The latest issue of the Economist is a special holiday double issue (covering December 19 through January 1), with a large number of feature stories: among them, “Socrates in America: Arguing to Death”, “Filth: The Joy of Dirt”, and at least two pieces straightforwardly about language. The first of these is “Politeness: Hi there” (beginning on p. 104). I’ll post later about the other.
This is just a note about the piece, which is clearly based on considerable investigation into the literature (alas, vast) on politeness in language. It’s not just lists of “what everybody knows”, “what I heard at the pub”, and the like. It goes some way towards untangling formality/informality, taking (or not taking) account of other people’s needs, friendliness/coolness, social closeness/distance, social dominance/subordination, social acceptance/rejection, and so on. It doesn’t, of course, discriminate these in detail, but for a short magazine piece it’s unusually nuanced, and it cites relevant literature from linguistics, sociology, anthropology, sociolinguistics, and pragmatics.
It looks at the practices of languages and cultures other than those associated with the English language, and it notes historical changes in these practices, suggesting (plausibly, I think) that some of these have been influenced by the practices of American English speakers.
The article does its best not to present itself as an exploration into the meaning of English words — (im)polite(ness) — but as a look at a set of related, or at least overlapping, cultural concepts. Probably some readers just won’t get this, but the author(s) of the article did their best to be clear, in a small space and with a minimum of technical terminology. The Economist doesn’t give bylines — other than pseudonyms — to its writers, so we don’t know who to thank or excoriate in any particular case. That’s a pity here, since the writer(s) should get some credit.