Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Teaching Strategies for Impoliteness?

By Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium

I was recently able to attend the IATEFL (International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language) Conference this year in Brighton, UK. Among the many wonderful sessions I attended, one really made an impact. So much so, in fact, that I have been thinking about it ever since.

Martin Warters gave a presentation called “There is (no) need for that!” In his speech, he explored “the appropriacy and need for the explicit teaching of impoliteness in the second-language classroom in a UK setting.” When I read the session description, I was intrigued. Teaching impoliteness to our students? I wasn’t sure how I felt. I don’t feel comfortable teaching students how to swear in English (they can get that from most Hollywood movies, thank you very much) and I kind of feel that the world doesn’t need more abusive individuals in our shops, our restaurants, and our motorways.

One Loaf of Bread and a Christmas Cake, Please

On the other hand, I haven’t been able to shake the feeling of impotence I experienced when I tried to order bread and a bûche de Noël (Belgian Christmas cake) at a local bakery a couple of years ago. To make a long and unpleasant story short, I was trying to place my order in French. My French is not great now, but it was even worse then. I was further disadvantaged by the fact that I didn’t understand that the bakery would be open on Christmas morning until half way through my order, at which time I decided, fridge space being limited, I would rather pick up my order on December 25th rather than the day before. Some confusion ensued as I tried to communicate that I wanted both the cake and the bread on that morning and the shop assistant sighed dramatically and angrily tore up my order. She was just plain rude to me.

I had no French to reply, so I launched into a loud diatribe in English about how I was trying to learn her language and she shouldn’t be so rude to a customer. In the end, after I had shouted for a bit and got the attention of many of the other customers and staff, she wrote another order for me. I had got what I wanted, but I left feeling frustrated. Would I have been more satisfied if I could have defended myself in French?

Defense in the Face of Rudeness

I left Warters’ session with the impression that, though I have no intention of teaching my students how to provoke a fight or insult someone, it might be a good idea to teach them some English phrases they can use when they are faced with rudeness from others. As Mugford points out, “teachers need to take the lead by preparing learners to communicate in pleasant, not so pleasant and even abusive interactional and transactional situations.” (Mugford, 2008, page 375) After his session, Warters told me the story that prompted his interest in this topic. He had a student who had been called a racial slur. She was upset and wanted to know how she could have responded. He suggested language like, “Who do you think you are?” Based on this conversation, he and I agreed that perhaps “Teaching Students to be Impolite” is a bit of a misnomer; perhaps a better description would be “Teaching Students how to Defend themselves in Rude Situations.”

I am still not sure if I am totally on board with teaching this kind of language to students explicitly. I mean, taking the high road and simply walking away is so much nobler than hurling angry words back at one’s insulter. However, if we don’t equip students with defensive strategies, are we not disadvantaging them in some way? I don’t know. Do you?


Mugford, G. (2008) How rude! Teaching impoliteness in the second-language classroom. ELT Journal, 62(4).

Warters, M. (2011) There is (no) need for that! IATEFL, Brighton, UK.


Comment from mossaab
May 31, 2011 at 3:47 pm

Hi Tamara. “Taking the high road and simply walking away is so much nobler than hurling angry words back at one’s insulter.”
Your quotation equals to wisdom here and I am totally with this attitude. Thank you for tackling such a topic.

Comment from Tamara Jones
June 1, 2011 at 2:22 am

I just wish I was so wise in real life! 🙂 Taking the high road isn’t always the easiest option for me.

Comment from VERÓNICA
June 1, 2011 at 2:31 am

Hi, I think that if we are for teaching English in context and expose our students to real communication, teaching impoliteness is included. I am often asked about words or expressions they hear in songs or movies and I really don’t see what’s wrong in explaining where they come from and their figurative meaning. I did it but made it clear about when or why natives use it. Greetings

Comment from Tamara Jones
June 2, 2011 at 5:46 am

I agree that there is nothing wrong with explaining words or expressions that students hear. But, I am not sure how I feel about taking it one step further and actually teaching a lesson on how to respond when someone is rude. I know how to swear in French, certainly. But, I didn’t know how to respond when the shop girl was rude to me. I can’t think of any songs or movies where this occurs. Does anyone else have some suggestions? I like using movies in my class for consciousness raising, and it would be a good fit for a lesson like this.

Comment from Richard Firsten
July 5, 2011 at 8:19 am

Hi, Tamara. Great topic! Sorry to be jumping into this very interesting discussion so late, but here goes.

I agree with you completely that it probably isn’t very practical to actually plan lessons on what to say in the kinds of situations you’ve brought up. In fact, I think it’s highly unlikely that a teacher would be able to do an adequate job of this since it’s practically impossible to predict what kinds of situations will arise for our students.

In my own life experience, I can recall some juicy moments while traveling or living abroad when I had to deal with an insulting or rude person. I succeeded in letting that person know exactly how I felt only when it happened in a language that I had some decent control over. And that’s the key. I don’t think it’s a matter of preparing students on how to retaliate verbally when faced with somebody who’s rude or worse; it’s a matter of getting the students’ language skills honed enough so that they can come up with whatever is necessary to say during a confrontation. Work on the students’ grammar, vocabulary, prosodics, and even metalinguistic features, and when the students are in enough control of all those aspects of learning a language, they will be ready to deal with the kinds of situations you’ve touched on. That’s my take on this.

Comment from Tamara Jones
July 6, 2011 at 4:19 am

What you say makes a lot of sense to me! I especially agree that instruction on prosodics is essential to both understanding when something rude has been said and communicating discomfort or anger with it.

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