Quick with a laugh, firm with a handshake and engaging in conversation, how so many people found Nathaniel Mitchell to be impolite is anyone’s guess.
“It was like that for years. I never knew why it was happening but it was clear that something about my manner encouraged that perception,” Nathaniel said.
Intrigued more than offended, Nathaniel eventually began exploring perceptions of impoliteness in society, a process that finds him in the third year of a four-year PhD research project in Griffith University’s School of Languages and Linguistics.
He clearly caused no offence at Griffith’s recent Three Minute Thesis Competition, an annual event in which Higher Degree by Research students summarise their research projects and interests to a non-specialist audience.
Nathaniel won the competition and will travel to Sydney for the trans-Tasman final on October 18. If he wins there, he will pocket a $5000 boost to his research funding.
That research is drawn from two data sets, the first involving emails sent between a group of friends whose communications are influenced by workplace protocols; the second examining interaction between strangers, particularly anything that shows perceptions of impoliteness or the suppression of such perceptions.
Through analysis and follow-up interviews, Nathaniel has identified many of the nuances that come into play when people are dealing with impoliteness.
“The use of email and SMS has opened up avenues of expression that normal conversation tends to preclude,” he said. “Even so, while the people who know each other may have high-density email correspondence, there is only so much they can say by only using text within their workplace environments.
“In order to insult each other, they are always finding ways around filters and other restrictions – whether by wordplay, l33t-speak, the use of emoticons and other devices – to maintain a level of fake irreverence or what some may call ‘mock impoliteness’.
“That’s what I find so fascinating, that they seem to be making a choice to not be offended by truly offensive stuff.
“By studying both data sets, I try to discern if and when someone has taken any offence, if they are controlling how offended they are – whether more or less – and if they are making a conscious choice to perceive someone else as impolite.”
Interviewed recently by the Sunday Mail newspaper and 4BC radio, Nathaniel said a common issue governing perceptions of impoliteness was directness of language, especially in English.
“In Australia, to be polite you need to do all these hedges and softeners and other sorts of things,” he said. “We say things like ‘perhaps’ and ‘maybe’. Like ‘Maybe you could lend me some money’ rather than ‘Give me some money’.” The ‘maybe’ seems more polite.
However, Nathaniel believes people are choosing to be rude and anecdotally added that his research data suggests women can be just as impolite as men. Furthermore, he believes this is not something that should be defined by gender, but may just be a universal concept, available to any language user.