a follow-up on American pragmatics

[Edit:  It took some time for me to figure out that replies weren’t being posted until they were “approved,” which is frustrating. Anyway, I encourage reading the responses.  One is longer than my post, but worth it.]

It’s been a while.  I’ve had a lot to say, but a lot has happened.  Anyway, let’s pick up where I left off.  Last time, I had a rather long rant on why I dislike it when Americans say “uh-huh” in response to “thank you.”  I’m very grateful that it sparked quite a lot of conversation, mostly with people who disagreed with me, haha!  Now, it is very rare that, after taking a rather extreme stance on an issue and having subsequent conversations with people who disagree with me on the subject, I end up at an even more extreme stance than I was previously.  Normally, I’m forced to acknowledge my oversights and adopt a more moderate, nuanced position.  But exactly the opposite has happened in terms of my previous rant on that most annoying of Americanisms: uh-huh.  It is rude, gawsh darn’t, and let me tell you why.

In part, my new stance comes from more data collection.  In the past few weeks, I’ve noticed that Americans often say “yeah” and “uh-huh” not just in response to thank you, but also in response to “sorry.”  I looked around on google scholar and my university’s library research cite trying to find anything on this, and I haven’t found anything yet (Suszczynska (1999) gets pretty close, though).  I’m making a tentative conclusion that it’s either a new phenomenon, too obscure to get published, or boring to most people.  It might be obscure and/or new, but it is anything but boring.  It gives us a linguistic window into how society works, and how societies might differ, in particular with respect to politeness.

What is “politeness”?  To be more to the point, what is “rudeness”?  Last post, I said that it would be difficult to call a commonly-used phrase “impolite” because, in so many words, its use within a community determines its meaning and value.  The fact that “uh-huh” is socially accepted by Americans as a response to thank you means that, at least within that community, it does not have a negative effect on interpersonal relations and, by extension, we would have to cede that it is not impolite.  That’s not the same thing as being “polite,” because that would imply engendering positive interpersonal relations, and this “uh-huh” seems more neutral.  Now, the American “uh-huh” is noteworthy because the social need for marking deference that many theorists postulated as universal is, at first glance, being ignored.  If we look further, though, we might see that the meaning of a casual “thank you” in American usage might not imply the same types of social correlates that it does in other English varieties, and that the reason why “uh-huh” is acceptable might be because the previous phrase “thank you” is being used differently.

Or so I thought.

But then how do we explain away “uh-huh” as a response to “sorry”?  Frankly, when I say “sorry” or “excuse me” to a person and get “yep” in reply, I want to retract my apology and punch the person.  It’s not so bad that I’d go around punching people in the face, but I might punch them in the part of the chest that connects to the shoulder pretending that I meant to hit them in the shoulder where it hurts less and is considered just a joke.  No joke.

To make this abstract just for a while, Bergman and Kasper (1993) and Suszczynska (1999) both give excellent outlines of what an apology constitutes.  In essence, it is an attempt to compensate for or mitigate the perceived negative effects of a prior action for which the speaker takes at least partial responsibility.  When we apologize, we are in essence saying that something for which we are at least partially to blame was wrong, contrary to social etiquette, unintended, or any number of other vaguely negative things.  To reduce it to its extreme, we’re in a very real sense saying “my bad.”

On what planet is affirmation an appropriate response to that!?  In pragmatics research, affirming the transgression would be called an “aggressor,” which is socially a very valuable tool when we disagree with people, but it has zero politeness value.  Now, you could say, “but that’s not what I mean when I say uh-huh,” and you might very well be right, but that doesn’t shield the phrase from criticism.

The way we communicate reflects many things: the way we think about ourselves and our relationships with other people, the way we think about society, and the way society itself is organized.  If I use the word “bro” (and it is a word, not an abbreviation, when used in that context, don’t even get me started) to refer to a friend, that implies a great deal about me, my friend, and it also situates me in a time and place in history where that would occur.  There might come a time when everyone in a particular society starts using the word “bro,” even in formal contexts, and if that time were to come to pass, my use of it would indicate something different about me than it would now, and it would indicate something different about society than it would now.

Another example. The Japanese word “omae” (from 御前, roughly: “honoring that which is before me) used to be a formal second person address term (i.e. “you” when speaking to someone socially above you, and usually way above you) up until the Meiji era.  The word was used almost exclusively by the upper class, so the simple use of that word really did imply quite a lot about both the speaker and addressee.  However, it implied something very different from what it does now, because in modern Japanese, the word is extremely widespread, casual, and even antagonistic when used with people who are not friends (almost like using the word “bitch” to refer to a female friend in modern English, except it’s genderless and used by and for all age groups).  The dramatic changes that the word “omae” has gone through reflect larger social changes in Japan, and it is not controversial to talk about how the word’s journey through Japanese society mirrors changes in that society itself.  It’s no different for English.   “Uh-huh” is an anomaly; very few societies at very few points in time would use such a construction in a similar context.  That fact is emphatically not beyond the scope of analysis, or criticism.

Yes, my punches would be misdirected. When I think about it, I don’t mean to blame the person who says “uh-huh” in response to the speech acts of thanking or apologizing.  That person, who is likely American, is equally likely to harbour no ill will against me, and likely does not intend to communicate something akin to “you’re right to be sorry.”  I absolutely do mean, however, to criticize the society that tolerates and promotes the use of that construction.  It gives the (in my opinion, largely correct) impression that American society tolerates a passive indifference and even disregard for the person who is thanking or apologizing, or in the very least the act of thanking or apologizing in that context, and I take issue with that.  There’s an excellent discussion by a hip-hop artist on the use of the word “bitch” among other things here that I think is really apropos.  It’s another example, and I encourage you to read it, but that’s a different rant.

So.  I’ll have to amend my earlier position to one that’s way more extreme than the previous iteration.  Right now, when I say that I think it’s rude to say “uh-huh” to acts of thanking or apologizing, I am in fact saying that American society is rude, and I’d go further to say that I don’t think criticism of society should be off the table.  I sincerely hope that, over future discussions, I’m forced to retreat from this position, but for now, I’ll just offer an apology to any Americans who might be offended by this post, to which I imagine you might respond:



6 thoughts on “a follow-up on American pragmatics

  1. So . . . after a little grading, I sat down to answer this . . . and if my response is too straightforward, I apologize. I should have hedged a little more but I guess I’m too American. I trust you’ll read between the lines and hear what I meant to say. : )

    What I find so difficult about this conversation is the way that you’ve conflated politeness and the more general notion of being considerate. Being considerate is a universal phenomenon, and we can judge societies as being more or less others-focused, just as we can judge individuals within societies as being more or less caring individuals. I agree that criticism of societies shouldn’t be off the table here, and I’m more than happy to join with you in criticizing my own society on any number of topics. But there is no universal standard of politeness. Politeness is determined within each particular culture by measuring the level of adherence to the accepted conventions for behavior in that situation. Those “accepted conventions” are, like language, susceptible to change over time, and may vary within subcultures. But politeness is, after all, a measure of faithfulness to form, and not a measure of the spirit that underlies it. This much is clear by thinking of occasions in which it is possible to be polite but inconsiderate – much of the humor in Jane Austen rides on situations like these – or considerate but impolite – as when a newcomer to the culture finds herself unintentionally offending others whom she seeks to please because she hasn’t learned a particular form yet.

    Your argument has the same kind of ring to it, to my mind, as the annoying view that my students have voiced to me on a number of occasions, that British people are more grammatically correct than American people. Brits may be more concerned with adherence to a standard dialect, but any natural language that works, that is effective in communicating, is by definition grammatical. In the same way, any system of social behavior that is acceptable in a given community is, in my understanding, polite behavior. It may or may not be kind or considerate behavior. But it is, prima facie, polite.

    What you’re doing, essentially, here, is taking a particular formal system of politeness which is familiar to you and judging other cultures by that standard. The problem is that there IS no system of politeness which is designed to be universal. Politeness is a referential judgement. Being “rude” means saying something which has been judged to be inappropriate within a particular context by a particular social group. Do you really want to argue that Germans and Israelis, to take two well-known examples, are more “rude” than Japanese and Canadians? Comments that would be out of place, inappropriate, and rude in one culture might appear normal in another, while comments that might appear fakey, overwrought and fawning in one culture might be just fine in the other. Which is better? We can’t compare formal systems. What we can compare are attitudes. But those are trickier to assess.

    This is not to say that you have no reason to be angry. I would argue that, by and large, Americans are less considerate of other people than they ought to be, a product perhaps of our social upbringing, our individualistic values, and the selfish tendencies which our cultural climate allows to develop into something which is then viewed as a “right.” You may even argue that our moral climate affects the development of our system of politeness. But the forms that result from the the development of that system are then used indiscriminately by considerate and inconsiderate people alike. I would argue that you can’t tell, by the form used, whether the person who held the door open for you has a heart that smiles on you or a heart that sees you as a little annoying bug. That’s the thing about politeness. It’s a veil for the true attitude of the heart. I suppose that’s why pragmatic systems were invented anyway – to give us a shortcut to being likeable.

    I would like to go further and argue that a dismissal is not the only way to respond to an offer of thanks – one could also say something like, “My pleasure,” which is more of an affirmation than a negation. When I hold the door open for someone and respond to their thanks by saying, “Mmhmm!”, that’s rather the feeling I have inside. It’s a feeling of saying, “I’m happy to do something nice for you!” Which I really am. I like people and I like doing nice things for them. But since we’re passing in the doorway and we already have our backs mostly turned to each other, full expression of that thought would be ridiculous and unnecessary. So a simple, happy shrug or smile or nod or happy sound suffices. In my opinion at least. Something to show that I took pleasure in doing some little thing to help them. “Uh-huh!” and “Mmhmm!” are my favorite responses. More than that feels obsequious. This is, of course, evidence that I have internalized the formal mechanisms of expressing politeness in my culture. Is it then, too, evidence that I am an uncaring, uncivilized person who deserves to be punched in the part of my chest that meets my shoulder?

    The reason why all of this matters is because I feel like it’s anger that’s misdirected at people who, by and large, don’t deserve it. There are lots of things that are worth ranting about in this world. This is, in my mind, not one of them.

  2. Often, a weed is a weed because we look at it that way…..because we’ve grown up looking at it as a weed.

    …then you move to another region where they call this weed a flower.

  3. Just a further thought . . . something that IS worth ranting about, in my opinion:

    A telling sign that American society is becoming more inconsiderate is the number of people who don’t even bother to hold open doors for other people. Or give up their seats on the bus for elderly people who come on. What’s even worse is the number of young men on the university campus who are selectively considerate – who are more likely to hold open a door for an attractive woman than they are for an overweight woman or an elderly one. I’ve seen it too often, and it makes my blood boil. (Though, sadly, it applies to students from other nationalities, too – Chinese students are among the worst offenders in my book here). I’m happy to join with you if you’d like to rant about American culture in this regard.

    • You’re absolutely right that I had conflated “rudeness” with “inconsiderateness.” I’m glad that you pointed that out, since I never really felt comfortable with the place I was at when I wrote that post. In response, what to you feels “obsequious” to me (and, I’d add, a great deal of others) feels like basic social etiquette. You’re right that American society is not any less “polite,” even (or especially) by the logic that I lay out in that very same post. The norm is, definitionally, the accepted standard response, and politeness can only really be judged by whether negative or positive feelings are engendered within that community, not with someone from outside it who does not follow the same norms. I’m glad that you helped me reshape that conception, and refine what it is that I’m even trying to talk about.

      That said, the last two paragraphs of your reply are about as accurate as the last two of my post, which is to say, not much. It’s not that I “could” make the argument that the moral climate influences politeness norms; I explicitly DID make that argument. I myself said in so many words that I don’t blame the person but the society that tolerates it. The norms will vary from one culture to another, and you’re right in that I cannot judge politeness from the outside in that regard. Whatever the accepted polite response is within a society, that overt statement is not, you’re right, proof of what the person feels behind it. We can’t make individual judgments based on the presence or absence of a particular formulaic expression, and I thank you for helping me to understand that. However, the degree of attention and consideration that people are expected to show for another person also varies from culture to culture, and American society, I am arguing, has an extremely low threshold. The social expectation that one person would overtly show deference to another person and therefore respond to that deference in kind is markedly lower, to the point where people who have internalized this system believe that the actual act of responding to thanks or apologies with anything more than token acknowledgement is “obsequious.” When viewed from outside, that seems extreme, and, I think, that reflects a general cultural trend towards defiant individualism. It is that self-centered conception that I attempted (largely unsuccessfully) to criticize. I cannot get on board with your rosy reinterpretation of what’s happening when people respond that way. First, you and I are about the worst people to use as examples for pragmatic norms. To put this in the nerdiest way possible, the absolute value of our Z-scores is greater than 3. Second, in all fairness, I had not put the comments into a specific enough context because I wanted to focus on social trends rather than local events, but I can assure you that whatever you think is going on with “mmhmm” is neither especially widespread nor what I was describing. Anyway, I’m glad that I can finally move on from this, understanding a bit more of what it is that got to me in the first place.

      • Okay. Now I agree with you. : ) Just as long as you acknowledge that it’s not the form itself that is the problem, it’s the cultural attitude which established it which is problematic . . . and that you don’t superficially form an immediate judgment of a person based merely on his use of those forms. I suggest that facial expression and tone of voice are better indicators of intent than verbal expressions. Even then, try to give a little grace – you and I may be more than three standard deviations away from the mean, but there’s always a possibility that the person you are judging is having a bad day or lost in another world of thought. With those two cAHveats out of the way, I think we’re on the same page. Yes, American society is, comparatively speaking, individualistic and inconsiderate, and I lament that fact probably more than you do, the way it hurts to see a family member misbehaving more than it hurts to see a stranger do the same thing. Thanks for drawing our attention to this, painful as it is to think about it.

  4. A supposition:
    It is viewed as inconsiderate in American culture to cause someone else to be in a state of obligation towards you.

    If this is the case, and I get the sense that it is, the emptiness of the “thanks/sorry—>Uh-huh” call and response makes a lot more sense. In a situation in which the empty “thanks/sorry” is appropriate, replacing it with a more meaningful expression would create social obligation to respond with a similar level of meaningful interaction. To do otherwise would constitute dismissal, which is both rude and inconsiderate. Similarly, responding to an empty “thanks/sorry” with a more meaningful expression implies that the interaction held more profound meaning for your than for your interlocutor. Again, we arrive at a mismatch.

    I don’t have any opinion as to whether this is better or worse, but I think that it is one possible alternative explanation for this odd call and response game that we play here in the states.

    Also, as a side note, there is a stereotype in the USA that people from the South and people from the Northwest are more polite than others, and yet I would bet that we would find the same or similar pragmatics at work.

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