To be, or not to be… impolite?

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The Institute of Humanities and Social Science Research, Wednesday, 27th February, 6pm, Geoffrey Manton Building, MMU

Professor Jonathan Culpeper’s lecture, ‘Impoliteness: using language to cause offence,’ succeeded in three regards; it was interesting, informative, and crammed with laugh-out-loud humour.

Held on Wednesday, 27thFebruary, in MMU’s Geoffrey Manton building, Lecture Theatre 4 was filled with a whole spectrum of people. And early into the lecture it becomes obvious why this is such a popular, engaging subject. Jonathan makes it clear that impoliteness litters our lives entirely; sometimes we allow it, even welcome it, in the form of ‘banter’ and sarcasm, and other times it is completely unwanted and inappropriate. The first point that Jonathan makes is that we expect reciprocity when we engage in polite conversation and that anybody who does not meet this expectation creates an impoliteness of a more extreme form. To emphasise this point, he tells us about an experiment in which he wrote a good luck message on university tables, and was answered by a massively contrasting, impolite message (complete with swear words) that was shocking enough to make the audience laugh with surprise.

Many of Jonathan’s points were backed up by witty or engaging examples. One such example shows how politeness and impoliteness are subverted through a letter which sarcastically ‘thanked’ the anonymous person who crashed into their car and did not own up to it. Similarly, a close family are shown calling each other insulting names, but in a genuinely caring way, which Jonathan suggests is a way of actually distancing themselves from the nastiness associated with typical impoliteness.

To help us understand impoliteness better, Jonathan outlines a study he completed with British undergraduates. Part of this study highlights the most prominent emotions that people feel about any impoliteness they have encountered, of which the shortlist includes patronising, rudeness and disrespect. There is also, importantly, the question of whether impoliteness is always intentional. Jonathan shows through his study that, although we would expect impoliteness to be only through intentionality, we will become offended by something that was not meant impolitely. He explains this anomaly by suggesting that we expect people to foresee the consequences of their comment, and their failure to do so allows their comment to be considered impolite.

Jonathan is brilliant at capturing the audience’s attention. He has plenty of ideas about society’s use of impoliteness and uses witty examples to entertain, as well as evidence his points. A shocking voicemail message from Alec Baldwin to his 11-year-old daughter, and an amusingly insulting complaint to NTL are both used to show how impoliteness can serve different purposes, be it self-assurance or an attempt to emphasise a point of concern.

The lecture was, interestingly, a thought-provoking subject for me. Since it was held, I have found myself picking out impoliteness in both its original form and as a subverted form in my everyday life, then analysing its impact. As Jonathan has showed us, there is more to impoliteness than forgetting your Ps and Qs; it is such a vast, in-depth topic. Though the lecture manages to capture only a small amount of Jonathan’s work, it has created an awareness of the many different forms that impoliteness can take. By showing his audience some of these, Jonathan has raised a whole new concept of what it is to be impolite—it’s a lecture that will be difficult to forget due to its usefulness in typical day-to-day situations.

Sophie Bannister is Co-chair of Manchester Metropolitan University’s English Society, where she is currently in her second year studying English Literature. She hopes to complete a Master’s degree after her time at MMU. You can view Sophie’s blog here

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aAh! Magazine is Manchester Metropolitan University's arts and culture magazine.

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