Politeness in Student-Teacher Interactions

The social dynamics in the college are quite different from what I expected: students lack some sort of “etiquette” to get around at school; sometimes, colleagues can look indifferent.

Photo by Antonio Janeski on Unsplash

It’s common to receive messages without an opening or closing from students. Many of them don’t say “hi” or “goodbye” before or after class. Some colleagues would look reluctant to greet each other (not to mention the silent resentment on some faces).

Old-fashioned people (like me) often complain about it. My wife’s advice: that’s the way things are nowadays. It is hard to gain “face” from peers or those who are younger than you.

Gaining and Losing “Face”

“Face” is one of the factors when we consider “politeness”: how we want to be perceived by others, as well as what image we want to portray before others.

One kind of face involves our desire to be recognized and approved. For example, I as a teacher in college wants to be recognized as authoritative, intellectual and potentially virtuous. This is called “positive” face, and to give me positive face, one is to praise me, thank me or appreciate what I say or do.

Another kind of face has to do with our desire to be free — the freedom of choice and from imposition. An example would be asking for my permission to submit your term paper late. Instead of commanding me to comply, you have to let me choose: granting you an extension or sticking with the deadline. This is called “negative” face, and I gain negative face by your apologizing (for having me do something for you), asking in place of demanding, or offering options.

I can gain face, and I can lose face, too. If you don’t address me properly or show gratitude for whatever you ask for, you challenge my positive face; I don’t feel good as a result. Likewise, if I’m imposed to do things or not allowed to make choices, you challenge my negative face; I feel like being bossed around. These acts of challenging my face are called Face Threatening Acts (FTAs).

(Self-comforting) Ways to Interpret “Less-politeness”

So how are we to understand scenarios in which students or colleagues are “less polite”?

The effort in engaging in “face work” (not face lift) has mainly to do with social distance. It’s not just about how you wish to draw yourself closer to the others, but also about how your counterpart wishes to be close to you. After all, as we value individual freedom over social norms nowadays, politeness is up to individual’s personal choice. Negative consequences arising from impoliteness seem less significant in tertiary or workplace settings, in which you don’t get punished or fired as you don’t greet anyone.

Interestingly, being polite can sometimes backfire. This is perhaps because the cost of interpreting one’s polite messages — to distance, to mock or to really mean it — is way too high. It takes time and brain juice. Not everyone enjoys guesswork as much as young couples who are recently in love.

Another way to look at it is that responding to polite greetings has a cost. The cost is whether waving back makes one loses her/his face. Usually, the one who greets expects a response; this is to a certain extent imposing. Although such an imposition is not high, the hearer has to weigh whether it is face threatening, and by how much. To some, a person with much pride, no matter how old they are, might find it very face threatening — it doesn’t make one feel good, since one doesn’t seem to have a choice not to respond. On both ends, the sense of entitlement is there.

Meanwhile, the threat is also imposed on the sayer. Saying hi challenges one’s own face: I’ve got to take down my pride and initiate a greeting. And I have to risk not getting a respond, challenging my own positive face too. Eventually, I may stop greeting certain people when I keep getting no feedback.


So indifference oftentimes arises from broken communication or traumatic experience resulting from broken communication. That said, it is still important to adjust oneself in face of changing social dynamics across different situations. I would still greet all my students and colleagues, while tweaking my approaches encountering other colleagues who need more time to warm themselves up.

An awkward smile, maybe?

Food for Thought

Brown, P., & Levinson, S. (1987) Politeness. Some Universals in Language Use. Cambridge University Press.
Goffman, E. (1955). On face-work: An Analysis of Ritual Elements in Social Interaction. Psychiatry, 18, 213–231.
Leech, G. (1983). Principles of Pragmatics. Longman.
Scollon, R., & Scollon, S. (1995). Intercultural Communication: A discourse approach. Blackwell.

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