A few weeks ago, in March, a French waiter hit the headlines because he contested his dismissal from a Canadian restaurant for his “aggressive tone and nature”. The waiter described himself as more direct than most Canadians and his behaviour was due to his French manner. Does acceptable behaviour differ according to culture? This is why being polite may not be a universal concept.
What is rudeness?
Behaviour that violates organisational or social norms is what defines rudeness. Expectations of behaviour which is and is not acceptable are what we call norms. For example, a norm would indicate we should be quiet in a library.
There are many factors that influence rudeness. This may be a widespread problem in the workplace. Up to 98% of employees will experience rudeness at work and of those, 50% experience it at least once a week. Reducing rudeness is a key focus for many companies because it can have a serious impact on well-being and performance.
Is politeness universal?
One train of thought on this issue is that politeness is universal. This theory is based on the fact that everyone has a public image and that people want to “maintain face”.
It’s believed that this translates into shared rules, such as the use of tact, consideration, empathy and being civil. This is regardless of cultural background.
Is rudeness a universal concept too?
We need to understand that rudeness is a universal concept too. This is the case particularly when someone is attempting to be deliberately offensive. On the other side of the universal argument is the notion that politeness and rudeness are concepts that differ across cultures.
Language and misunderstanding
In many cases, researchers use the level of directness as a measure for politeness in different languages. For example, the Japanese tend to use indirect speech tactics: “Could I possibly bother you for a moment?”, whereas Germans construct phrases more in more direct and short ways: “We need to talk”.
Politeness is not even taken into consideration here in this example. Language pattern differences can lead to misunderstandings and offence where none was intended. It’s important to be aware of possible differences and accommodate them because many workplaces are multicultural.
So, is politeness universal?
It’s not likely. Is rudeness probably based on misunderstandings driven by cultural differences? Possibly. Language-based differences are by no means the only factor but are certainly a part of it. Exploring other factors influencing rudeness is important. With more knowledge, we will be able to better explain this behaviour and avoid being fired from work for “being French”.