In This Review

Politeness in East Asia
Politeness in East Asia
Edited by Dániel Z. Kádár and Sara Mills
Cambridge University Press, 2011, 330 pp

Most people learn how to be polite without thinking much about the lexical rules that underlie their choices of expressions. But this book presents research from a subfield of linguistics called politeness studies, which analyzes and compares such rules within and across societies. Chapters on China, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, and Vietnam show how terms of address, verb forms, pronouns, and honorifics vary depending on situations and relationships. The societies do not differ much in the cultural values that politeness expresses, such as seniority, reciprocity, humility, and conflict avoidance. But there are such big differences in how they are expressed that even small deviations mark a speaker either as a foreigner or as someone who wants to resist mainstream values. Nevertheless, in all five countries, one universal principle underlies the fine-grained distinctions on which courtesy rests: politeness is used to express, reinforce, or contest power relationships.