The Function of Politeness in Civil Society

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About this sample

About this sample


Words: 534 |

Page: 1|

3 min read

Published: Sep 19, 2019

Words: 534|Page: 1|3 min read

Published: Sep 19, 2019

Society functions because it operates according to its own internal rules, mores, customs, taboos, and traditions, and in order to participate in society, you generally must acquiesce to these often unspoken norms of conduct and discourse. One of the more benign of these norms is the practice of polite speech. The function of polite speech is twofold; to avoid conflict with the unfamiliar and to stave off boredom.

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Polite speech acts as the universal language among strangers and acquaintances, and this universal polite lexicon establishes norms for how we conduct ourselves when dealing with the unfamiliar. When meeting someone new, you would probably say something along the lines of “Hi, my name is ___” and then shake their hand. Not doing so could offend them and lead to discord. So not only does polite speech prevent conflict, it’s so deeply established in everyone that avoiding it invites conflict. Human communication is an amalgamation of words and body language, and having an agreed-upon way to act in most common scenarios avoids potential friction. For example, when someone is asked “How are you?” or “What’s up?” and they aren’t referring to say, your dog or mother dying or something, the polite answer is “good” or “fine”. Because we’ve been taught to say “How are you?” and respond with “fine” the words themselves don’t mean what they actually mean; to the person who disingenuously replies “fine”, they are avoiding the awkward and somewhat taboo act of emotionally unloading onto someone who doesn’t have the time or interest to be invested in your answer. In a sense, polite speech is about sticking to a loose script to navigate through life with as little conflict as possible.

Polite speech is also a tool to eliminate silence and boredom. When stuck in a boring situation with another person or people, polite “small talk” is an excellent way to break the silence. There is even a term for it - icebreakers, which are phrases and questions that break the “ice” of an awkward silence because they are designed to elicit a response from the other person. People are generally uncomfortable with silence, and so we use polite speech to distract ourselves by asking each other simple, polite, and boring questions (What’s your job? How are you? Some weather we’re having, right?) not because we’re interested in their answers, but because it greases the wheels of social interaction. People love talking about themselves, and these pointed questions are designed expressly for that purpose. Humans are social animals by nature, and talking and interacting with other people makes us feel good, and small talk gives us something to say. Ultimately, the act of polite speech is much more about the act itself than it is about the speech.

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Society functions because there are generally agreed upon norms of conduct, and increasingly serious sanctions for increasingly serious violations of these norms of conduct. Polite speech is a medium through which humans can civilly and detachedly interact in a somewhat meaningful way. However, this meaning is derived not from the content and intent of the speech, but the fact that we’re speaking politely to each other at all.

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Dr. Oliver Johnson

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The Function of Politeness in Civil Society. (2019, August 28). GradesFixer. Retrieved June 21, 2024, from
“The Function of Politeness in Civil Society.” GradesFixer, 28 Aug. 2019,
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