Do fixed expressions reflect national stereotypes? On impoliteness in English, German, and Polish

Barbara Kryk-Kastovsky (Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznań)

Many national stereotypes originate from the degree of directness which characterizes the everyday communication of the speakers of particular languages. Thus, English is known to be less direct than German or Polish, but more direct than South-East Asian languages, cf. Wierzbicka (1991). The degree of directness is often perceived as being inversely proportionate to the degree of politeness, thus a German or Polish utterance might sound impolite to a speaker of English, if s/he compares it with the English equivalent.

In the present paper I will address the issue of national stereotypes by examining fixed expressions which are products of the three cultures of interest here, i.e. Anglo-Saxon, German, and Polish. My hypothesis is that fixed expressions reflect the stereotypical features associated with a particular language and culture, e.g. the Anglo-Saxon distance and tentativeness, the German directness and some degree of rough humor, and the Polish directness verging on pushiness and even vulgarity. The theoretical framework employed in my analysis will be a modified version of the model of impoliteness due to Culpeper et al. (1993). My hypothesis will be tested against data coming from a multitude of sources: spoken language corpora, my own data collected in real life situations, and dictionaries.

It turns out from my analysis that, like spontaneous conversations, also fixed expressions reflect national stereotypes in that Anglo-Saxon data exhibit the highest degree of tentativeness and indirectness perceived as polite among native speakers of English and somewhat overdone (artificially polite) by speakers of German and Polish. This confirms the stereotype of the English "stiff upper lip". On the other hand, the speakers of German are perceived as much more direct, thus less polite by the speakers of English, but still acceptable to the speakers of Polish, whose fixed expressions might be even more explicit. To take one example, in English you elegantly bore someone to tears , in German it is a bit more explicit since something can be sterbenslangweilig (deadboring), which has an exact Polish equivalent ( smiertelnie nudny ). However, in addition, in Polish you can be much more explicitly described as nudny jak flaki z olejem (boring like guts/tripe with oil), i.e. hard to handle and/or indigestible.

Consequently, it follows from my data that fixed expressions are a valuable source of information concerning national stereotypes, probably comparable to spontaneous interaction.


Culpeper, Jonathan, Derek Bousfield, Anne Wichmann. 2003. "Impoliteness revisited: with special reference to dynamic and prosodic aspects". Journal of Pragmatics 35: 1545-1579.

Wierzbicka, Anna. 1991. Cross-cultural pragmatics. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.