When talking to learners of my mother tongue, Swedish, I've sometimes had to explain how using too polite language can be taken as rude or insulting, as it creates a certain distance between the speakers. I guess this is a mechanism in many languages/cultures. Is there a linguistic term for this phenomena?

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    You could probably capture this through the concept of register. Standard, polite, and formal registers are destined for increasingly non-intimate, typically more performative interactions. By using one of them you imply (perhaps invoking something like Gricean implicature) that you don't consider the interaction sufficiently intimate. Like retiring a pet name when you break up with someone. I'm not sure if there's a specific term for this pragmatic move, or I'd write a full answer. – Luke Sawczak Feb 20 at 11:45
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    Wasn't it obsequiousness? – Jean-Baptiste Yunès Feb 20 at 12:52
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    @Jean-BaptisteYunès: I learned a new word today, but I don't think obsequiousness is the term the OP is searching here. – jknappen Feb 20 at 15:58
  • Coincidentally, that's Mariam Webster's word of the day today merriam-webster.com/word-of-the-day – 3ocene Feb 21 at 1:10
  • The answer might be different depending on whether the overpoliteness is deliberate or accidental. – chrylis Feb 21 at 3:26

It depends on the exact theoretical framework used and the exact nature of the language's politeness / rudeness system, but following Brown and Levinson's 1987 framework, Culpeper's 1996 Towards an anatomy of impoliteness provides a few answers. I think what you are referring to is (unintentional) mock politeness / sarcastic rudeness.

However, depending on the usage, it can be perceived as positive impoliteness or as a positive face-threatening act. This is paralleled in the use of inappropriate vouvoiement in most French-speaking communities, but especially salient in African French. This study on Cameroonian French breaks this down into the vouvoiement de distanciation and the vouvoiement de discrimination, where one makes the hearer feel "distant", and the other makes the hearer feel "discriminated against".

The other categories as categorised by function are negative impoliteness/face-threatening acts and withholding politeness. However, all these categories can be very fuzzy, and one feature can have components of than one category.

A different way of looking at these impoliteness "strategies" is via form, as per Bousfield (1998). These would split them down into on-record and off-record impoliteness, which correspond to explicit vs implied impoliteness. Even so, categorising a form of address into explicit or implied can be trickier than it first appears, especially when the impoliteness is accidental.


In English, overly polite language could be perceived as patronizing, or characterized by condescension via insincere kindness.

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    This does not answer the question. The OP's request was for a technical term in linguistics. – Nardog Feb 21 at 2:18

The source of the perceived rudeness might very well be that overly polite language often seems subservient, and unless there is a good reason (e.g. the speaker is apologising for sth), the excessive submissiveness conveys a context of passive-aggressiveness and concealed hostility.

Example: "Wouldn't You, Good Sir, agree that this might be the reason?"

(Even though I wrote that sentence as an example only, and even though it is outwardly very polite in form, I think I'd better apologise for my language in advance; that's how rude it sounds to my ear, at least.)

  • That particular phrasing to me suggests rather other-ness, as though something got mistranslated by book translation. – Joshua Feb 20 at 17:39

If the person feel as though you're politeness is to create distance instead of being friendly the person you're talking to might take it as sarcastic.

  • Although this might not speak to the intent of what you're saying it could be the message received by the person you're speaking with. – john smith Feb 20 at 11:00

There's a Swedish saying/quote, "du är inte Ni med mig", or translated: "you are not You(formalized) with me". It's basically saying that you think they are trying to be too formal for your taste. I think this mostly comes down to the law of Jante that most Swedes live by, which states that noone should think they are more special than anyone else. Everyone should be equal. And it can be considered rude if someone is being very posh towards you, when you're not in that mindset yourself.

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    This post contains one example that confirms the OP's observation, but it does not actually answer the original question about the classification of this phenomenon and its name. – bytebuster Feb 20 at 15:19
  • You are probably correct that it fits better as a comment than an answer, but in the context of the question the "Law of Jante" ("Jantelagen" in Swedish) could be seen as the reason for the phenomena even though it's not the linguistic term for it. That's why I, probably by fault, added it as an answer. – Daniel Nordh Feb 21 at 10:41

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