Sunday, 19 February 2012

Expressing demands in Polish and English

The UK Economic and Social Research Council has financed research that shows that "expressing needs in Polish could sound rude or ill mannered when Polish speakers use them to construct sentences in English". I don't know how much it cost, but they could have given me the money and I would have told them that.

My line of England/English based thought has been that Polish are not polite to each other when asking for things - demanding rather than asking, not saying 'please' and rarely 'thank you'; they do not expect this and there is no social demeanour in this ; they are not therefore being rude; although they are not being polite (which they see as an English oddity) they are not therefore being impolite.

There is a published research paper in pdf format, Zinken_A grammatical environment that focuses on the use of the word 'trzeba', which is generally translated 'it is necessary' and 'one must/should/ought'. This calls on external forces, rather than person opinion, when one person wants someone else should do something.

Looking through the conversations quoted in the paper, it seems to me that the closest English translation in several of them would in fact be 'don't you think you should...?'. There are additional words to give strength of feeling so that my summary translations are:

Boy leaves room without finishing his meal. Father to Mother: "Don't you think that maybe you should bring him back". Mother "I'm going".

Mother playing with children. Father to mother: "Don't you think you should phone Mum?". Mother carries on playing... Mother points "The telephone's on the fridge". Father leaves. (I can almost hear her thinking "No, I don't think I should phone her, I think you should phone her".)

Father has indicated that he will phone to see what time their daughter needs to be collected after a trip. Mother: "It's 3 O'clock." Father nods distractedly. Mother: "Don't you think that you really should call the lady?". Father: " Half past will be fine as they have to stop at another place first."

Joerg Zinken doesn't make this link, perhaps because he is focusing on the apparent non-personal nature of 'trzeba' and attempting to make a single English equivalent for the various uses of 'trzeba'. He is also focusing on the way Polish is different, whilst I feel he is missing out in not trying to analyse what fundamentals are involved in both.

In both versions, the speakers are really saying "I think you should" but in neither do they say anything about themselves. In Polish, there is direct appeal to the external and impersonal power of family obligation: 'family obligation means that you should bring him back/phone'. The English version appeals to the person's view of the family obligation: 'don't you think that family obligation means that you should...'. It is clear from the examples that no one is fooled by the Polish lack of a question as the answers imply 'yes/no' and 'you are right/wrong'. The difference in form seems to be part of the formal language construct not of communication content.

I wondered whether pure justification by externalities might be more effective in dominant relationships, but the sarcastic "don't you think" in English might, if anything, be more powerful. There are variations that might be less so, but will often be toned down versions that don't seem to make the intended assertion eg 'do you think' and 'we should do something', but which still in practice mean 'I think you should'. Doubtless Polish works the same way.

I don't therefore find myself any further forward in considering the inherent, rather than cross-cultural, levels of powerful assertion in Poland. However, I have not personally found 'trzeba' used very often - much less than in the quoted conversations. I am much more likely to be told what I must do, which is very unusual in my English experience. "I think you should", "don't you think", "wouldn't it be a good idea if" are generally irrelevant and unnecessary. There is no less constraint on my disagreeing just because I have been given linguistic commands.

Ultimately, however, this brings me back to where I started. The English don't like being given commands in English because they have got used to a language that makes it seem that they decide for themselves. The Polish don't mind being given commands in Polish because they have got used to ignoring them and equally decide for themselves.

Finally, I have to contradict my own "line of thought' views in the second paragraph above. I am pretty sure that there are levels of politeness in family speech in Poland in Polish. Maybe my cultural barrier is too high to see it clearly; perhaps I am too intimate to the conversation; my language knowledge itself is very rough and such subtleties doubtless pass me by. I keep listening and (since the two cannot be separated in communication) watching, so maybe I will figure out something some day.

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