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Politeness trends from the historical perspective of global trade

Raymond Cheng

Photo © Norton Amato, Jr

For many of those who were brought up to "say please and thank you" and were taught to "hold the door for the person behind," politeness was a "compulsory component" of what was once considered to be a good man's character. In those days, attempting to be "polite merely on the surface" could end up being scolded by one's parents, if not being remonstrated or looked down upon by peers as a hypocrite. Yet today, politeness has become more of a forced phenomenon of mutual concession, a pragmatic means to an end, or even a new form of reciprocal comity resulting from the inevitable mutual co-existence and quests for sustainability of nations. But when did politeness escape from the self and evolved to become a phenomenon? Could it be triggered by a series of trade related historical events or was it simply naturally evolving? Did researchers notice this in the course of human history? What would be the next phase of politeness research? In this article, we shall attempt to look at politeness from the historical perspective of global trade starting with the early eighteenth century as well as study the possible implications, and hence its future developments.

The early days

A little over three hundred years after the first battle known to have fought with gun power in 1503 (i.e. Battle of Cerignola) (Mallet & Shaw, 2012, p.64), "politeness" managed to become a fashion word in the eighteenth-century England (Nevalainen & Tissari, 2010, pp.133-158). The era, then, still characterized by the zero-sum philosophy of trade mercantilism resulting from the various "reminisce on war", was being revived [1] by the more cooperative and embracing positive-sum ideas in trade practices advocated by Adam Smith and David Ricardo. Politeness, then a buzzword for "metropolitan sociability" (Keen, 2012; Klein, 1994, p.11), referred to the ideal of how gentlemen should converse and display themselves in members-only clubs and upper-class taverns (Parolin, 2010, pp. 276-277) and how ladies should behave and act demurely in grand theatres (Russell, 2007). With the world population having reached its 1 billionth mark in the early 1800 (see Figure 1), the need for international trade intensified and the notion of politeness involving only the self was gradually replaced by the "absolute standard of prescriptivism and correctness" (Stein & Tieken-Boon van Ostade, 1994). Such a new standard led to the emergence of "polite English" among business people (Fitzmauricea, 1998), though at the cost of deviating from the old ideal of the self to merely a display in a material context (p.309) within a group.

World population estimates and projections (1800-2100)
Figure 1. World population estimates and projections (1800-2100 A.D.) [2]

Business picking up

As both local and international trade volumes continued to expand since the late nineteenth century, the need for "polite business English" rose drastically as well, particularly in the early twentieth century (in 1948) after the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) was signed. What previously considered to be conventional methods of business liaison had changed from the strictly face-to-face, "in-person" handshaking deals that relied heavily on the trustworthiness, integrity and the social behavior of the self to the written, contract-based, "on-paper" (i.e. black-and-white) style of communications that involved the interpretation of semiotic meaning and critical understanding of knowledge in written text and discourse. The subject of being able to provide truthful (in terms of quality), sufficient (in terms of quantity), relevant (in terms of relation) and clear (in terms of manner) business information in trade deals became more crucial than ever, which, interestingly, remotely echoed with the study of the four Gricean maxims [3] (Grice, 1975 [1967]) later in the 1960s. Meanwhile, having been through the morrows of wars and economic setbacks throughout the late nineteenth to early twentieth century [4], avoiding further military conflicts and cooperating mutually on an international basis topped the priority lists of many recovering economies. The discussion of "conflict avoidance" (Lakoff, 1973; 1977) as a "means of minimizing the risk of confrontation in discourse" (1989, p.102) is, in the writer's opinion, an excellent reflection of the diplomatic scenario of the time as well as the on-going efforts made in maintaining a peaceful, growing and sustainable global economy in retrospect.

Politeness as a result of sustained peace

With a relatively peaceful and conflict-avoiding global atmosphere, politeness research in the 1980s took a major shift of focus as the international community started to reap the fruits of some two decades of the global economy flying full-throttled (note: refer to the sharp rise in global GDP from 1960 to 1980 in Figure 2). English as lingua franca language for communication, particularly in computer-mediated forms (CMC), reached its all-time peak since the beginning of globalization since the third millennium (Frank, 1998). Cross-culture politeness concepts (Brown & Levinson, 1978; 1987) that were built upon the earlier and less popular notion of face (Goffman, 1967) then managed to secure their places in mainstream discussions as they flourished with the economy. Yet despite alleged caution [5] (Watts, 1989) and criticisms from non-Western researchers, e.g. Japan (Ide, 1989), China (Gu, 1990), and Nigeria (Nwoye, 1992), such kind of cross-culture universal politeness frameworks did not give way, at least not until after the millennium, when multilingual computing [6] systems developed for general commercial use were made widely available (e.g. multilingual platforms as in Microsoft® Windows 2000™ and onwards). These new computing technologies effectively challenged the English-dominated way of electronic information dissemination since the invention of the telegram (with codes only in English) and the appearing of real-time news (also mainly in English) in the early 1850s [7].

Per Capita GDP by World Region
Figure 2. Per Capita GDP by World Region [8]. Image source: Angus Maddison, "Contours of the World Economy, 1-2030 A.D. Essays in Macro-Economic History." New York. Oxford University Press, 2007. Copyright © Michael W Kruse

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Note 1: A school of thought dominating Europe since the late Renaissance to the early modern period (i.e. 15th to the 18th century) was "mercantilism" in which trade is depicted as a "zero-sum game" with only one side either loses or wins in a two-party trade deal. The concept was eventually replaced by Adam Smith's Theory of Absolute Advantage in his Wealth of Nations published in 1776 and eventually the "positive-sum game concept" – in which both trade parties can benefit simultaneously from any trade deals (i.e. the Theory of Comparative Advantage) by David Ricardo in Principles of Political Economy in 1817. See Brezis, Elise S. (2003), "Mercantilism", The Oxford Encyclopedia of Economic History, Oxford University Press.

Note 2: The population estimates (black line) from 1800 to 1950 were taken from the US Census Bureau historical estimates, see whereas the world population projections 2010 to 2100 were based on UN 2010 projections (red, orange, green lines), for details see

Note 3: The four Gricean maxims are quality, quantity, relation and manner. For details please refer to Grice's work from 1975 and 1967.

Note 4: The wars and economic setbacks include the Great Depression (1929, till the 1940s), the two World Wars (WWI: 1914-1918, WWII: 1939-1945), Korean War (1950-1953) and Vietnam War (1959-1975), plus many other regional conflicts involving the use of military and armed forces.

Note 5: Researchers such as Richard Watts (1989) had taken a relatively cautious stance on the question of culture. He stressed as early as in the 1990s that culture should not be treated as a normative concept, and that there should not be "strict and proper rules" of politeness in the cultures of British, Japanese, and Chinese etc.

Note 6: The Unicode for Windows, first developed in early 1990s, was first made available on Windows 95/NT platforms in 1997. The codes include among others Cyrillic, Greek, Armenian, Hebrew, Arabic, Thai, Bengali, Tibetan, Chinese, Korean and Japanese fonts.

Note 7: The fall of prices in telegraphy, as a result of the U.S. telegraph bubbles (i.e. over-investment in cable wires across America) in the 1840s and 1850s, gave birth to real-time news agencies (e.g. Associated Press in 1846) and the introduction of the telegraphic transfer (or "wire transfer") (e.g. Western Union in 1851)

Note 8: Image source: Angus Maddison, "Contours of the World Economy, 1-2030 A.D. Essays in Macro-Economic History." New York. Oxford University Press, 2007.

Commentary and reflection pages by Raymond Cheng, PhD DPA FRSA

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COUNT ON THE STATISTICS  100% Towels (c) Daniel Chittka
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Professor Sidney Gluck (c) Sandi BachomI am honored to have obtained Professor Sidney Gluck's (right) permission to allow me to repost here some of his work and interview related to China and socialism. Professor Gluck is professor emertius at the New School University in New York. A classical Marxist, Gluck has been studying China for 60 years in history and modern development. He has lectured all over the U.S. and still welcomes engagement at the age of 94 – photo © Sandi Bachom


Usman Khurshid on Mike McCune's HD Monitor with Paths logo with Maartje van Caspel's Public Space
I am proud to announce that the website is now carrying the technology updates from Usman Khurshid's Usman is a network consultant and works in a mixed environment of Windows and Linux platforms. He likes to study about the latest advancements in computer technology and shares his views on his blog.

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COMING 2019 – COMPUTING CORPUS Active Network Hub (c) Phil Sigin-Lavdanski
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Oh, please do not get me wrong. This new section is not about computers, electronics or any engineering stuff, but rather I am currently constructing a new corpus based on Spectrum, the monthly publication from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers USA, from July 2007 to date. Having been a member for over 20 years since 1992, I am always fascinated by some of the terms scientists use when they talk about or envision their new inventions or methodologies. How many of them eventually come into practice? Could there be some insights we could possibly derive, from the linguistics perspective?


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