The trickiness of being polite

Brits tend to place a high value on Ps and Qs. My mother trained me up to thank people for having me and to ask permission to leave tables.  When a neighbour whose approval she sought pronounced me to be at the age of 7 a child with ‘polish’ , she glowed with pride.

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Fast forward to the 1990s when, in my then incarnation as ‘La Mamma di Michael e Julian’  in Italy, I coached my boys in pretty much the same way. Their impeccable translation of these English politeness norms into Italian were admired by their teachers and occasionally prompted alarm in other mothers.  One rang me up after Mike had tea at her home to ask why he had said ‘Grazie di avermi ospitato’ on leaving. She was offended at the implication that languages without that phrase were in some way inferior. These things go deep, and now Michael’s son too is learning the power of politeness to persuade : ‘Can I have a Welsh cake please, Nana?

But politeness is always there in other cultures, it’s just different. In Italy it is customary to ask for permission, ‘Permesso‘ , before entering another person’s home, even if you know them well,  and this becomes automatically assimilated into your repertoire once  when you have been there for a while. Among people of a certain age, the polite you form, “Lei” is still used and I had a neighbourly and comfortable relationship with Signora M. opposite for 25 years without venturing into the more familiar ‘tu’ form.

English shed its intimate and polite forms of ‘you‘ a few  centuries ago apart from some regions. But since returning to the UK last year I have noticed a new  form creeping into the language: the use of yourself, usually in business situations as in ‘ in that case I will need a signature from yourself ‘. This is definitely intended to be polite form as I note all my younger male colleagues using it with me. God forbid.

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