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Half the World Away : Being polite in Britain

【明報專訊】One thing that might surprise Hong Kongers who have newly arrived in the UK is how polite the British people can be. In a Sainsbury's or Tesco, the two major supermarket chains, people say "sorry" and "thank you" to each other when their trolleys meet in aisles. At the checkout, customers express their heartfelt thanks to cashiers, a kind of etiquette we Hong Kongers might not be too familiar with, we having been so accustomed to being stone-faced to people who serve us in our home city.

Indeed, being polite is in the DNA of the British people, and, coming from a culture that prizes directness and efficiency, we Hong Kongers might find it necessary to learn expressions that make us not to come over as too blunt. There are several tips that you might find useful. The first is to seek permission even though you do not need to on that particular occasion. Imagine that you are in front of a food stall. Say "Can I have two garlic and herb chicken thighs?" rather than "I want two garlic and herb chicken thighs." In situations where you are requesting others' help, seek permission for that request. When asking for directions, for example, say "Can I ask how I can get to Hyde Park?"

The second key is avoiding giving short answers, as they can sound curt at times. Let's suppose you are making an enquiry on the phone. After this has been taken care of, the person over the phone might ask, "Can I advise on anything else today?" A simple "no" would not sound very courteous. "Not today, thanks" would be better, but if you really want to give the impression of being a polite person, perhaps you can say "Thanks for asking, but I have no more enquiries today."

The third key is praise. Let's suppose that you are trying to cancel your subscription to a service. While the real reason you want to do so is that you are too happy about the service, you might want to sound polite to write that "While I have thoroughly enjoyed the service, I am sorry that I am requesting cancellation of my subscription due to a change in other circumstances."

Being polite is, after all, about preserving other people's "face". In linguistics, there is a theory proposed by two famous scholars, Penelope Brown and Stephen C. Levinson, about our "positive" and "negative" faces, which I am not going into detail here. But an awareness of politeness and how much importance the British people attach to it will definitely help us better fit in with the locals.

■Writer's Profile

Terence Yip (葉凱楓) is a Hong Konger living outside Hong Kong. A translator by profession, he is passionate about languages more than anything else, and can be reached at terenceyipmingpao@outlook.com

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