Politeness in dialog


In The Economist is an article on politeness in English (subscription apparently now required) and in other languages around the globe.  This is – well not quite timely; I’ve been working on the first draft of this play for over three years – of interest to me in the alternate history play I’ve been working on, My Visit to America. In that play, set in a very different present from our own, the language – which might be English or perhaps the play has been translated into English – retains three politeness levels.

When two people of equal standing meet for the first time, they address each other by that person’s title, as the Manager, for instance.  After a time, they might establish enough rapport that they might proceed to address each other as “you.” Finally, after many years they might become close enough to be on a first-name basis as well as address each other as “thou.”

When two people of unequal standing meet, the one of higher standing addresses the other as “thou” while the one of lower standing addresses the other by their title.

This system works fine as long as both people agree as to their relative standing. Where there is disagreement lies conflict. And of course, as a playwright, I am looking to introduce conflict into my play, to stir the pot, so to speak.

So, a person who is addressed as “thou” upon first meeting another, but who believes themself [no grammar flames, please; this blog is not about that except as it relates to drama] to be of equal status, has two choices:

1. They may read this address that they have been pegged as of lower status, or

2. They may read this address that the other person is attempting inappropriate intimacy.

In the case of my play, the addressee, an American Indian and a high-ranking bureaucrat, is well aware the speaker, a diplomat from London – part of the Mongolian empire –  considers him lower than mud (1) but in order to achieve his needs he must at least superficially interpret this as a wrongheaded attempt to be chummy (2). Of course this leads to some delicious – if I do my job as a playwright – conflict.

If I ever finish this play rather than giving up in frustration over the length of time the first draft is taking [ed. note – I did finish the first draft in 2010 and have done extensive editing since; you can read the first ten pages of each act] and I should be so lucky to have it performed, first in the US and then around the globe in translation, the funny part is that in many languages, there will be less culture shock or translation issues in this difference in politeness levels than I am encountering in scene readings here in America, from where “thou” has long since been banished. Because, in fact, a two-politeness-levels system has been historically common in Europe, and two and more levels are common in Asia. My model for the three politeness levels of my play is from Korean, which has – I’m afraid this is oversimplified as my knowledge of Korean is limited to ordering medium-spicy vegetarian soft tofu stew (yachae soon dubu, botong mebke) and not much more – “nida” at the end of verbs is the most polite, “yo” is medium politeness, and a bare verb is either talking down or intimate.

I do wonder whether there are any languages where there is a separate talking-down style and intimate style, aside from direct insults, as my character would not have such latitude as to how to react in such a language. But then again, I should be so lucky to have such translation problems as that would mean I finished my draft, completed the revision/development process and got it placed in appropriate theatres.

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