I would like to be more polite
September 27, 2005 9:01 AM   Subscribe

In (some) languages, why is the conditional so frequently related to politeness?

In the languages I've studied to some degree (English, Spanish, French, Russian), the most common way to be polite is to use the conditional. "I would like," "quisiera," "j'aimerais," "Ya buy khotyel," etc. I'm wondering if anyone knows why this is? it's not, at least for me, intuitive. Are there other languages that do it drastically differently?
posted by ORthey to Writing & Language (25 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
In Spanish at least, while English speakers are taught "quisiera" (to pick up your example), the majority of Spaniards will just say "quiero" - it doesn't carry any sense of impoliteness. Spanish has a polite tense, and if you want to be polite, that's what you use. Similarly, when you learn Spanish you're taught "La cuenta, por favor" - most Spaniards won't say "Please" or will even just say "Me cobras" - Bill me. And if a friend offers you a drink, in Spanish, you'd just say "No", (or "Si", if you wanted it) - the "No, thank you" doesn't really exist...

My guess is that most "Foreign" As A Second Language courses are developed with English (speaking) sensibilities at their heart, rather than indiginously, from a local perspective.
posted by benzo8 at 9:05 AM on September 27, 2005

Benzo8, those social rules seem to be Spanish rules, they don't all hold true for Latin American Spanish, which may be what American Spanish courses are designed to teach. Spaniards tend to be a lot more direct than your average Latin American (thus the demanding "digame" as opposed to "alo" when answering the phone).

To answer the question though, using the conditional implies, as the name suggests, a condition. Just coming right out and asking for something may seem aggressive, but wheedling your way around the question by adding conditions to it makes it more humble. Therefore, "Would it be possible to have some pancakes?" comes off as more polite than "Give me pancakes."
posted by Pollomacho at 9:15 AM on September 27, 2005

To me it is incredibly intuitive, but then I am a language teacher... It is conditional on the appropriateness of the request. I would like X, if only it were possible, but I see you are too busy so no I don't actually want it. Provides an easy out.
posted by Meatbomb at 9:16 AM on September 27, 2005

Yeah, I'm definitely talking about Peninsular Spanish, and yes, they are a very direct folk!
posted by benzo8 at 9:16 AM on September 27, 2005

Response by poster: You're certainly right about the English sensibilities, although I think all foreign languages (in all countries) are taught from textbooks rather than from real life. The foreigners I meet who speak English say a lot of things no one really says, even in different kinds of English (Irish, say).

I'm actually in Guatemala right now, and you seem to be right. I get offered bread on the street twenty times a day and I seem to be the only one saying "no, gracias" rather than just "no."

However, grammatically speaking, "quisiera" is still connected to politeness, or at least formality...
posted by ORthey at 9:16 AM on September 27, 2005

Response by poster: Who, there were a few comments submitted during the time it took me to write that last response.

It may be peninsular Spanish, but I've noticed that to some degree here in Guatemala.
posted by ORthey at 9:18 AM on September 27, 2005

I'd be interested to know what you find intuitive -- growing up as an English speaker, it's hard for me to imagine a different system!

I think the idea is that stating "I would like a cup of coffee" implies some sense of "...if you would be willing to get it for me"; it puts it into a hypothetical realm that's dependent on the other person's acquiesence. Hence "conditional," I guess -- the fulfillment of your request is conditional on the other person's agreeing to it.

Whereas "I want coffee" is just pretty much a bald statement of fact that doesn't acknowledge the other person's actions at all. Which is why it sounds less polite.

And I don't know about the idea that foreign language instruction is influenced by English grammar. Italians seemed to use *more* conditionals and subjunctive than English speakers, in my experience.
posted by occhiblu at 9:20 AM on September 27, 2005

Using the conditional indicates that you don't assume a particular outcome is a given. e.g. as Pollomacho says, if you enquire about the possibility of pancakes, you're giving the other person much more freedom and leeway in their reply, including the chance to turn you down gently by explaining that those hypothetical pancakes are not a reality, rather than just assuming there are pancakes and you will be given them on demand.

With the conditional, the other person is not just an automaton who is there to meet your demand, they have a little more power in the outcome of the conversation (regardless of whether they *actually* have any choice in bringing you pancakes or not, you're keeping up that facade...). At least, that's the way I've always seen it.

(I think I'm right in saying Finns don't have or use a word for please, because the conditional does the job)
posted by penguin pie at 9:21 AM on September 27, 2005

On preview, what occhiblu said.
posted by penguin pie at 9:24 AM on September 27, 2005

I think that the conditional is often used to distance the speaker/agent from the action/request. This may remove some of urgency or directness that might otherwise be perceived if one were to say in German using the conditional "Ich möchte ein Mineralwasser," (I would like a mineral water) as opposed to "Ich will ein Mineralwasser," using the indicative, which addresses one's desire directly, meaning "I want a mineral water."
posted by vkxmai at 9:24 AM on September 27, 2005

Response by poster: I think the reason I don't find it intuitive is that there is the hidden second part. We are so accustomed to using this form that it's been distanced from the grammatical meaning it came from.

Also, at a restaurant, it strikes me as more common (or at least quite common) to say "I'll have the roast beef," which is, when analyzed, pretty presumptuous. "Oh, you will, will you?" But that's not viewed as less polite, even though you theoretically aren't leaving the waiter any choice in the matter.
posted by ORthey at 9:28 AM on September 27, 2005

Japanese does it drastically differently. The grammatical forms change entirely depending on who you're talking to and how polite you have to be to that person.

By way of example, let's say I am asking for a glass of water. If I were asking someone I knew fairly well, I might say Omizu o kudasai and be done with it. To be more polite to someone I knew less well, Omizu onegaishimasu would be appropriate. There are more levels; for instance, putting it in the past tense (Omizu onegaishimashita) is for some reason more polite.

The Japanese you learn in school is very formal. First you learn all the polite forms: Omizu o nomimasu (I drink water). Then you get the informal forms thrust on you: Omizu o nomu (I drink water). Then you get to a real killer: honorific and humble verbs. Take the verb iku (to go, I go). It has an honorific form, irassharu and a humble form, mairu. So, if I'm talking to a friend I can say Toukyou e ikatta? (did you go to Tokyo?) but if I'm talking to my boss's boss, Mr. Tanaka, I might have to say Tanaka-sama wa Toukyo e irasshaimashita ka? (Did you, Mr. Tanaka, sir, go to Tokyo?) about him, and Watashi wa Toukyo e mairimashita (I went to Tokyo, sir). It makes real in-depth knowledge of the language extremely hard.

A friend who's lived in Japan for over a year says that the reason that Japanese people are so polite is that they screw up this stuff a lot, and that they're very forgiving when gaijin speak Japanese. Which is a good thing, because it's a challenging language to learn.
posted by graymouser at 9:30 AM on September 27, 2005

I think you have to separate out what's textbook polite versus what's commonly used. It's officially polite for men to stand when a woman gets up from a table; in reality, however, it can be a little fuddy-duddy precious to do so.

So the conditional "I would like the roast beef" would be more polite, but "I'll have the roast beef" is common enough that it's not impolite.
posted by occhiblu at 9:31 AM on September 27, 2005

think I'm right in saying Finns don't have or use a word for please, because the conditional does the job

Incidentally, please in English is a shortened version of if you please, which is adding a conditional circumstance to a request. I would like pancakes, that is if it pleases you to get them for me, otherwise, I'll live without them.
posted by Pollomacho at 9:31 AM on September 27, 2005

My experience in Moldova with the Romanian spoken there taught me that "vă rog" (s'il vous plaît/please) is not always used as a form of politeness. Often it is used ironically or sarcastically. This goes for riding the tram or bus, for example. The same goes for the Russian use (in Moldova) of (forgive my spelling) ,,pazhalui'sta."

For example, if someone is attempting to pass their money up to the front of the maxi-taxi and the person in front of them doesn't hear the request, they will often repeat their initial phrase, such as "Five Lei for one person" either in Russian or Romanian, and add a snide "please" or "my dear" on the end of their sentence--not out of politness or deference, but with a derisive intent.
posted by vkxmai at 9:43 AM on September 27, 2005


I believe je voudrais is more common here.
posted by wackybrit at 9:45 AM on September 27, 2005

While in Beijing I reflexively said 'shei shei' ('thanks', but I think literally, 'yes, yes') when I received something from someone, say, a waiter. I don't think it was ever met without a snicker, but I knew so little of the language I was trying to fit in and be nice as best I could. Of course, in a place like Beijing, people do not have the opportunity to hear their language mangled by non-native speakers to the same degree that one might living in Detroit, so I think part of it was the novelty of my awful pronunciation.
posted by Slothrop at 9:52 AM on September 27, 2005

As others have said, making a request conditional softens it so it sounds less like an order.
posted by Decani at 10:16 AM on September 27, 2005

I noticed that waitstaff in Paris seemed impatient when I began my order with "je voudrais" and ended with "s'il vous plait". Should I not have said this at all?
posted by brujita at 10:42 AM on September 27, 2005

A couple of points about textbooks. They naturally simplify; you just can't fit the complexities of how a language is actually used, with all its nuances, between the cover of a brief book. For example, there are lots of polite ways of asking for things in english which may vary depending on circumstances, relationship between speakers, formality of setting and so on, but it would seldom be dreadfully rude to say, "I would like..." (if it was appropriate to ask at all), so that's what gets taught.

Textbooks also bear some relation to the language they are written in because you have to move from what you know, your own language, to what you don't -- it's not the way you would learn a language as a child, nor even if you were just dumped down and had to fend, but it's something of a practical necessity in a classroom situation.
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 10:46 AM on September 27, 2005

Also, at a restaurant, it strikes me as more common (or at least quite common) to say "I'll have the roast beef," which is, when analyzed, pretty presumptuous. "Oh, you will, will you?" But that's not viewed as less polite, even though you theoretically aren't leaving the waiter any choice in the matter.

There's a reason why asking a waiter for your dish is called "ordering." In that situation, the waiter is serving you--his function is to fulfill your demand, and therefore his status is "lower." I think there's a parallel between this and the way that Romance languages (at least) call for using the informal "you" form with subordinates (e.g., children or servants). I'm not saying that these rules are followed nowadays, simply that this is how this exception arises.

(For the record, I say "I would/I'd like the roast beef" when ordering.)
posted by CiaoMela at 11:10 AM on September 27, 2005

I usually say "Can I have the roast beef?" My mom laughs at me and says "why are you asking? What are they going to say - no?" But in fact, I have gotten the occasionally smarty-pants server who says no, just for fun.

(not really an answer to the question - sorry)
posted by clh at 3:45 PM on September 27, 2005

clh: It's not really answering, no, but it's one of my favourite language pedantries - "Can I have the beef?" is a question of a capability, "May I have the beef?" is a question of permission...
posted by benzo8 at 9:29 PM on September 27, 2005

I usually say "Can I have the roast beef?"

What benz08 said. My father would always reply to a question like that with "You can, but you may not". Oh, it never ceased to amuse.
posted by Decani at 8:17 AM on September 28, 2005

Response by poster: I also don't think they let you get a teaching credential unless you've shown the ability to answer "Can I use the bathroom?" with "I don't know, can you?"
posted by ORthey at 11:24 AM on September 28, 2005

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