University of Nottingham book delves into the art of politeness

Are politeness norms really in decline? A new book by a University of Nottingham academic answers this long-debated question, revealing the important role politeness still plays in our work, our relationships and our lives.

Polite: The Art of Conversation at Home at Work and in Public by Louise Mullany, professor of sociolinguistics in the School of English, explores how unwritten rules of politeness influence all our communication, from talking to colleagues about problems at work, to dealing with difficult family members, to wondering whether to take the last chocolate from the box.

In Polite, Professor Mullany reveals practical communication tools for civility, including the art of political apology – something that was on display in the television debates and media coverage in the run-up to and after the British general election.

By analysing key political events, she explains the importance of apologies in public life, including how to check the authenticity of delivery and the sincerity of an apology. Who can forget the Partygate scandal and its aftermath? Boris Johnson’s multiple ‘apologies’ included his defence that he believed he had not broken the rules. Rishi Sunak’s first words when he stepped down as prime minister last week were “I want to say first of all that I am sorry”, an apology for failing to deliver what voters wanted.

She also examines when things go wrong for politicians from a civility perspective, such as when microphones are accidentally left on and we gain access to politicians’ private thoughts in public. She also examines how politicians can suffer reputational damage for communications that were never intended for a public audience.

Another area of ​​political communication she examines is what happens when politicians swear in formal situations. Donald Trump has broken the mold for many civility communication norms in global politics, and Professor Mullany analyzes the importance of civility and impoliteness by politicians worldwide, including in online spaces.

Louise Mullany

“Trump’s use of profanity and other unique aspects of his leadership style, including his refusal to apologize, are strategies that run sharply counter to the traditional norms of political leaders. While online spaces have provided politicians with tremendous opportunities to communicate with their constituents, Trump has faced numerous challenges with the reliability and authenticity of his messages. Social media can also be very costly. Many politicians around the world have also been subjected to unprecedented levels of incivility and insults online.”

Professor Mullany, who has been studying politeness and communication for over 25 years, breaks down deep-rooted cultural myths and stereotypes about politeness. For example, are women really more polite than men? And are younger generations really corrupting language, causing politeness norms to decline?

She added: “There are a number of politeness stereotypes that still circulate in popular culture based on gender, age and social class. One of the aims of the book is to debunk these stereotypes and enable readers to make more discerning judgments about the behaviour of others based on scientific research principles of politeness.”

Polite has recently conducted collaborative research with companies and organisations of all sizes, from SMEs and charities to large multinationals. The research explores how politeness theories and approaches can be used to improve effective communication in the workplace and resolve miscommunication and conflict, so that we can all communicate more effectively.

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