In Old English, thou/thee were used to address a single person, while ye/you were used to address more than one person. However, as English developed, the terms ye and you were used to politely address a single person – first the king, then other high born nobility and the clergy, and eventually anyone at or above a person’s social status.
By the end of the 16th century, the word ye had virtually disappeared from daily speech, and the term you was quickly replacing the term thou.
As Early Modern English began, the word thou became associated with emotions, rather than number or hierarchy, and most people would only use thou if they were angry or in love. Ironically, these days people very rarely use the informal thou to indicate formality or to sound more archaic:”Thou shallt not lie.
Americans who use direct communication are typically labelled as plain speakers. It is difficult for plain speakers to rise high in American politics, and one of the few to do so was Harry Truman.
Truman’s entrée into politics began in 1922, when he was elected to be a judge in the Jackson County Court. He served as a judge from 1922 to 1924, but despite his reputation for honesty and efficiency, was not reelected in 1924. Undeterred, Harry ran for judge again in 1926, this time winning his election.
In 1934, Truman became a senator, and in 1944 he was nominated to run as vice president with President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The two men won their campaign, and Truman then came to office as president following FDR’s death in April 1945.
In 1948, Truman ran for reelection, and to the shock of the public (who considered his defeat inevitable), Truman won reelection. In fact, Truman’s defeat was so widely anticipated that some newspapers went to print with the headline “Dewey Defeats Truman” before the election results were known. As a result, there is a famous photograph of Truman smiling as he holds up one of these newspapers after winning the presidency.
Harry Truman left the presidency in 1953 and retired from political life. Some examples of Truman’s Plain-speech:
On why he opposed silencing dissenters: “Once a government is committed to the principle of silencing the voice of opposition, it has only one way to go, and that is down the path of increasingly repressive measures, until it becomes a source of terror to all its citizens and creates a country where everyone lives in fear.”
On why he would not accept the Medal of Honor: “I don’t consider that I have done anything which should be the reason for any award, Congressional or otherwise.”
On politics: “We now see that other past presidents, have found a new level of success in cashing in on the presidency, resulting in untold wealth. Today, many in Congress also have found a way to become quite wealthy while enjoying the fruits of their offices. Obviously, political offices are now for sale.”
On politics: “My choice early in life was either to be a piano player in a whorehouse or a politician. And to tell the truth, there’s hardly any difference. I, for one, believe the piano player job to be much more honorable than current politicians.“
Politeness is so ingrained in Americans that sometimes they will respond with the polite formality before realizing that their politeness might seem a little out of place. In the American television show “Scrubs: Med School” the main character, a med student named Lucy, complains to her teacher that she doesn’t feel like he’s trying to teach her anything. The teacher tells her that he’s not, because he doesn’t waste time on people who won’t succeed. Her response to this was “Thank you” before walking off and criticizing herself for thanking him.
In her blog – Learning to speak American – Vicki Hollett from the UK asked herself if Americans were more direct than the British. Hollett writes:
„Indirectness is an interesting feature of politeness. Like most people, I don’t always say what I mean. So for example, I might say, ‘Do you have a pen in your bag?’ when really I mean ‘I want a pen’. And people ask for things indirectly like this all the time:
Those biscuits look nice. (Give me one) Is anybody else here feeling hot. (I’m hot. Open the window.) Have you finished with that newspaper? (I want to read it.) Are you going past a post box on your way home? (I have a letter I want you to post.) Are you busy? (Help!)
The ambiguity in requests like these has social benefits. If I can get what I want because you want to give it to me, then life will seem like it’s harmonious and pleasant for us both. And if I haven’t gone on the record with a request, then it’s easier for me to rescind or modify it later.
So I might say ‘Those biscuits look nice’ hoping you’ll offer me one. But then if you say ‘Yes, I bought them for my kids’ school’, I can say ‘Oh how old are your children?’ and we can both pretend I wasn’t asking.
Now people often say Americans are very direct, but I’m not sure how true that is, particularly when it comes requests like these. An American would say cookies instead of biscuits and mailbox instead of post box, but they seem just as likely as me to make requests in this roundabout fashion.
In my experience, Americans are pretty much like Brits when it comes to saying what they mean directly. In short, they don’t.
It was once considered the height of good manners to ask for something by first offering it to another person. For example, a typical piece of dinner dialogue might have been:
“John, would you like some more bread?” “No, Bob, but would you like some?” “Yes, I would.” “Here you go, then.”
Although no longer the fashionable way to indicate that you would like something, it’s not uncommon for Americans to use this roundabout way of asking for a favor.
According to a report by the Census Bureau, the United States is expected to be a majority-minority nation by 2043. Within the next 50 years, nearly one in three U.S. residents would be Hispanic. Within the same time span, the Asian-American population will double from 15.9 million people to 34.4 million, and the African-American population is projected to increase by 20 million people.
From 2024 to 2060, the non-Hispanic white population will fall by nearly 20 million people, and will make up 43 percent of the nation’s total population by 2060. In 2011, the population of the United States was comprised of the following: White persons not Hispanic (63.4 percent), Black (13.1 percent), American Indian (1.2 percent), Asian-American (5.0 percent), Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander (0.2 percent), Two or more races (2.3 percent), Hispanic or Latino Origin (16.7 percent).
In diverse cultures people approach potentially sensitive topics indirectly.
Probe. To probe is to physically explore or examine something with the hands or an instrument. To probe is also to seek to uncover information about someone or something. The word originates from late Latin as proba, or proof, or in medieval Latin as examination. It is derived from Latin probare, meaning “to test“.
Circumnavigate. When one circumnavigates, one sails all the way around something, especially the world. To go around or across (something).
Euphemism. A euphemism is a mild or indirect word or expression substituted for one considered to be too harsh or blunt when referring to something unpleasant or embarrassing: ‘pre-owned car’ instead of a used car; ‘sex worker’ instead of a prostitute; to be ‘between jobs’ instead of to be unemployed; ‘senior citizen’ instead of old person; ‘underserved neighborhood’ instead of impoverished neighborhood.
Leon Lederman, the author of the book The God Particle (Higgs Boson) originally wanted to call it The Goddamn Particle because the particle was proving very difficult to find, but his publishers thought that this sounded too rude.
Higgs Boson is a particle which is largely responsible for the mass of subatomic particles. It took almost five decades after the particle was first postulated to find it, largely because of the high energy needed to produce it and how quickly it decays into smaller particles.
Because Americans find it difficult separate what they say from the person they are saying it to – especially in the case of criticism – they strive to use softer, more indirect language, including euphemisms: mild or indirect words or expressions substituted for ones considered to be too harsh or blunt when referring to something unpleasant or embarrassing.
Examples of euphemisms: pre-owned car instead of a used car, sex worker instead of a prostitute, to be between jobs instead of to be unemployed, senior citizen instead of old person, underserved neighborhood or underserved population instead of the poor, or an impoverished, needy neighborhood.
Further examples: economically disadvantaged instead of poor; temporary negative cash flow instead of broke; enhanced interrogation methods instead of torture; collateral damage instead of civilian deaths.
Americans and Germans do a lot of business together – and often have unnecessary misunderstandings, causing a lot of grief and mistrust. An American consultant who has lived in Germany for 25 years offers some help.
Germans say what they mean. Mean what they say. Don’t beat around the bush. Don’t use euphemisms. Clear, direct, unambiguous. Get to the point. Right away. To Americans, as to many other English-speaking people, the Germans thus appear impatient, obnoxious, at times even insulting.
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