Why are young people not polite today?

Prof. Dr. Eva Neuland researches manners. She interviewed schoolchildren all over the Bergisches Land.

Interview conducted by Melanie Aprin

A three-day international conference was recently held at the Bergische Universität Wuppertal. It was about linguistic courtesy. What made humanities scholars from all over the world come to the Bergisches Land and discuss politeness?

Eva Neuland:We have been researching and publishing in Wuppertal on this very topical topic for some time. I am currently also leading a relevant research project at the Bergische Universität Wuppertal. This apparently convinced the German Research Foundation to support our application for the organization of an international specialist conference. In this way, we were able to investigate the question of whether and to what extent forms of expression of linguistic courtesy have changed at the international level.

The announcement of the event said that there were complaints of a lack of courtesy on the book market and in the press. Journalists themselves are increasingly being targeted - especially on the Internet. Angry or disappointed citizens sometimes accuse them of being politically correct in reporting or in comments or of acting as do-gooders. Are such attributes, although they seem comparatively harmless, already examples of an important topic of the conference, namely rudeness as a means in online protests?

New territory:In the new media, the protection provided by anonymity is actually often used or - better said - abused to carelessly resort to rudeness and insults. In terms of language, these do not necessarily have to be associated with swear words or pejorative evaluations. The expression “do-gooder”, for example, can certainly be used with an insulting intention in the given context and can also be understood that way.

Are we seeing a shift to a culture of rudeness beyond the internet?

New territory:Politeness and rudeness are not precise terms. Linguistic research understands this to mean speech acts that are either more gentle on the face or more threatening to the face. The latter are particularly noticeable in public and are met with indignation, but sometimes also with applause. A possible increase in such conspicuous forms of expression cannot be scientifically proven. However, it is likely that many citizens are unsure of how to express themselves politely, especially when they come into contact with people from other cultures of origin or when they use new media. This can also lead to unintentional violations of politeness standards. But there are also conscious expressions that threaten the face. You shouldn't get applause.

The conference also addressed the question of whether politeness is innate. Is that she?

New territory:Politeness, according to the analysis of a professor from Leipzig, is not innate, but the ability to learn it is. Language education in the home and language education in school are therefore very promising.

A Japanese professor spoke of rudeness as the "downside of politeness". Allegedly, Asians are much more polite than Americans and Europeans. So it is astonishing that a Japanese linguist, of all people, deals with rudeness.

New territory:According to the lecture, rudeness is unfortunately also widespread in contemporary political discourse in Japan, both among well-known politicians, but also in xenophobic statements by citizens.

You yourself spoke at the conference about “dealing with politeness and rudeness from a generational perspective”. So you research the manners of children and adolescents compared to adults. How long has this research project been running?

New territory:In this project funded by the German Research Association, my team and I are dealing with the question of differences in linguistic courtesy between young people and adults. The project has been running for almost a year. We have already carried out many surveys in schools, including those in Remscheid and Solingen, and were allowed to question pupils and teachers and observe them in different situations. We are very grateful for this cooperation. It is an essential prerequisite for school-related language research. The results will also benefit teacher training.

Are teachers dealing with particularly rude students today?

New territory:The findings so far confirm our assumption that adolescents know very well what adults conventionally understand by politeness, but rarely use it with one another. Rather, they have developed forms of politeness and rudeness that are typical of young people and that they often use in jest. This also explains friction and conflicts in conversations between the generations.

So the criticism of the linguistic etiquette is not justified?

New territory:Criticism of the expressions and manners of young people can be traced back to history. However, linguistic youth language research does not evaluate, but tries to descriptively capture changes in the language used by young people and to analyze communication problems between the generations.

Would you still recommend putting more emphasis on better linguistic etiquette in schools and at home? For example, many adults are irritated by the fact that elementary school pupils and even children in secondary schools are allowed to use their terms with their teachers.

New territory:The Duzen of teachers is to be seen in children as a phase of language development and to be distinguished from the Duzen of older adolescents who know the norms of the Duzen and Siezen in German and can use the Duzen of teachers as a conscious provocation and facial injury.

How should you proceed in such cases?

New territory:By having conversations about linguistic manners that are never superfluous and should be cultivated both at home and at school.

Is the impression that many young people are linguistically impoverished actually true? One of the reasons for this is that in the digital world, in which many young people move around for hours a day, the ability to communicate is atrophy.

New territory:A “stunted” communication skills of adolescents cannot be scientifically confirmed.

VITA The renowned youth language researcher Eva Neuland taught German and didactics of the German language at the Bergische Universität Wuppertal from 1995 to 2013. The professor emeritus, who has taught not only in Wuppertal, but also at various universities in Germany and abroad, is one of the editors of the magazine “Der Deutschunterricht” with studies on everything to do with German. Neuland's main research interests include the use of language by young people and linguistic politeness. She is investigating the latter at schools in the Bergisch city triangle, among others. The empirical studies with our own team at the University of Wuppertal will run until 2018.