Ethnocentrism, Politeness and Naming Strategies

Francesca Bargiela, Corinne Boz, Lily Gokzadze,
Abdurrahman Hamza, Sara Mills, and Nino Rukhadze


This article examines the way that ethnocentricism, and in particular Anglocentrism, informs certain linguistic strategies in cross-cultural encounters between British and American speakers and speakers of English from other countries. We argue that for many British and American speakers informality is taken to be an indicator of ease of communication with strangers, and that there is often an attempt to move towards first name terms as quickly as possible. However, within other cultures and language groups, these involvement politeness strategies are often seen as overly familiar and even impolite, since distancing or deferent politeness strategies are conventionally used in interactions with strangers. We examine the way that involvement or distancing strategies are used in English, Italian, Arabic and Georgian and we then go on to examine the effects that a range of different options in relation to naming might have. We conclude that British and American speakers of English must question the assumption that involvement politeness strategies are interpreted by others in the way that they are intended, and we argue that it is a form of ethnocentricism to regard them as superior to other strategies. We suggest that a greater understanding of and respect for the functions of formality and deference in other languages is needed.

Key Words: politeness; naming; involvement strategies; deference



Although as a sociolinguistic phenomenon, politeness boasts a varied and expanding theoretical baggage (Eelen 2001), there are still many areas of social behaviour commonly associated with it that have not been researched empirically. One of them is naming in first-time, dyadic encounters, a potentially delicate interactional moment, particularly in inter-cultural settings. Whilst in intra-cultural encounters, norms are often assumed to be shared, and if they appear to be clashing they can be renegotiated relatively easily, in inter-cultural encounters, different tacit and often conflicting interactional norms and assumptions are usually at work, which speakers tend to take for granted until misunderstanding arises. Arguably, the ethnocentric tendency that assumes that ‘our way must be everybody else’s way, too’ is particularly visible in first time contacts among speakers from different cultures who are not attuned to the norms of other cultures. Here, ‘pragmatic transfer’, that is, the transfer of pragmatic skills from one language context to another, and the adoption of a certain flexibility in relation to the function of utterances in other languages, has not occurred (Zegarac and Pennington, 2000). Not only are ethnocentric interactants unaware of their listeners’ cultural profiles, but they are also unaware of their own culture-bound preferences and their relative value in intercultural situations. In short, it is temptingly easier, because seemingly ‘natural’, to behave with members of other cultures as if they belonged to our own, particularly if we meet them on our home ground. Although, intuitively, this ethnocentric tendency is a widespread phenomenon, it is more clearly noticeable in contact situations between language users of unequal international status.

English speakers who are more (own and other) culture-sensitive may wish to argue that there is a specific form of ethnocentrism associated with their own language, that is ‘Anglocentrism’, which we broadly define as a potentially discriminatory stance which assumes a self-evident superiority of all things British or American. This ethnocentricism is ‘kept in place’ through being underpinned by neo-imperialism and a relatively new form of capital accumulation, political organisation and power relation termed ‘Empire’ by Hardt and Negri, to distinguish it from older forms of imperialism (Hardt and Negri, 2000). In this article, we examine the way that ethnocentrism, in general, and ‘Anglocentrism’ in particular, seem to manifest themselves in initial encounters between speakers of different languages. We focus on naming strategies as a little-studied aspect of politeness negotiation in new encounters, which can potentially affect the outcome of the meeting.(1)

Ethnocentrism and Anglocentrism

It could be argued that ‘Anglocentrism’ represents a facet of the wider phenomenon that social theorists have labelled ‘Eurocentrism’. Eurocentrism is a form of implicit ethnocentrism which has been described by many post-colonial theorists (Shohat and Stam,1994). Anglocentrism is that complex relation between British colonial rule and the production of information about the colonies in the nineteenth century and the more recent American role as international ‘police force’, in organisations such as NATO and the World Bank; such Anglocentric positions of supposed moral superiority and rationality are arguably founded on unequal power relations. Masquerading as ‘common-sense’, Eurocentric/Anglocentric knowledge works in two ways: firstly, it poses Western forms of social organisation and conventions as the common-sense norm or as the standard (and hence, implicitly posing other forms of social organisation as aberrant). Thus, Western forms of rationality are posed as a universal base-line rationality against which other forms of rationality are perceived as debased (Pratt, 1992). Western metropolitan-based capitalism is seen to be the model for civilisation against which other forms of social organisation are viewed as ‘developing’ or ‘primitive’. Secondly, Eurocentrism/Anglocentrism assumes that European forms of thought and ways of behaving are not simply the norm, but are also better than any other knowledges and behaviours. Eurocentrism has developed over centuries of colonial expansion and rule, and even though British imperialism ended in the 20th century, American neo-colonialism seems to fuel current Anglocentric thinking, both within Britain and America. Whilst Shohat and Stam argue that Eurocentrism is largely at the moment being developed by ‘the "neo-Europeans" of the Americas, Australia and elsewhere’ (Shohat and Stam, 1994:1), we would argue that it is important to analyse the distinctness of the form of Eurocentrism associated with those who speak the English language, which we will be calling ‘Anglocentrism’. We will be primarily concerned to compare Anglocentrism as manifest in naming choices in first time encounters with strategies employed by speakers of other languages (Georgian, Russian, Arabic, Italian and Dutch).

Politeness and Universalism

It has been observed that ‘[t]he question of universality is a specifically modern question that only emerges on the horizon when societies are made insecure by the anthropologists’ revelation of a multitude of human forms of life’ (Ehlich, 1992:107). Brown and Levinson argued that there are indeed universals in politeness, but the politeness strategies that they detail are, in fact, based on those which seem most appropriate for English-speakers; thus, they assume implicitly that speakers are most concerned about ensuring that their own individual needs are met, and that others are not imposed on (Brown and Levinson, 1978, 1987).(2)

In individualistic, broadly ‘liberal’ late capitalist cultures like Britain and America (especially within white middle class subcultures), perhaps this assumption that individualism is the ‘natural’ model for understanding others is justified, but in many other cultures, such as China, Greece and Japan where the relation between the individual and the group is much more important in terms of deciding on politeness strategies, such a focus on individual atomistic needs cannot be sustained (Fukushima, 2000; Sifianou, 1992). Therefore, it is perhaps not surprising that much of the critique of Brown and Levinson’s notions of ‘face’ and ‘politeness’ should target the claim of ‘universality’.

Speaking from the standpoint of cultures which are significantly different from Britain and America (e.g. Chinese, Spanish, Zulu) some linguists have argued for a more sophisticated conceptualisation of ‘face’ (Gu 1990, Hernandez-Flores 1999; de Kadt 1998); others have produced evidence that points to the need to view politeness as less dependent on face wants alone.(3) For example, in Mainland Greece and Cyprus, solidarity in in-group relationships motivates the widespread use of diminutives (Terkourafi, 1999). On the other hand, status, as a fundamental societal value in cultures as diverse as Russia, Mexico and Zululand requires the use of normative politeness, which takes precedence over, or is woven into, strategic and volitional politeness which is the norm in Northern European and North American society (Rathmayr, 1999, Garcia, 1996, de Kadt, 1998).(4)

Arguably, such a cognitive, individualistic, and antagonistic characterisation of the (Anglo-American) interactants outlined in the Brown and Levinson’s model is too narrow to accommodate the social needs of the ‘interdependent self’ that seem predominant in other cultures (Kitayama and Marcus, 1994). The pragmatic notion of ‘politeness’ enacted by interactants in non-Anglophone cultures will be affected by personal and interpersonal needs and group and social norms which are incompatible with Brown and Levinson’s model. In such cultures, e.g. Southern European, South American and Arabic-speaking cultures, open displays of ‘positive politeness’ usually enhance the positive face of both interactants through self-affirmation and cement the new or existing relationship. At the same time, the threat to negative face is minimal or non-existent, as distance (both physical and interactional) is generally less than in English-speaking cultures.(5) Interestingly, however, the aspect of interactional politeness that is the object of this paper seems to contrast with this well-documented behavioural pattern. In fact, naming, particularly in first time encounters, appears to be much more status and hierarchy dependent in the non-Anglophone cultures mentioned above. Therefore, titles and last names are employed quite regularly where British and American speakers would choose first name address.

Positive and Negative Politeness: involvement and distancing strategies

Brown and Levinson’s characterisation of politeness strategies as either positive (paying attention to the others’ face needs) or negative (ensuring that the other is not imposed on) has been modified by Scollon and Scollon (1995). The Scollons assert that it is preferable to refer to such strategies as ‘involvement’ or ‘distancing strategies’ as this terminology avoids the implicit evaluation contained in Brown and Levinson’s terms. They also suggest that ‘the concept of face has built into it both aspects: involvement and independence must be projected simultaneously in any communication’, but they go on to argue that ‘the reason involvement and independence are in conflict is that emphasising one of them risks a threat to the other’ (Scollon and Scollon, 1995: 38).

Indeed, the ‘involvement’ strategies which British and American speakers generally use when they first meet a stranger can create great unease and difficulty on the part of the foreign language speaker. Most British and American people of a particular age range (i.e. under around 40-50 years of age) in initial encounters insist on first names being used as quickly as possible, whether the interaction is between relative equals or those in a hierarchical relation. Reciprocal first name use seems often to be taken by British and Americans to indicate that the encounter with a stranger is proceeding well and that a certain equality and ease of interaction has been established. However, for many foreign speakers of English, this strategy of first name use produces embarrassment caused by seeming overfamiliarity. Involvement strategies and seeming egalitarianism in general are viewed by Americans and British as self-evidently better than the hierarchical and deferent alternatives which are often preferred by certain other language groups in such encounters (which include the use of formal titles, such as Doctor, Professor, Mr. or Mrs.). Therefore, these involvement strategies are insisted on, so that very often the foreign language user is corrected by the native speaker if she or he uses a more ‘distancing’ strategy. This is a misapprehension caused by misunderstanding pragmatic interactional rules employed in countries where ‘participants are considered to be equal but treat each other at a distance’, through using the analogy of the way that formality and distancing generally functions within British or American societies (Scollon and Scollon, 1995:44).

Cross-cultural Naming Strategies

There are significant differences in the linguistic behaviours of English speaking groups, for example, Americans, Australians and British, particularly in relation to politeness. However, in recent years, the naming strategies of these groups have tended to become more similar, for a variety of social and political reasons. As mentioned above, the general rule in English speaking cultures is that you move to first name terms as soon as possible. If this is achieved then it is felt that an equal relationship has been established.

However, it must be borne in mind that this use of reciprocal first names is relatively recent for British speakers and for many British people over the age of fifty it is still quite difficult to call someone to whom they have not been introduced by their first name. This stems from the practice of middle class usage which was in force until the 1960s at least of reciprocal title + last name for people with whom one wished to maintain a certain distance or with whom one was not familiar, and reciprocal last name or reciprocal title + last name for those with whom one was familiar but not intimate.(6) Thus, we should not assume that all British people are comfortable with the first name only ‘rule’ in initial encounters.

Furthermore, there are many situations in Britain today where the use of the first name feels inappropriate or overfamiliar to many English speakers: for example, when a shop assistant uses your first name in addressing you, having read it on your credit card, or for those shop assistants and air-cabin crew who have to wear name badges, when they are addressed by their first name by their customers/clients. It should not be considered that reciprocal first name use is widespread throughout British culture, as there are still many situations where title + last name use is more common, for example, reciprocal title+last name are generally used in interviews for jobs, in doctors’ surgeries (with adult patients), when dealing with business clients either over the phone or face-to-face, and other situations where a certain institutional or contextual formality or distance is involved.

However, first name use has become acceptable in a certain range of contexts in recent years where previously last name use or title + last name would have been employed; for example, reciprocal first name use for staff and students is common in British universities.(7) More senior, older staff often receive title + last name and give first name to students. This use of first names with relative strangers seems to be part of the Americanisation of British culture and indicative of what Fairclough terms ‘synthetic personalisation’ - the seeming familiarity with groups of others with whom one is not acquainted (Fairclough, 1992 and Choulariaki and Fairclough, 1999). This ‘synthetic personalisation’ is part of a larger societal change which has been brought about largely through changes in commercial strategies within a multinational, global (i.e. American) capitalist phase in British culture (Hardt and Negri, 2000). Thus, reciprocal first name use may be seen to be prevalent in certain contexts which are particularly marked by the influence of American norms, or which seem to be setting themselves within a ‘global’ context, for example, certain types of business encounters.

In other cultures, there are similar involvement strategies at work in naming. In Georgian, it is also the case that reciprocal first name use is moved towards as rapidly as possible. Russians, however, usually address each other and like to be addressed by the first name and patronymic (Rathmayer, 1999). In interactions between Georgians and Russians this clash of naming practices can often cause misunderstandings. For example, when one of the Georgian contributors to this article was staying at a hospital in Moscow, she wished to signal her friendliness towards the young woman doctor who was standing in for the professor/consultant who was treating her, and she therefore asked her if she could address her informally, (in Russian):

[1] A: mèzna j’ vas budu nazivat’ galicka ?

May I call you "Galichka"? ( The informal short form for "Galina")

B: net, pèzaluísta

No, please, don’t

This use of the informal diminutive would have been appropriate in Georgian. The doctor rejected this, as in Russian this would have been seen as insufficiently deferential. In a similar vein, when a Lithuanian man was staying at a Russian friend’s house; the daughter-in-law of the friend complained, since the Lithuanian when speaking in Russian, called her by her first name instead of the more respectful usage of first name + patronymic:

[2] A: nepanímau kak èn mèk mê’na’ nazvat’ Tan’ícka v prísutstvíí prapesèr’e í vraceí

I can’t understand how he could have called me Tanechka in the presence of the professor/consultant and the doctors.

The rejection of first name use is due in both cases to clashes in the apprehension of the cultural value of these strategies within other cultures. The Russians here seem reluctant to admit the Georgians and Lithuanians into their discourse systems, and also seem to be unwilling to recognise that there are different meanings associated with first name use in other cultures.

To illustrate the complexity of the way that, in Georgian, status, age and familiarity affect the use of names and titles, let us examine naming practices amongst hospital staff, where these variables clearly impact on the choice of name. In doctor-patient relationships in Georgia the following regularity can be observed: among staff members first-name address is common with physicians of the same age group and status, whereas professors/consultants, elderly staff members and newly appointed physicians are addressed by honorifics + first name. Interestingly enough, the patients staying at hospital for treatment address their doctors by the first name + ‘doctor’ (Rusiko ekimo), whereas patients visiting the hospital for treatment address their doctors using an honorific + first name (Kalbatono Rusiko). Up until the 1970s, the principal professor/consultant was addressed by the honorific batono/Batono + title, although that is no longer the case today. Both male and female professors/consultants are addressed by honorific + first name. Nurses and orderlies are usually addressed by their surname alone. If the latter are older, they are addressed to as ‘aunt’ (deida/Deida) + first name. The nurse may address a doctor with whom he or she has been working for a long time by their first name but in the presence of a patient she would address the same doctor by honorific + first name.

However, as noted above, where power and status differences are not so clearly defined, Georgians, like British and Americans, see reciprocal first name use as indicating affiliation and equality. However the difference between this Georgian usage and British usage lies in the global status of the language as a whole; because of the domination of English as the world language, and the ensuing Anglocentrism, there is a tendency for it to be assumed that first name usage will apply in situations where English is spoken between native and non-native speakers, even when reciprocal first name use is not the norm for the non-English interactant.

A cross-cultural comparison of address forms in corporate settings in Britain, Italy and the Netherlands (Bargiela-Chiappini and Harris 1997; Nickerson and Bargiela-Chiappini 1996) suggests that the British and Dutch cultures share the preference for first name reference, whereas the unmarked choice in Italian settings tends to be first + last name. Observation of meetings and interviews with British and Italian managers confirm that the respective choices tend to express collegiality (Murphy 1988), but whereas first name use is deemed appropriate in the less formal, seemingly less hierarchical British context, first + last name use is required in more traditional Italian companies, where hierarchy and status concerns are more prominent. Indeed, professional titles are also employed, not only to underline status but also to express respect for the position. In Italian, as in other Romance languages, respect and deference can also be shown by the use of the formal address (Lei; Vous; Usted; Voces), which usually marks first time meetings or asymmetrical encounters, (as defined by age, status or power differential between speakers). The current tendency towards a more widespread use of the informal ‘tu’, especially by young people, has not yet reached institutional settings: students still address their teachers as ‘Professor’ (a universal title for teachers in secondary and higher education), and sometimes use the less formal ‘Prof’ as a vocative address, in secondary schools.

In Georgian, however, children in a nursery school address their teachers as ‘aunt’(’deida’) + first name; secondary school teachers by mas (which is short for ‘teacher’); and university professor by honorific Batono + first name or Kalbatono + first name, irrespective of age and marital status. In a similar way in Georgian, shen and tkven are the singular and plural pronoun which are used to express distance and politeness. The tu / shen form in Georgian used to be the form used to express respect. Shen Mepeo/Sen mefeo was the form of respectful address to kings. This kind of respectful ‘tu’ seems to be obsolete in present day Georgian as a result of Russian influence. In Georgian today, the singular form is restricted to addressing family members, close friends, relatives and you /Tkven is used in more formal contexts.

In order to illustrate the effect that the use of a name might have in a cross-cultural interaction, we should consider the example which the Scollons give, of a misunderstanding which arose between a Chinese and American businessman (Scollon and Scollon, 1995). In their anecdote, David Chu and Andrew Richardson (fictional characters we assume) meet for the first time on a plane, and as the conversation progresses, the American says ‘Call me Andy’; the Chinese person gives his business card and the first name on this card is Hon-fai, so Richardson calls him Hon-fai. But this ‘first-name’ is in fact a name which is only used with intimates, and this is the reason why many Chinese who have dealings with the West adopt Western first names. Westerners may try to use the Chinese person’s first name as they feel that they are therefore signalling to them that they are keen not to use a seemingly inauthentic ‘colonial’ Western name but would rather use their ‘real’ Chinese name. Thus signalling their respect for China and its people. However, using the name Hon-fai, in this instance, caused great embarrassment and discomfort, as a stranger was using a name reserved for intimates. Similarly, in Georgian, people generally have two first names: one used by family members, relatives and play-mates and the other by school or university friends and other professional institutions or fellow employees (Table 1). The scope of the usage of each of these two first names is fairly restricted and the substitution of one for the other causes embarrassment.

Intimate name More formal name
Babilina Babulia
Chiora Tamriko
Nincho Nino

Table 1. Naming choices in Georgian

In the Arabic speaking world, the institutional setting is a less important variable than gender in the determination of naming strategies. Naming strategies within the Arabic-speaking world vary, to some extent, from one society to another, and from one cultural group to another. Buda et al. (1998) have pointed out that there are special linguistic utterances that men use when addressing women, and vice versa. In Arabic, because of cultural and religious values, speakers tend to adopt one of two strategies, when they speak to members of the opposite sex, for the first time:

  1. no name or title
  2. Speakers sometimes prefer to use strategies such as As-Salmou Alikoum, (Peace be with you) ; Ahlan (Hello) or any other type of greeting, and leave the naming to some other stage. The main reason for such a strategy is that the speaker does not wish to embarrass his/her addressee or to be embarrassed by choosing a naming strategy. If, for example, a male speaker addresses a female by her first name without a title, then there is a possibility that she will not answer - only her father, brothers, husband or relatives and close friends of the same sex can use her first name. Females rarely use naming strategies with males, for the first time, as this might be wrongly interpreted by the addressee, who might think that she wants to encourage a friendship.

  3. general title

On the first meeting, interlocutors sometimes prefer to use employment-specific or general titles , and leave names for some further stage. For example, a male speaker might use the title Abla, meaning ‘teacher’, when addressing a female, and a female speaker might use Ostath meaning ‘teacher’. Both males and females might use ‘Sieid’ when speaking to an unknown male since this means ‘Mr’ or ‘Sir’. Such impersonal strategies save speakers embarrassing their addressees or being embarrassed by seeming overfamiliar.

Age is one of the factors that affect the speakers’ choice of naming strategy when they meet people for the first time. In Arabic, speakers consider their age relative to their addressee’s age important. Older people can be called Ahami Al-Haj or Haje (someone who has been on a pilgrimage); males can be called Ami (uncle) and females Khalti (aunt) by young people. Older people can use impersonal titles for younger addressees, regardless of their ages, for example, Yawaladi (ya=vocative, oh) my son), Yaibni (ya=vocative, oh), my daughter). If young speakers do not use these impersonal strategies, they are considered impolite.

These forms, in Arabic, Italian, Chinese and Georgian, are part of the apparatus of interactional choices available to individuals not only to achieve specific goals but also to do so in forms that are considered socially appropriate in a given culture. Thus, our argument so far has been that in different cultures, different weight is attached to naming strategies and that those who use what are considered to be inappropriately familiar forms may be considered to be offensive or impolite both personally and in a wider cultural sense. Because people often feel that they represent their culture when they speak to members of other cultures this offence may have wide ranging implications and may lead to the reinforcing of cultural stereotypes.

Culture and Language Repertoire: the functions of stereotypes

Although it is fairly easy to demarcate the stereotypical linguistic attributes of national groups or cultures, (for example, the Finns are silent, the Dutch are very direct, the British are reserved, Americans are brash, and so on), a reliance on stereotypical features blinds us to the way in which the notion of a homogeneous culture is intensely problematic. As Foley argues: ‘If culture is the domain of cultural practices, those meaning-creating practices by which humans sustain viable trajectories of social structural coupling, it is obvious that culture should not be understood as a unified domain whose contents are shared by all’ (Foley, 1997: 21). One’s national identity is cross-cut by other variables such as class, ethnicity, gender, age, education, income, profession and so on, and these variables determine to a large extent the degree to which you will have access to these stereotypes of national linguistic behaviour, or whether you feel affiliated to them - simply put, not everyone feels that they are a stereotypical British person, and therefore they may not feel that they can, or want to, adopt the stereotypical linguistic features of Britishness easily. Thus, a young white working class female shop-assistant may not necessarily feel that she is included in the national characteristics associated with Britishness to the same extent that a white middle class middle-aged businessman might, and therefore their linguistic performance may differ markedly.

That is not to suggest that some of the stereotypical features associated with cultural groups do not have some basis in factual observation of the tendencies of certain members of these cultures, and that these stereotypical features themselves may be adopted and creatively used by members of that culture when they are constructing a particular position for themselves in relation to members of other cultures and even in relation to members of their own culture. However, what we would like to do here is problematize the notion that all members of a culture necessarily speak in consistently similar ways. What we would like to argue is that these stereotypes act as a form of paradigm for linguistic behaviour against which individual members of that culture can position themselves.

Each person, then, constructs their linguistic identity according to the way they position themselves in relation to factors such as their class, age, gender characteristics and their interpretation of their own cultural identity. In other words, they place themselves somewhere along the stereotype paradigm, in relation to the stereotype itself. This means, in some sense, that they must make some sort of hypothesis about what the stereotype consists of, since stereotypes do not exist in any concrete form.(8) When two people from different cultures, for example, a Turkish and an American business executive, meet for the first time they have no way to immediately assess each other’s cultural positioning and therefore cannot easily predict the linguistic behaviour of the other individual. For either individual to be able to do this would require a deep knowledge of the other person’s culture. Without this background information it is impossible to accurately guess at where that person has placed himself/herself along the paradigm and their proximity or distance from the cultural stereotype. Faced with this situation, the only point of reference that the interactants have access to is their hypothesis of the stereotype. By stating that individuals position themselves in relation to the stereotype, we are implying that the stereotype may be a point of reference for a member of another culture to employ. It seems that, to try and estimate their counterpart’s linguistic behaviour, each individual may choose to go with the stereotype option as they have nothing else to fall back on or take a risk and aim at another random point along the paradigm (if the stereotype is considered a valid option then so is any other point). The stereotype, although a valid point of reference, may cause offence. If they make false assumptions about a person and place them at any other random point on the paradigm the results could be equally offensive. If we are arguing that stereotypes act as a form of hypothesised paradigm for linguistic behaviour against which individual members of that culture can position themselves, we then need to consider the strategies that members of other cultures can use to decode or locate that person’s position on the paradigm. People will never be able to pinpoint a person on the paradigm accurately through guesswork but there must be strategies to at least narrow down the field of error. If we can provide strategies for intercultural linguistic encounters we can go some way to narrowing down the opportunity for misunderstandings which may lead to utterances being considered to be impolite. At least by considering the various strategies which are available in naming, it forces us to consider the Anglocentric option of first name only use as only one option among many.

Naming Strategies: approaches and implications

Many would argue that the first name use is appropriate in encounters between relative strangers in English and that if you learn the English language you have simply to adopt these strategies wholesale. In this paper we are arguing for a reconsideration of the ‘When in Rome, do as the Romans do’ philosophy in language use, so that there may be other strategies available to foreign learners of English and to English native speakers when speaking to those foreign learners. It may be the case that foreign language learners may wish to show their affiliation to the target language culture by using the naming strategies of that culture; however, we would argue that this should not necessarily be assumed to be the case.

Accommodation theory would suggest that there may be changes to our conventional usage when we are trying to indicate to our interlocutor that we value them; thus Ylanne-McEwan and Coupland argue: ‘speakers are motivated to reduce linguistic or communicative differences between themselves and their speaking partners under specific circumstances, principally when they want to be approved of and when they want their communication to be more effective’ (Ylanne-McEwen and Coupland, 2000: 190). The type of change which may result from a decision to accommodate to one’s interlocutor might include altering your pronunciation of particular words in line with theirs and using fewer items which would make your dialect or accent noticeably different from your interlocutor’s. In considering the question of naming it might result in trying to adopt the naming strategy which you think your interlocutor is most likely to adopt with you. This however is not an unproblematic linguistic strategy. We would now like to consider the possible strategies which can be used and the possible outcomes of these strategies when used in initial encounters between English speaking natives and non-natives.

A. Open discussion of naming strategies

Simply presuming an individual will be comfortable with a reciprocal first name approach may cause offence and discomfort, as we have mentioned before. In a British or American context, the most obvious way to signal that you are accommodating to another is to consult the individual. A strategy that seems to suggest itself as a way to ensure that everyone in the group is comfortable with the naming strategies employed is thus open informal discussion. Instead of relying on cultural stereotypes, making wild assumptions or simply conforming to the textbook version of an opening strategy in a business conversation, it may be possible to discuss naming strategies; for example, an American company director could discuss naming strategies with the members of a group of foreign executives before proceeding with a meeting. This open discussion provides an opportunity for each individual to articulate their particular preference for what they would like to be called. This allows for non-reciprocal first naming for those who desire it. In this way, the director has attempted to find a way to make all participants comfortable with the naming strategies to be employed and in doing so has tried to make sure that s/he is respecting people’s cultural identity; s/he also shows that s/he is prepared to accommodate to others rather than simply imposing Anglocentric norms.

Although this appears to be an effective way to deal with the situation, we cannot overlook the fact that this strategy also may have complex outcomes. In fact, assuming that negotiation over naming strategies would be acceptable in intercultural meetings may simply be Anglocentrism wrapped in a different package. There are other potential problems with negotiation. If a company director asks business colleagues what they wish to be called, those people who feel that there is a great power-distance relationship between themselves and the director may simply respond with the answer that they think s/he wants to hear. They may feel that his/her question is breaking the bounds of normal business meeting discourse and that, by asking them, s/he is placing him/herself in a vulnerable position. The participants may feel obliged to provide the answer that they think s/he wants to hear in order to extricate him/her from an ‘awkward’ position and help him/her to save face. The naming strategies that they select, therefore, may not be the ones that they feel most comfortable with but the ones that they feel will make the director most comfortable and restore him/her back to the status that they expect of him/her. This consultation over naming might make the company director feel as if s/he is dealing democratically with the problem of politeness and naming strategies, but in fact it would not have achieved its aim. In addition to this problem, some people may feel that the company director is clearly signalling that s/he does not ‘know’ how to address them and is being insensitive to their cultural background. They may feel strongly that there is a certain way that they should be addressed and that to negotiate this is breaking the rules of politeness and formality. If people believe that there is something that they should be called, then it may be considered unacceptable to begin a conversation by asking them which form they would prefer. It is essential to be aware that although open discussion, within an Anglocentric framework, seems the most logical approach, it is not without its own complications.

B. Reciprocal distancing

Rather than automatically assuming reciprocal first name usage, a justifiable alternative would be to employ a certain amount of reciprocal distancing, if it is assumed that the other culture uses more deference and respect markers than English speaking cultures.(9) If each member of the group maintained a certain amount of deferential distance, e.g. through the use of formal naming strategies, then the risk of causing offence to members of other cultures may be reduced. This approach means that the Anglocentric practice of employing first names immediately is not used; instead title + last name is adopted. The non-native English speakers may feel more comfortable if they are allowed to retain a certain distance.

As with the open discussion of naming strategies, reciprocal distancing also has its complications. For this distancing may be perceived by the non-native speakers as not so much an attempt to accommodate to their needs, but as a strategy for keeping them at a distance. In fact, it could be argued that reciprocal distancing does not solve the problem but merely postpones it. If a group of business executives from different cultures meet for the first time and employ a certain degree of reciprocal distancing, then the first meeting may be successful. However, if these meetings continue over a period of time, the group members will face the problem of deciding when this distancing should be dropped. For those people who come from cultures where professional distancing strategies are always employed, this situation will never become uncomfortable, but for those British or American group members who are used to a reciprocal first name approach there will come a point where they feel that familiarity with the group members should mean that the distancing strategies are dropped. This is where the problems arise and where questions such as the following arise: Has the problem just been delayed? Can the distancing strategies be maintained indefinitely? Who starts the process of dropping the formality? Are people continuing at a constructed distance because no-one is sure how to break it down? It seems that the reciprocal distancing approach, although an alternative strategy, poses equal problems of interpretation for interactants.

The consequences of a more flexible approach to politeness strategies, where for example the director of an American company would discuss the naming strategies which each participant from overseas companies would prefer (so that there might be some degree of non-reciprocal first-naming), or where a certain degree of reciprocal distancing might be used by all speakers (i.e. reciprocal use of titles), might lead us to question the assumption that all learners of English simply have to adopt British and American cultural attitudes wholesale. It might also lead to a re-evaluation of deference and distancing strategies, where these may not be regarded in such a negative light.

C. Non-reciprocal usage

This strategy would mean that the non-native speaker would address the native speaker using formal terms (title + last name) and the English speaker would use an informal term, such as a first name. This would have the advantage of both parties using the types of address with which they are familiar; however, this may lead to some confusion. As the Scollons remark: ‘When two participants differ in their assessment of face strategies, it will tend to be perceived as a difference in power’ (Scollon and Scollon, 1995:48). Thus, instead of signalling to the non-native speaker that their cultural norms are respected it might be taken to mean that these politeness norms are being ignored by the native speaker and that the native speaker is indicating that s/he has assessed their positions of power relative to one another in a different way to the non-native speaker.

D. First Name Use

In this strategy the native English speaker would use the informal naming strategies which are most familiar to them and the other speaker would be left to decide whether to adopt these norms or not. This might suggest to the non-native speaker that this was essentially under-accommodation, that is ‘when members of one group resolutely refuse to recognize and adapt to the conventional patterns of usage or the genuine communicative needs of another’ (Ylanne-McEwen and Coupland, 2000:196). Thus, it might signal Anglocentric attitudes to the other speaker and a disregard for their cultural values.

E. Avoidance of Naming

Many British people have adopted the strategy of not using names at all in certain circumstances to avoid the difficulty of finding the appropriate form of address. For example, it used to be relatively acceptable to summon a waiter in a restaurant by calling out ‘Waiter’; however this is a very rare practice now, and saying ‘Excuse me,’ gesturing or trying to catch the waiter’s eye, are now far more common. This avoidance of naming is also made more complicated by not knowing what is the correct name for someone, because of changes in the way that women, in particular, name themselves. Thus, it is not self-evident that the wife of Mr. Jones will be called Mrs. Jones. Nor will it be clear whether a woman wishes to be called Mrs. Miss. or Ms. First name use for women has been identified as problematic, since it is far more frequently used in relation to women than to men and may be considered demeaning, overly familiar and even infantilising (Mills, 1997). Thus, a frequent strategy in Britain, when meeting someone for the first time, is either to wait until they have introduced themselves or have been introduced before using a name, or to use no name at all.(10) However, using no name at all for members of cultures where names play a significant role might be considered to be impolite and distancing, or may be seen to indicate that the speaker has forgotten the person’s name, thus displaying a lack of respect.



Using someone’s name is a very clear way of establishing rapport with them and as we have shown great care has to be taken, in cross-cultural encounters, to decide which form is the most appropriate. We may intend to show solidarity and friendship with our interlocutor but may be understood as showing insufficient deference or being overly familiar. Salzman (1993:177) points out that even in those countries where all citizens are said to be equal because of the presumed classlessness of their societies, forms of address that include titles have retained their importance. Moreover, social differences such as age, education etc., play a role in our communication and ‘comment on’ how we view the state of our relationship. Fraser (1990:220) points out that each society has a particular set of social norms consisting of more or less explicit rules that prescribe a certain behaviour, a state of affairs, or a way of thinking in a context. Being polite means expressing respect or solidarity towards the person you are talking to and avoiding offending them, and being understood by them to be doing that. Nevertheless, because our linguistic politeness strategies are formed within different social and cultural backgrounds, the means by which we show solidarity and rapport may be different.

It is clear from this discussion that decisions about naming strategies and politeness when meeting members of other cultures may be fraught with difficulty. Perhaps, it will always be the case that misunderstandings occur in cross-cultural encounters; as the Scollons remark ‘the calculation of the appropriate level of face strategies … is always inextricably tied to the expression of the hierarchical system of relationship between … the participants.’ (Scollon and Scollon, 1995:49). But what we have shown in this article is that it is not simply the hierarchical relations between participants as individuals, as the Scollons suggest, but rather it is the global relations between languages (and their historical legacy) which have an impact on the way that individuals interact with each other. Our purpose in this article has been to draw attention to the problematic role of ethnocentrism, and Anglocentrism in particular, in relation to politeness strategies, and their interpretation, and to consider alternative strategies, even if they too are equally problematic. This is not to suggest that there is no solution, or indeed to pose intercultural communication as inherently problematic, but to suggest that intercultural communication is one where great tact and thoughtfulness need to be brought into play in order to be able to understand the parameters within which naming strategies are interpreted.



(1) We would like to thank the members of the Cross-Cultural Linguistic Politeness Research Group for comments on an earlier draft, especially Chris Christie and Andrew Merrison;we would also like to thank the anonymous readers of the article. (For more information on the research group, see (back)

(2) At the beginning of their 1987 monograph, Politeness: Some Universals in Language Use, Brown and Levinson pre-empt potential charges of ethnocentrism by pointing out that their dual notion of (positive and negative) face is ‘highly abstracted’ and subject to ‘cultural elaboration’, deriving from distinctive understandings of ‘the nature of the social person, honour and virtue, shame and redemption, and thus to religious concepts’ (p.13). In particular, Brown and Levinson present ‘positive face’ and ‘negative face’ as mutually exclusive (the unidimensionality proposition). Their assumptions that only one type of ‘face’ can be threatened at any given time, and that all FTAs (face-threatening acts) are intrinsic to speech acts and can be analysed by looking at decontextualised utterances (Wilson et al.1991-92:218) cannot be used to support their universality claim (e.g. Lim and Bowers, 1991 and Hwang, 1987). This clash poses serious problems to the intercultural analyst. (back)

(3) The influence of Erving Goffman (1967) and Emile Durkheim (1915) is quite clear and is discussed in more detail in Bargiela-Chiappini (under review). (back)

(4) Making generalisations about cultural norms in this way is part of the problem of Brown and Levinson’s model. Cultures are not homogeneous and the norms we are discussing are primarily those which the dominant and dominant-affiliated groups might agree on, as we argue later in this paper (Foley, 1997). (back)

(5) An area of cultural variation that readily illustrates linguistic politeness preferences is that of greeting rituals, which, whether in informal or professional settings, can range from a two-turn linguistic exchange, to verbal formulae accompanied by embracing and/or kissing. Several meetings with colleagues from northern Europe (Norway, Finland, Belgium and The Netherlands) and southern Europe (Spain, Portugal and Greece) and anecdotes about similar practices in France, provide rich data on the variety of interactional practices, and respective underlying social values. (back)

(6) This brief sketch of naming strategies in pre-1960s British English does not capture the complex aspects determined by gender and class positions; thus, for middle class schoolchildren, last names were used both to each other and by the schoolteacher, whereas title + last name were used to the schoolteacher. Middle class men within the work environment often used last name only to each other, often as an extension of this school practice. However, superiors would receive title + last name and give last name. It could be argued that this greater usage of this non-reciprocal form of naming reflects a far more clearly hierarchised society in Britain before the 1960s and it is partly due to the changes in hierarchy and class which have taken place in society as a whole which have forced a change in naming practices (together with the Americanisation of British culture which we discuss in this article). However, although class differences are less clearly displayed linguistically at present in Britain, many theorists argue that this is because class and status differences have become more naturalised and embedded, thus not requiring the sort of clear reiteration that they did in the past (Skeggs, 1997). (back)

(7) That is not to suggest that all students are comfortable with reciprocal first name use with lecturers; particularly first year students sometimes find first-name use too familiar, since they are used to the non-reciprocal naming practices of school. (back)

(8) We would like to assert that stereotypes themselves do not necessarily exist in any ‘real’ or ‘material’ form. Rather, stereotypes function as a hypothesis made on the part of speakers about what norms and assumptions function within that particular context or community of practice (Mills, forthcoming). (back)

(9) This is quite a big if, because it assumes that S knows H’s culture and the level of deference which is seen to be appropriate in encounters with strangers. (back)

(10) However, even here, there is a difficulty, since introductions are far less formal in contemporary Britain and often people are introduced without their names being given, or with only their first names being given. (back)



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