I had asked what I thought was a relatively innocuous question. I had said something like “could I ask that we all complete this by 5pm?” It was a Russian colleague whose home is Germany who pointed out that I had fallen into what he described as the ‘British trap’.
It turned out that he meant that it was a characteristic of the British way of speaking that instructions were nearly always phrased as a question. I thought about this and realised that I often did exactly what he described. I frequently would say “would you mind…” or “is it reasonable to ask…” He said that in Russia, or in Germany for that matter, if a person wanted someone to do something they would be told, not asked. He called it ‘redundant politeness’. Further, he said that it actually caused confusion, as the answer might be in the affirmative, whilst the task may remain undone.
I countered with the suggestion that politeness is never redundant and that although I was asking if a task could be undertaken, it was implied that it should, nonetheless, be done. I do, however, accept that it was not a direct simple command. I suppose it’s a cultural thing and that was how we left it.
A Palestinian colleague then began to discuss the different ways that Arabs speak. I cannot verify this, as I don’t speak Arabic, but it has been confirmed since by several Arab colleagues, all of whom are fluently bilingual. It seems that people from Egypt tend to be similarly polite as the British. It was suggested that this may be a consequence of British influence in times gone by.
It was also pointed out that Lebanese Arabic is more direct, perhaps influenced more by the French, historically. I then asked about Gulf Arabs and how they issued instructions, only to be laughed at. It was explained, by what was now a group of Arabic speakers, whose Arab roots ranged from Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Morocco and, in fact, Bahrain, that Gulf Arabs rarely issue direct instructions. Instead, they talk about many issues first and arrive at an oblique request, rather like an overly polite British person would. Sometimes, they said, the suggestion that a task be carried out may be so disguised and wrapped up in such circumlocutory verbiage as to be unrecognisable as an instruction.
It clearly is a cultural issue. I know people who have common roots but where members of the family now live in different countries. An example is a friend who lives in Bahrain, but whose siblings reside in America and Europe. When talking, the language styles are so different that they revert to their common language of Arabic – Palestinian Arabic, to be precise, as the different versions of English cloud discussion.
I think I’m going to continue with my practice of being unnecessarily polite. I quite like the idea of phrasing an instruction as a request. Mind you, it doesn’t always ring true. I recall the character of Sgt Wilson in Dad’s Army. He would politely and subserviently ask the men, “would you mind just sort of lining up, chaps?”, rather than a bellowed “fall in!”
Time and place, I guess, not just culture.
- Mike Gaunt is a former assistant headmaster at St Christopher’s School, Bahrain – email@example.com