On the Shoulders of Giants: When Metaphor Isn’t Metaphor
The Ridiculous Application of Metonymy & Pragmatics
In every culture, there are standards for politeness, what is okay, what is not okay, and why. In many instances, “politeness culture” is good. In most cases, the term “politeness” is a colloquialism, a metonym, for “etiquette”. The difference is, of course, that politeness requires consideration of another’s feelings in a matter, etiquette involves learned standards of behavior and tradition, which have less to do with how a person actually feels and more to do with how they have been socially trained to behave.
This can be excellent. For example, etiquette is responsible for the fact that most people chew with their mouths closed.
These social norms also change based on time, culture, and… changing social norms. The 1477 Caxton’s Book of Curtesye includes advice that if you are to blow your nose at the table you should do so into your hand and then wipe it onto your clothing or tippet, but of course, not onto the napkin. Today, your friends would rightly scoot their chairs a few inches further away from you were you to sit down at the dinner table, blow your nose into your hand without a napkin, and then proceed to wipe it on your pants. You dirty, dirty person, you.
On the other hand, “etiquette”, more commonly known as “politeness”, impacts how people talk and interact with each other. A random man walked up to me on the street and casually informed me he would like to see my breasts. Most of us, in most societies, could easily agree that this is impolite behavior. Why? Social norms.
Politeness Theory involves the idea that everyone has a certain amount of self-esteem. Pretend you have a bowl of M&M’s to represent the Ego, and you call it “The Face”. This theory was first created by Penelope Brown and Stephen C. Levinson to explain how people behave linguistically in “polite society”. Here, requests, compliments, commands, etc, all represent giving and taking different amounts of Face. A balanced relationship is one in which you give and take, one in which requests are small, and one in which you reciprocate.
Sidenote: I think this theory is heavily flawed in that it suggests universality. Yet, social norms and etiquette vary significantly from culture to culture, so that could not possibly be the case.
In this “bowl of M&M’s” analogy, making a request means grabbing M&M’s out of someone else’s bowl. You’d’ be pretty outraged if someone just grabbed a giant handful of M&M’s from your bowl right? Pretend you like M&M’s, it was the least offensive candy I could think of.
“Get me a beer” is a big handful of M&Ms. But if you were to soften it, “Could you get me a beer when you walk by the refrigerator?” you might drop that down to just a few. And, if you were to soften that further, “Thanks, I owe you one”, on receiving said beer, you’d maybe even put as many back into the bowl as you took out. Of course, now you’re both left with M&M’s that have been passed around and are maybe getting soft because your hands are warm, but no analogy is perfect. You (hopefully) get the point of the idea. You make requests in such a way as to save face for the person you are asking them from (they don’t have to feel like they HAVE to do the thing) in order to avoid taking their “Face” from them.
The thing is, politeness usually means avoiding demands. As phrases save more face, they become more indirect. As phrases become less direct, they become more vague.
Instead, they heavily rely on constructs like metonymy (a linked term standing in for a name or an object/concept, e.g., “the suits lined up for lunch look like a flock of penguins”), Pragmatics (contextual understanding of meaning), and metaphor (a figure of speech in which a word is applied to a meaning to which it is not literally applicable). Language that saves a lot of face can be intensely vague by relying on localized understanding of what is being asked for, using terminology that does not sound like a request.
Essentially, politeness theory, or the act of saving Face, leads to some fairly ridiculous usage of language. Especially in English, where etiquette became something of a social game.
Scene: it is 2018, there is no pandemic, you like alcohol and are willing to go to a bar to drink it. Sounds far-fetched? I know, but. bear with me here. You enter the bar, walk up, and order a drink: what do you say?
- “Give me a ”
- “I’ll have the ”
- “, please”
- “, when you get a minute”
- “I’d like the ”
- “A  might be nice”
- “Do you maybe have a ”
Straightforward right? You can easily plot high “face demand” to “Saving face”. But this is a simplified experiment because you’re in a position of power. You are the customer and the bartender, they’re there to serve you. You don’t have to “save face”. Interestingly, the more you plot towards the bottom of this selection, the more likely it is you are under the age of 40. Because social norms have changed.
This becomes infinitely more complex as you move into situations in which levels of social power are less visible, where you maybe don’t want to have or to appear to have more “face” or where you simply have less of it.
Scene: you walk into your friend’s new home for the first time and walk towards the bathroom. It is dark. What do you say?
- “Can you turn on the light”
- “Some light would be nice”
- “Where’s the light switch”
- “Do you happen to have a light switch”
Now this latter bit of complete nonsense is made possible by Pragmatics. No one would assume someone didn’t have a light switch by default. Just as no one would assume that a bar didn’t have, say, a rum and coke, a pilsener, or a peated whiskey assuming you’re savvy enough to head for a bar selling your poison (metonymy) of choice.
Instead, it’s an attempt at creating distance between oneself and the potential imperative of asking someone to do something for you. Achieving that means significantly colorful use of language and euphemism.
Of course, euphemism is annoying, it interrupts direct speech, and for secondary language learners, autism spectrum, and some other disorders, it’s a complete nuisance. Despite the fact that heavily euphemistic language is extremely common, especially in parts of North America, it’s a direct hindrance to a large part of the population.
For most of us, a happy middle ground is best. “Turn on the light” is disastrously rude in most settings. “Do you happen to have a light switch” is inanity. Yet, if I ask my friends this question out of curiosity, they, to a man (metonymy), respond by simply informing me that the light switch is located over there, yes between the shelf and the door, no a little higher. I didn’t once have someone go, “Of course I have a light switch, are you mad?” or worse, “I don’t have a light switch yet, currently I’m turning on the lights by connecting those two bare wires and hoping the breaker doesn’t short”.
This concept is made more interesting by culture, social shifts, and local norms. That’s where Pragmatics come into play.
Pragmatics are the colloquially understood meanings and associations of a word or phrase. Let’s take a look at what that means with a brilliant bit of semantical structural play, normally attributed to Anthony Oettinger.
“Time flies like an arrow, fruit flies like a banana”
Not all languages are quite this ridiculous. After all, you could derive at least 6 standard semantic interpretations from the first half of this sentence. It’s a classic example of “garden pathing”, where you set up the first interpretation of a sentence to be wrong. But because of its semantic ambiguity, your interpretation of this sentence is entirely dependent on your pragmatic associations with words like “time”, flies”, “like” and “Arrow”.
The point is, words have different meanings depending on context. That context can be grammatical, social, cultural, or colloquial. And, that context shifts over time, social norms, and cultures.
Once an innocuous message by the Spice Girls about understanding and spending time with one’s friends, now an invitation to sexual intercourse with one’s friends – a shift that occurred in just 20 years.
And, as many people are well aware, this is most easily shown by sharing idioms from one culture to another.
“I will paste you behind the wallpaper and move away”
“Ik plak je achter het behang en ga verhuizen”
“You are annoying me”
So, accepted pragmatism in one culture might be completely intelligible to another. In most of the United States, socializing is a kind of politeness game. Speech is indirect, vague, and very rarely asks something directly, especially when it inconveniences the other.
For example, if you were to take a date to a party and wander over and ask:
- “Do you want to leave or stay a bit”
They might reply:
- “I want to stay” = “I want to stay”
- “I want to leave” = “what do you want? / You choose” *
Yet if you were to repeat this in the Netherlands, the second answer is completely intelligible. The social awareness of the intended pragmatism simply isn’t there. The Dutch dance another politeness dance around never asking for too much beer, bringing their own snacks, and smiling while making eye contact — certainly not by the inability to admit one would actually like to go home right now please and thank you.
*there are always outliers, many people simply do not play the politeness game in any society. A norm just means a large percentage of the population.
This works in the USA because both parties are expected to maintain a certain amount of social face. Having disagreements with one’s partner or friends in public is heavily taboo. It would be a huge loss of Face to say one wanted to leave only to have this negated by the partner. The equivalent of dumping one’s bowl of M&M’s all over the ground. Where are you keeping that anyway? Other cultures care less. In general, that’s a good thing. Directness is valuable, simple, and easy to engage with and to interpret.
Of course, saving Face doesn’t just apply to asking for things.
- “How are you today?” –> “Feeling a little under the weather”
- “It’s cold (-4 Celsius)” –> “Yeah, it’s a little chilly”
- “Are you hungry” –> “I could eat”
- “Stand aside worthy adversary!!!” –> “’Tis but a scratch”
Saving face means being non-committal and refusing to invest yourself. This is significantly more common in male social norms than female, in every culture I’ve been to (but let’s not start a section on that, this is long enough as it is). Yet, it always takes the form of making the request or statement smaller and less important than it might actually be.
This is replicable in many common requests, some of which are completely absurd when you think about them:
- “Can you pass the salt?” (It’s understood you are capable, unless, of course, you have no arms in which case, my deepest apologies)
- “Do you have a bathroom” (It’s understood that you do)
- “I have to pee” (Now do something with this information)
- “There appears to be a mistake in this calculation” (it’s understood, this means “You have made a mistake” )
What’s the takeaway? Well, there isn’t one. None of this is expressly good or bad, it just is. And sometimes it’s absolutely hilarious.