Insights into Culture in conversation: why the way we speak means more than just words

Before starting on the real topic of this article, it should be said that when we talk about English speakers, we aren’t talking about a single culture. That would be impossible. Native English speakers come from all over the globe and even within Great Britain, there are four different nations involved, each with their own accent, dialect and expressions. However, seeing as England is the country closest to the Netherlands, it is the conversational culture of the English that we are discussing here.

So what do we mean by culture in conversation?

Well, think of it this way. We all have customs and habits that we recognise as belonging to our own culture, don’t we? There are all the usual stereotypes that are probably quite outdated in most cases, such as the one that goes ‘all the English eat bacon and eggs for breakfast,’ a belief that is very far from the truth. However, there is one notion about the English that still prevails here in the Netherlands and this is their reputation of being very polite.

I’m not sure if the perception is completely accurate, but it’s probably true to say that in business, courtesy is still considered to be very important to the English speaker. As a result, people in customer focused positions are trained to speak in a polite way and to be friendly with it.  So when foreigners encounter English speakers in the line of their work, they might well be seeing the best side of the Brits.

But what makes their conversation polite? And why is it part of the culture of English conversation?

Here’s the theory: historically, Britain has always had a monarchy – that is, except for one very short period when they tried having a republic under Oliver Cromwell. He wasn’t very popular, though, and neither was the whole notion of a republic, so it wasn’t long before the monarchy was back on top. Kings, as we all know, had courts where all the beautiful and noble people gathered and behaved in a ‘courtly’ manner. It is from this perhaps contrived way of interacting that we get our word ‘courteous.’

Thus it was that courteous or courtly behaviour was what was deemed appropriate in polite company, a tradition that became embedded in the British national character and part of the culture. Since monarchies in the past were very hierarchical societies too, it was also expected that courteous speech was used to address anyone in a superior position. To some extent, this culture was exported to the far reaches of the world when Britain had its empire. However, here in Europe, the reputation for being ‘so polite’ is given to the English and not so much to all their linguistic cousins.

Cultural differences in conversation with the Dutch

The way the culture of courtesy is manifested in conversation is often a matter of much amusement among learners of English here in the Netherlands. While there is a monarchy now, the Dutch have not always had their own king or queen. For many spells in its history, the country was governed by other more powerful states and rulers. In fact, it has only been an independent monarchy since 1815. Consequently, it’s generally recognised that the Dutch culture was built on the cooperation and equality needed to maintain dykes and keep out the sea, and not on the kind of hierarchical society that a monarchy tends to foster.

With this as the national background, courtly or courteous speech with all its nuances and careful wording designed to avoid offending people is not a Dutch custom. That isn’t to say the Dutch aren’t or can’t be polite; this isn’t true at all. They just don’t use all the extra words English speakers feel impelled to use when being well-mannered.

The cultural confusions of being courteous

As an example, in Dutch, if you are asking someone if they want something to drink, the question is direct and straightforward: “Wil je koffie of thee?” (Do you want coffee or tea?) whether it is someone you know or not.

In English, we would only be this direct with people we know well, not to a guest, client or stranger. Instead, we would feel the need to add more to the questions, such as: Would you like a cup of coffee, or maybe tea?” A straight ‘Do you want?’ would be considered too…well…harsh, or even bold.

The same goes for the answer. It would be unthinkable to respond without a ‘yes please’ or ‘no thank you’ in English. Just ‘yes’ or ‘no’ simply sounds unfinished. It isn’t even about being polite for the sake of it; it’s about custom, and as such, that is the culture of their conversation.

The consequence of these language differences is that it can take some getting used to on both sides. Many English people arriving in the Netherlands for the first time are shocked by the slightly ‘stripped’ style of the speech, the lack of softeners or verbal cushions in the Dutch style of interaction. Dutch people, on the other hand, find the English obtuse and even dishonest in their speech.

“Why don’t you say what you mean?” is an often heard complaint, or “Get to the point, can’t you?” which is something that’s very difficult for the English speaker to do, as the words just won’t come out without the extra frills.

So although these theories are what might be termed ‘common knowledge’ rather than carefully researched fact, they go some way to explaining why the way we speak is so much part of our culture. In that sense, language is so much more than a communication tool. It is a reflection of a country’s history and development, and from which we can learn a great deal about its people.

  • Valerie Poore - LTC - 2019

    Valerie Poore
    Valerie Poore was born and raised in England but later moved to South Africa where she gained experience in Marketing and Communications, both as a practitioner and as a trainer. She returned to Europe in 2001 and has been working for the Language and Training Centre (EUR) as a freelance teacher and trainer since 2002. During this time, she gained her Master’s in TESOL, specializing in English for academic purposes. Valerie currently teaches writing skills to both business and academic students. In addition, she writes articles for magazines, as well as publishing her own books.