I was driving along Victoria Street yesterday where mammoth trams grace the streets with frequent stopping and traffic ‘bottling’ (as would say the French). This left my eyes time to wander to such a tram which was flashing, ‘NOT IN SERVICE’… ‘SORRY.’
Sorry? You are not taking passengers, just doing your job, you must use tram tracks on roads as you’re a tram. Are you sure you’re sorry? I highly doubt it!
This small example of an unnecessary use of apology highlights the level of cultural courtesy that is just expected in Australia society. Especially in Melbourne, how many times do you let a car pass in front of you and when they don’t give a thank you wave, you automatically abuse them under your breath. Because these common politeness cues must be followed by a courteous response, according to Australian cultural norms that is.
I was once on a crowded tram on Elizabeth Street in the centre of town (how unusual…) when a middle-aged lady jumped on and motioned in a loud voice, “Move will ya!” to the many tram commuters trying to unsuccessfully respect one another’s personal space. It was as no surprise that in true Melbourne style, the commuter’s faces started to morph into strange shapes of discontent in response to this lady’s obvious rudeness concerning tram etiquette. Me, I chuckled to myself.
What is so interesting however, is that this use of extreme politeness in Australian English has become a cultural norm to which we must abide. Not only do we expect the usual ‘please, sorry, thank you’ from people, but you will notice that Australians will emphasise pleasantries to the nth degree. Such as when someone bumps into someone on the street, you expect to hear, ‘I am SO sorry about that.’ With its natural reply, ‘no worries.’
Not only do we have extreme politeness vocab use, but the use of the conditional mood renders speech even more polite. The aim of the game in English is to be quite indirect when asking for something, especially when you may not know someone too well or you must show them respect. Let’s look at this example:
“Would it be possible If you could please pass the cheese?” – politeness overload but does not seem strange in most polite-necessary situations.
When we look at the use of politeness terms in languages such as French or Italian for example, this is not the case at all! I have heard so many English speakers use the conditional mood for politeness in foreign language, and native speakers looking back at them with much bemusement obviously thinking, ‘maybe their not sure if they wish to have that or not?’ As the conditional mood in most languages, other that English, just highlights the speakers indecision and thought, and is not a mood for politeness.
So, the French may just say in a similar context:
‘Peux-tu me passer le fromage, s’il te plaît?‘ – Can you please pass me the cheese?
OR! As most of you may know, the romantic languages and German have the tu/vous distinction for politeness meaning that they don’t need all of those extra politeness markers like in English.
“Pouvez-vous me passer le fromage, s’il vous plaît?” – Can you (formal) please pass me the cheese?
Interestingly, I’m sure most French speakers would agree that you must say ‘please’.
Take note of this use of politeness the next time that you are in a public space. In Australia, we native English speakers will pass around courtesies as often as we take a breath! Just remember that when in Europe however, just lessen the politeness a little!