Polite - book image

Sorry, not sorry – new book sheds light on the art of politeness

Tuesday, 09 July 2024

Are politeness standards really declining? A new book from a University of Nottingham academic answers this long-debated question and reveals the important role politeness still plays in our work, relationships and lives.

Polite: The Art of Conversation at Home at Work and in Public by Louise Mullany, Professor of Sociolinguistics in the School of English, examines how unwritten politeness rules affect all of our communication, from speaking to colleagues about issues at work, dealing with difficult family members or wondering whether you should take the last chocolate in the box.

In Polite, Professor Mullany uncovers practical communication tools for politeness, including the art of the political apology – something which has been seen in the televised debates and media coverage in both the run up to and the aftermath of the UK’s General Election.

By analysing key political events, she explains the significance of apologies in public life, including how to check for the authenticity of the delivery and the sincerity of apologies. Who can forget the Partygate scandal and the aftermath? Boris Johnson’s multiple ‘apologies’ included his defence that he believed he did not break the rules. Rishi Sunak’s first words when he stepped down as Prime Minister last week were “I would like to say, first and foremost, I am sorry,” an apology for failing to deliver what the electorate wanted.

She also examines when things go wrong for politicians from a politeness perspective – including when microphones are accidently left switched on and we gain access to politicians’ private thoughts in public, including how politicians can suffer reputational damage for communications that were never intended for a public audience.

Another area of political communication she investigates is what happens when politicians swear in formal situations. Donald Trump has broken the mould for many politeness communication norms in global politics and Professor Mullany analyses the importance of politeness and impoliteness by politicians globally, including in online spaces.

Louise Mullany
“Trump’s use of swearing and other unique aspects of his leadership style, including his refusals to apologise, are strategies that starkly contrast with traditional standards of political leaders. Whilst online spaces have opened up great possibilities for politicians to communicate with their electorate, with Trump there have been countless problems with the reliability and authenticity of his posts. Social media can also be very costly. Globally, many politicians have also been subject to unprecedented levels of impoliteness and abuse online.”
Louise Mullany, Professor of Sociolinguistics in the School of English

Professor Mullany, who has been studying politeness and communication for over 25 years, breaks down deeply ingrained cultural myths and stereotypes about politeness. For example, are women really more polite than men? And do younger generations really corrupt language causing politeness standards to decline?

She added: “There are a number of politeness stereotypes that continue to circulate in popular culture based on gender, age and social class. One of the aims of the book is to dispel these stereotypes and enable readers to make more incisive judgements about the behaviour of others on the basis of scientific research principles of politeness”

By recently conducting collaborative research with businesses and organisations of a variety of sizes, from SMEs and charities through to large multinationals, Polite investigates how politeness theories and approaches can be used to enhance effective workplace communication and troubleshoot miscommunication and conflict, to help us all become more effective communicators.

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More information is available from Louise Mullany, Professor in Sociolinguistics, via

Liz Goodwin 2
Liz Goodwin - Media Relations Manager - Faculty of Arts
Phone: 0115 748 5133

Notes to editors:

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Ranked 32 in Europe and 16th in the UK by the QS World University Rankings: Europe 2024, the University of Nottingham is a founding member of the Russell Group of research-intensive universities. Studying at the University of Nottingham is a life-changing experience, and we pride ourselves on unlocking the potential of our students. We have a pioneering spirit, expressed in the vision of our founder Sir Jesse Boot, which has seen us lead the way in establishing campuses in China and Malaysia - part of a globally connected network of education, research and industrial engagement.

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