Positive or Negative Politeness

Negative Politeness?

At a young age, my uncle – may he rest in peace – was run over by a train.

That was, to use his own words, “doggone unpleasant.” From this, it should be evident that the train was not what killed him; he lived to be 88. But for the rest of his life, he had a steel plate in his head and would take off part of his leg when he went to bed.

Uncle’s leg gave fodder for many funny and horrible stories; many of them involving deep embarrassment when someone had said something stupid like “Speed up, do you have a peg leg?” and gotten an affirmative answer – in one case by my uncle silently planting his knife in his leg.

Why am I telling you about my uncle?

I have listened to the podcast The Rabbi and The Shrink more than once. Among other things the here linked episode talks about how adults are uncomfortable with witnessing disabilities of whatever kind – in this case, an artificial leg. They are even more uncomfortable when their children point it out because then they have to engage with the person attached to the leg.

To this initial discomfort and uncertainty about what to say and do around people who are “different”, The Rabbi wisely added another layer of complexity: We don’t know how to phrase our curiosity in “woke terms” (my interpretation of the discussion, not his actual phrasing.)

And you may hear me commenting, asking if we need to justify our curiosity?

With this question, I meant that if I met John Register, the guest in the interview who talks about innocent children referring to him as Robot Man, I might ask “My uncle got under a train. How did you lose your leg?”

Or I might not, because John Register’s leg is really is none of my business.

While children everywhere would probably ask – at least their parent – when they see something new, the inclination of adults to engage depends very much on whether they have grown up with positive or negative politeness culture.

How can politeness ever become negative?

Negative politeness is when we refrain from doing something we were otherwise inclined to do. If I know you are terribly busy, I may decide not to disturb you. You will not even know that I did you a favor by staying away.

If you ask Danes why they don’t chat in the bus line, you may get the answer “Why do you think you have something to say that the other person would be interested in?” 
 No country for old extroverts.

This is a different type of politeness than acknowledging the existence of the next person in the supermarket checkout line by asking how they cook the ham hocks in their cart. Reaching out is positive politeness – but in some cultures, it may be seen as rude intrusions on other people’s privacy.

The USA is among the countries that to the highest degree uses positive politeness. People will readily talk to you if they are sitting at a neighboring table at a restaurant; there may be some chat on the commuter train (at least there was before the smartphone); and when LinkedIn was younger, it was about five times as likely that an American would accept an invitation to link from a person they didn’t know compared to Danes. (No, not my research.)

Supposedly, positive politeness comes from the need of immigrants to get to know new people and prove themselves to be kind to build much-needed trust. Then this culture is passed down to the next generations.

Into this general spontaneity, extroversion, and outreach, let us throw the artificial leg…

According to Jungian psychologist Clotaire Rapaille, the American arch-type is the Marlboro Man. Independent, young, strong, and able-bodied. Death has, according to Dr. Rapaille, been a taboo subject in the USA, any reference (at least until the pandemic) has been filled with euphemisms and workarounds. People who are old or disabled one way or another remind us too much of our own mortality; that is too far from the invincible self-image.

Thus, a huge internal conflict exists between the positive politeness inclination to engage and the wish to pretend that we don’t see a disability. Unfortunately, the easiest way out is to ignore the disabled person completely.

From a lot of other discussions, I know that if you are curious just because you are curious about something another person could be a little sensitive about, they might not feel it is their responsibility to satisfy your curiosity. That is why I asked when listening to the original webinar/podcast, whether we need to justify our question.

I didn’t have an answer to what a better way to behave looked like, so I contacted John Register.

He said that in the past, he would most likely have ignored the commotion that would often be the result if a parent hushed a child and bystanders voiced a lot of opinions related to impolite children.

But lately, he has become more of an ambassador and is more willing to engage and educate, for example through Facebook. His Para-Olympic bionic extension is part of the U.S. Olympic and Para Olympic Museum exhibition in Colorado Springs where he will readily talk to visitors when he is at the museum.

Just as important, John mentioned that he was fine with plain curiosity. He resented, however, when people were trying to put labels on him or tried to fit him into some story they were making up about him and his leg in their heads. To assume that his life was much more challenging than so many other people’s would be one such common story.

I recognize that from my uncle’s attitude. He didn’t want pity. He wanted to feel included and accepted so that he could ask for a helping hand if he needed it without being infantilized or condescended to.

Isn’t that how we all want to be treated, Americans, Danes, everybody alike: To be looked at with the assumption that we are sensible, capable, and worthy of respect?

“I did not overcome the loss of my limb,” Register said when he won a silver medal in the long jump at the 2000 Para Olympics in Sydney. “To overcome the loss would mean I’d have to grow it back. What I overcame were the limits I placed on myself and that others placed on me. This is what is universal for all of us to overcome.”

Regardless of culture, placing limiting beliefs on others is really not polite. But, regardless of culture, if you see somebody struggling, it is not kind to ignore them, either.

This post is dedicated to John Register, Yonason Goldson, Dr. Margarita Gurri, and to my uncle Soren J. Kollerup, 1922-2010.


Charlotte Wittenkamp
Charlotte Wittenkamp
Charlotte Wittenkamp is an organizational psychologist who counsels international transfers, immigrants, and foreign students in overcoming culture shock. Originating from Denmark, where she worked in organizational development primarily in the finance industry, Charlotte has lived in California since 1998. Her own experiences relocating lead down a path of research into value systems and communication patterns. She shares this knowledge and experience through speaking and writing and on her website Many of these “learning experiences” along with a context to put them in can be found in her book Building Bridges Across Cultural Differences, Why Don’t I Follow Your Norms?. On the side, she leads a multinational and multigenerational communication training group.

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  1. It is certainly a problem that exists. It usually happens when a person feels agitated and frightened by choosing not to interact with disabled people. This attitude only perpetuates the stereotypes and fears that human beings feel.
    The disabled person lives a harsh reality, he is not autonomous and this does not allow him to have an independent life. But, like any other person, she knows how to deal with her reality with intelligence, managing to preserve the will to live and have a normal social life. Having resentment towards others does not change his/her condition !! If anything, it is this wrong label that bothers her.
    Interaction with a disabled person must be approached in the most human way possible, without embarrassment or fear, but with greater sensitivity, while avoiding transmitting compassion to the disabled person: these people need to feel fully integrated, without particular privileges but on par with those who have normal people.

    • I think on par, are the key words here, Aldo. Sometimes on par means accommodations, sometimes it means things take a little longer. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the end result is any less than what we normally hope for. And it is not contagious.
      So why are we afraid?

  2. Reading the story of your uncle and his artificial leg with all the experiences he faced made me wonder Charlotte Wittenkamp why you have not written a book on this experience. It sounds great as much as it sounded as an introduction to your thoughtful post.

    I love this from your post “I recognize that from my uncle’s attitude. He didn’t want pity. He wanted to feel included and accepted so that he could ask for a helping hand if he needed it without being infantilized or condescended to.”

    We are all exposed for the same experience even without losing a leg. When we are unable to perform, to find a direction or a purpose and pinned down by despair. These are disenabling situations.
    We need recognition and not pity.

    • Love your addition, Ali, because despair can also be a disability. And a good nonjudgmental listen may sometimes be a cure.

      I don’t think my uncle’s story is mine to share, but I know my cousin is piecing together more knowledge of his youth, before train.

      So many families have embraced the LGBTQA+ community because more and more realized these were their parents, siblings, children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews, friends. While I wish on nobody to have a disability, if more people had firsthand interactions with disabled people, the same embrace might be offered. So kudos to John Register and others who are ambassadors and show that a full life can be lived without full bodily abilities.