Courteous language has both broad and narrow definitions. In general, courteous language conforms to acknowledged social protocols. For example, the manner of speaking and the topics spoken about vary depending on whether one is at a formal occasion, such as a meeting, or, simply, chatting with friends. In a narrower sense, courteous expression refers to specific expressions that are appropriate and polite at social events. These expressions may also differ based on whether they are spoken or written. Written expressions are usually more elegant, formal, concise, and clear.
Courteous expressions also include polite body language, such as gestures, facial expressions, appearance, and attitude. Their importance must not be underestimated, especially at social events. Using courteous language is not only a way of showing respect towards other people, it is also a way of appearing more cultivated. It makes the atmosphere more harmonious and helps people to socialize.
Cultural differences may be reflected in polite language. In general, Chinese are more introverted while Westerners are relatively more outgoing. In China, it is quite normal to ask about people’s jobs, salaries, marriages, political views, and even the cost of their furniture. However, in the West, especially in the United States and Europe, privacy is significantly more important. Therefore, it is unacceptable to ask personal questions such as health, family planning, illness, salary, property, or age.
Courteous expressions are based on three principles—respect, appropriateness, and elegance. Polite language is used at social occasions so that everyone can observe the same norms, cultural references, and standards. Each person should respect the personality, self-esteem, feelings, and behavior of others. Instead of acting imperiously, people should treat one another with honesty, respect, and trust.
Appropriateness means suiting the language to the circumstances. It is important to use courteous language according to social custom and the person being spoken to. Paying attention to the cultural differences between different countries and nations is crucial. It is not appropriate to follow one country’s habits while in another country. For example, in China when we see a friend on the street, we may ask questions such as “where are you going?” and “what are you going to do today?” These are polite expressions that we use daily but they might be considered impolite when we ask our friends from foreign countries the same questions.
Communicating elegantly requires elegant expressions instead of common or vulgar words. It is also important to use a modest tone when speaking. Decent demeanor and suitable changes of facial expressions can enhance communication between speakers and listeners. It is better to have sincere smiles, except for serious occasions where any smiles might be out of place. When speaking with someone, one should not stand too close to the other person, nor speak too loudly or too quietly. Appearing to be uninterested is also impolite.
In ancient times, people did not have a great understanding of natural phenomena, so they linked their speech to a specific natural phenomenon, believing that some words had supernatural powers and could influence a person’s fate. Language taboos emerged from this belief. These taboos exist in both China and in the West. Chinese tradition shuns the word “death,” so instead of saying si (death), one might say shishi or cishi (both mean “passed away”). Another example occurs if you should happen to eat fish with fishermen in China. You may not ask someone to “turn over” the fish. This verb is taboo. Instead, you may only say “turn the helm,” or “change direction” when you want someone to turn over the fish.
The number 13 is a taboo in the West because people think it is unlucky, especially when the thirteenth day of the month falls on a Friday. According to the Bible, there were thirteen people at the Last Supper (the twelve apostles and Jesus Himself). One of those thirteen, Judas Iscariot, betrayed Jesus to the authorities and was therefore responsible for his crucifixion.