico we have usted (Ud.) for formal and tú for informal, just like vous and tu in French. Even though I’m 30, many people say “Ud.” to me. I ask them to please tutearme (use tú with me). Asking them to do it doesn’t necessarily mean they will. Sometimes it’s hard to remember to use Ud. with people even after you feel very familiar with them, but you should continue to do so in many circumstances.

    I use Ud. with older people as a sign of respect. It’s common for foreigners living in Mexico to misunderstand this part of the culture.


  15. […] Source: The Different Levels of Politeness in Different Cultures and Languages […]


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