Now, Where Are Your Manners? – Inspired by @chiasuan and @brad5patterson

Chia Suan Chong (photo by Chia)

Last Sunday a great number of us were very happy to watch a great webinar on a topic which at least, I had never seen or heard presented before. Chia Suan Chong was the educator behind this great presentation, organised by the BESIG team. Visit Chia’s blog, where she writes about many interesting topics and also has great interviews!

Chia is a teacher trainer at International House London and also writes a blog.

Brad Patterson has also written a great post as a follow-up to Chia’s webinar, rich in etymology – What does it mean to be polite?

Here are my thoughts:

Before I moved to the German-speaking part of Switzerland, I had absolutely no knowledge of the German language, apart from Danke and Guten Morgen! Then I started listening to people everywhere: on the buses and trains, in restaurants, anywhere I could listen to the language. In the beginning, my understanding was so minimal, I felt like I was constantly running into a wall. As time went by, I started understanding more and more and even noticing features of the language I had never noticed before. (For those who might not know, there are two types of German spoken in Switzerland – High German or Hochdeutsch, or the German people speak in Germany and Swiss German or Schwiizer Tüütsch, which apart from pronunciation and accent includes completely different words in many cases. For instance, the word for bicycle is Fahrrad in High German, whereas Swiss German has borrowed the French word Velo.)

"Come, come" said the friendly driver and I was wondering about "please" and "thank you"... (Image taken from

What impressed me the most when I heard people speaking – mainly in High German, was the use of the imperative, most of the times without moderators like please or if you could… as we have in English and I must say it was a bit strange at first for me. I particularly noticed it when a bus stopped once and getting on it, I dropped my wallet in the street and all its contents spilled onto the street. The bus driver stayed there patiently, doors open and passengers waiting, also patiently, and when I said (in English, I admit!) “That’s ok, I’ll take the next one”, the driver made a welcoming gesture, smiled and said “Komm, komm”.

I then thought, “Come, come?”…..Come?!? Where’s please? or, That’s ok, come, I will wait for you? After that instant, I noticed it many times and I asked my Swiss friend about it. She told me that it can be polite, depending on how you say it of course, the tone of your voice and the gestures you perhaps use, or the word bitte (please) used at the end. At a resaturant, they use the laconic albeit polite Zahlen, bitte (to pay, please word-for-word) when they want to pay the bill. Still polite, without the Excuse me, could you please bring the bill? socially acceptable and politely conditioned sentence in English. The beauty of each language!

I should mention that I encourage my learners (most of them are adults this year) to use words like please or transform the imperative into questions (Could you please…?) or indirect questions (I was wondering if you could….). They usually smile when I remind them and they humorously say, “You English speakers use too many words!” I tell them: “It’s great that in German people use fewer words and are more direct, they save time and get to the point right away!” It is amazing to see what works in each language and is equally acceptable.

Thank you so much for a great webinar and all the food for thought, Chia and Brad for a super post!

21 thoughts on “Now, Where Are Your Manners? – Inspired by @chiasuan and @brad5patterson

  1. Thanks for the post, Vicky, it’s really useful to hear this kind of real world experience. I assume that you can now speak German pretty well so have you adopted the manner of the imperative and how do you feel personally when using it?

    Does it feel rude or polite to you when you use this form in German? I think this kind of investigation would tell us a lot about the ability to adopt cultural norms in a different language.

    Same question could go to Chia for the ‘take the rubbish out’ example in her talk, did you adapt your method ‘only’ to get better results or does it now ‘feel’ the right thing to do in English?

    1. Hi Ed!

      Thank you so much for your comment.

      To tell you the truth, I still cannot use the plain imperative in German and I still condition it and shower it with “bitte” and “Can I please ask you a question” : ) As for your last question, that’s a really good one: I do it with the students because it mainly sounds better in English and they can also see the difference now, not only by listening to me. Most of them work in a business context and come into contact with people from all over the world. They are more aware now of the differences in each language and culture and they tell me a lot about it.

      The beauty of cultures, right? : )

      Thanks so much,

  2. Merci 4 the mention, Vicky, and yes the beauty of cultures indeed!

    I think it’s important that you’ve related a personal experience here. It’s really only through context that we can better understand and then gain better perspective on what it might mean to be polite. I spent 2 months with a host family in India and I remember talking with many of my fellow travelling friends there about the fact that no one really said “thank you” or “please” and that there was a heavy use of the imperative w/o any softening. In India, though, I think they don’t separate each other or create distance in family-friend relationships and you don’t need to candy coat what you say. Either way, I got used to it, and even backed off on the thank you and pleases as it seemed they were creating a distance or formality that wasn’t needed there.

    Cheers, Brad

    1. Wow! I didn’t know that in India they also use more direct communication : ) I love the reasons they do it for! Thanks so much for sharing your experience, Brad!

      I was wondering, how about Chinese? What happens there? (I know you are a fluent Chinese speaker and your insight can help us a lot!)

      Mille merci,

      1. I think it’s pretty similar and I think we can draw patterns between individualist and collectivist societies; where we are more likely to see ourselves separate, we are more in need of making sure we don’t ‘insult’ another with an impolite act.

        Fascinating stuff! Cheers, Brad

  3. Great article indeed!

    Let me just say that it’s exactly the same in Greece, isn’t it? People hardly ever use the word “please” but intonation and word stress make what people say polite or impolite! For example, when you are at the supermarket asking for some milk you would just say “Where is the milk?” and with the appropriate intonation this can sound very polite (although I generally believe that we – Greeks – are not polite at all!). My Greek students are used to this – obvisously – so after talking about differences in cultures I usually remind them to use the word please in class, which – I must say and don’t know why – they find very amusing!

    1. Hi Christo!

      Efcharisto poli for your insightful comment : )

      I totally agree with you, in Greece we cut to the chase : ) But the first years of my life I lived in Canada – and I have a mom who insisted (and rightly so) on us learning perfect Greek before we moved to Greece. Oddly enough (sorry mama), she had connected Greek language learning with politeness. So our convos went something like this (with translations for our non-Greek speaking friends!):

      Vicky: Ligo nero mama. (Some water mom.)
      Mama: Ligo nero parakalo. (Some water please.)
      Vicky: Ligo nero parakalo.
      Mama: Etsi bravo, etsi milane orea ta ellinika! (Bravo, that’s the way people speak Greek nicely!)

      You are right – another culture that is direct! I had kinda forgotten that! Ha ha : )))

      Thank you Christo,

  4. Hi Vicky,

    Really enjoyed this post, thanks!

    Just wanted to comment on perceptions of German-speakers. We should bear in mind that while German ideas of politeness may initially seem alien to outsiders like us, there are also a number of things that German speakers (and those from other countries too) find confusing and inappropriate about the way English-speakers communicate. Why don´t we have a formal form of YOU, like they do in German, to show respect for people you´ve just met, people in a more a senior position than you at work, or, in some cases, your colleagues? Why do we frequently communicate on a first name basis with our bosses, our colleagues and people we´ve just met? Isn´t that impolite? Recently a Czech student of mine returned from a business trip in the USA horrified by the fact that his colleagues there, who he was meeting for the first time, had greeted him with “How´s it going?”

    There are certain rules you have to stick to when speaking German in order to be perceived as “polite”, but these are not the sames ones that English-speakers usually use. We are all different and we all have different ideas about what politeness is.

    Warm wishes,

    1. Hi Claire!

      Thank you so much for reading and for the great comment : ) I must say that selfishly I saw it only from my point of view ; )

      Good thing that you pointed out the double you in German du/Sie – which is non-existent in English and other languages (it is not that foreign to me because we have exactly the same in Greek – esi / essis) and does show respect for a person they have never met before, their employer and so on. And once they drop the Sie, it immediately becomes very immediate and personal.

      Thanks so much Claire! (By the way, it was nice to meet you in Paris!)

  5. Hi Vicky!
    It’s great to see stories being shared about how different expectations and realisations of politeness could cause such classic moments of confusion and embarrassment.

    We should compile about a book with such anecdotes of ELT teachers who have lived abroad amongst other cultures! Language teachers are especially good at re-telling such stories due to their awareness of the language issues and communication strategies involved in facilitating intercultural interactions.

    There are lots of examples of the directness of cultures that I have experienced that have caused me much discomfort. From the unashamed addressing of your weight and body issues by the Chinese (‘Hey, you have put on weight! You should go on a diet!’ – said by a student) and the Japanese (‘You are so big for a girl! You look like a giant!’ – said a host family member to a British friend) to the blatant asking of my age by the Koreans (so as to know my position in the hierarchy of things, which would in turn determine how to talk and behave towards me), one could say that there are many elements in these cultures that are more direct than the English.

    However, directness is a complex notion. To say that the Chinese or Japanese or Koreans are more direct than the English would be oversimplifying the matter. In the above aspects, and in the given contexts, perhaps these norms differ from the English ones in that they seem more direct to the English. But there would be many other cases where the English would be seen to be much more direct than the Chinese/Japanese/Koreans.

    Take for example, the importance of building a relationship (guan xi) in Chinese business relationships by not just making small talk, but by wining and dining together before even mentioning anything about business could be seen as wishy-washy and indirect by the British.

    And then we must also take into consideration that the above are essentialist and overgeneralised notions of a culture and do not take into account individual variations or the dynamic and ever-changing nature of interactions and perception-creation.

    Such a complex topic that is definitely worth examining, discussing, debating and dissecting.

    Glad you have got the ball rolling on the discussions, Vicky!
    Looking forward to more!

    1. Dear Chia,

      First of all, thank you so much for your fantastic webinar which inspired us to think and write about it.

      Thank you for your insight into the Chinese/Korean/Japanese cultures, especially through your language learning and the comments from your students. A great point – what is direct anyway? Who is more direct than whom? Does it matter?

      I hope to see more posts / webinars like yours, as I am very interested in culture and the various aspects of it. Politeness is one I had not heard/thought about for a long time : ) Super stuff, Chia!

      Thank you so much,

  6. Interesting cross-cultural comparisons. My friend from Switzerland whom I interviewed for one of my MA papers on bilingualism insists that Swiss German is a language and not a dialect. When I asked him how many languages he speaks he made a specific point of it. Your post has also made me realise that despite my frequent visits to Suisse (normally around Christmas) I’ve never been on a bus there. Train yes but never on a bus 🙂

    1. Hi Leo!

      I will agree that Swiss German is not a dialect. Bernese, Walliser, Luzerner Swiss German or what have you could be a dialect, but not Swiss German in general – it has a different vocabulary, spelling, pronunciation and a lot of books have been written in Swiss German. There are even dictionaries! So tell your friend I wholeheartedly agree : )

      Try the buses too, they’re super : )

      Thanks so much,

  7. Hi Vicky
    Great post! I watched Chia’s interview at IATEFL and commented about it on my blog: http://www.creativetechnology2.blogspot,com.
    In Argentina communication is also more straight forward and might sound rude to English speakers. We use the imperative and from time to time use please at the end, but we would never say: Podrias por favor? (Would you please?) or Te molestaria…? (Would you mind?)

    1. Hi Daniela!

      Thanks so much for your comment and for sharing what communication is like in Argentina. It is great to see how politeness is expressed around the world : )

      Kind regards,

  8. 🙂 Κι εγώ τα πολλά “παρακαλώ” νόμιζα ότι ήταν δική σου ευγένεια και όχι των Άγγλων γενικότερα…

    Πώς είσαι; Θα επανέλθω για να μάθω νέα από το Βορρά σας.

    Ως τότε… φιλί από το Νότο 😉 Να ομορφοπερνάς!

  9. the way to learn a language is by practicing,listening,reading and speaking.I think you have made progress in your german! Keep it up!



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