Culture Shock, Positive Face, and Negative Face: Being Polite in Tlaxcala

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Abstract

Recent work on politeness by Lakoff (1973) and Brown and Levinson (1978) provides some underlying principles which allow us to provide an account of contrasting cultural styles which are often a source of major difficulties in cross-cultural understanding. The examples in this paper are largely drawn from the experiences of myself and my husband, who went into the field in Tlaxcala and Puebla convinced that we were warm, friendly, outgoing people. We turned out, however, in contrast to the people among whom we worked, to exemplify an extraordinarily “up-tight” cultural style which is probably widespread among professional-managerial North Americans, including a good many anthropologists. An understanding of politeness principles proposed here may allow other field anthropologists working in similar contexts to modify their behavior to avoid many of the problems of misunderstanding and genuine full-blown “culture shock” which we experienced.

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