First-order politeness in rapprochement and distancing cultures: Understandings and uses of politeness by Spanish native speakers from Spain and Spanish nonnative speakers from the U.S.

María Jesús Barros García and Marina Terkourafi


The close link between politeness and culture has often been highlighted, with some scholars having proposed taxonomies of cultures based on the diverse uses and conceptions of politeness. Generally, research (Hickey 2005; Ardila 2005) places Spanish-speaking cultures in the group of rapprochement cultures, which relate politeness to positively assessing the addressee and creating bonds of friendship and cooperation; and English-speaking cultures in the group of distancing cultures, which primarily use politeness to generate respect and social differentiation. This means that English politeness is not only supposed to be different from Spanish politeness, but diametrically opposed to it. The main goal of this study is to check these predictions against the understandings and use of politeness by native speakers of Spanish from Spain and nonnative speakers of Spanish from the U.S. Thus, this research is grounded in first-order politeness norms, which are then correlated with the informants’ behavior as reported in written questionnaires. The results confirmed these predictions and further showed that the more advanced learners were able to align themselves better with Spanish norms. Nevertheless, even they found some aspects of Spanish politeness –– such as the turn-taking system –– harder to adapt to, suggesting that certain aspects of native norms may be more difficult to abandon. We propose that firstorder notions of politeness may be prototypically structured, with some aspects being more central to its definition and therefore less easily foregone than others.

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