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Courtesy in Bloom

Kamila Grzeœkowiak, from Radom, was one of the winners of a British Council competition in 2000. Her prize was a course in the UK, at the Westbourne Academy, Bournemouth, and during her stay there she was struck by certain aspects of British courtesy. Read on and find out more!

Do you, learners of English, ever wonder whether repeating and trying to remember various everyday English expressions, such as 'Excuse me, could you tell me where the nearest taxi rank is?' has any value other than in exams? Well, I must admit that such things crossed MY mind until last February when I got a letter from the British Council, saying that I had won a language course in England.

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The polite question mentioned was the one I had to ask on arrival in Parkstone, a picturesque part of Poole with lots of reddish-brown semi-detached houses on either side of each street. What struck me most was the kindness of the petite septuagenarian, who happened to leave Safeway's just after my getting off the coach. Not only did she show me where to go to phone for a taxi, but she also wanted to give me a hand with the luggage (which wasn't a very wise thing to do-you don't travel from Poland to England with a handbag and a tiny suitcase!). I was really surprised, too, when the taxi driver briskly got out of the car and helped me put the bags into the boot. I immediately thought of Polish taxi drivers who usually do not make the slightest effort to help you, apart from pressing the right button and waiting for the boot to open.

In spite of all the stereotypes about reluctance towards foreigners, the English turn out to be an extremely polite and open nation. If you are lost, either because you have admired the spectacular views of the Dorset countryside and you've taken the wrong road, or because you have been eager to find that small tattoo shop in Christchurch Road in Bournemouth, you will always find someone to tell you the right way. Or it's more probable this someone will find YOU. When my German friends and I were trying to get out of the maze of Georgian houses in Bath, a man came up to us, and, seeing the number plate of our car, asked in broken German whether we needed any help. It was thanks to him that I saw the Royal Crescent!

Nevertheless, you sometimes have the impression that the English exaggerate with their politeness. Words such as 'thank you' or 'please' are so overused, especially by shop assistants and cashiers, that they become mechanical and then don't mean anything at all. Have you ever heard a Polish shop assistant say 'thank you' five times within two minutes? In England they say it when you hand in the thing you want to buy, when you give them the money, when they give you the change, when you get your purchase, when you leave the shop...

I do think, however, this English politeness and optimistic attitude sets an example which all the Poles should follow. Is there anything wrong with being nice to the people we meet every day? And if you still do not believe that the things described above are true, go to a crowded English department store and, 'inadvertently', tread on somebody's foot. A second later you are bound to hear another useful expression: 'Oh, I'm so sorry. Are you all right?'

Discussion Points:

It is said that British people hear intonation before words, and that a polite intonation pattern (rise then fall), is more important than polite phrases (e.g. “Do you think you could possibly…..?”).

  1. How is politeness expressed in Polish?
  2. Can you recall times, either in Poland or other countries, when you felt that people have been impolite to you?
  3. Have you ever caused offence to people from a different country through a lack of awareness of their culture?
  4. Are, as Kamila suggests in her article, some forms of politeness only ‘mechanical’, a learned set of fixed phrases?

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