Emily Bernate, assistant professor of Spanish at St. Edward’s University, looks at softening our requests to sounds more polite.
Emily Bernate is an assistant professor of Spanish at St. Edwards University. Her research interests include sociolinguistics and pragmatics, particularly gender differences in language and politeness norms. She has taught second-language and heritage languages courses in Spanish at the University of Houston where she completed her M.A. and Ph.D. coursework. Currently, she teaches courses in Spanish linguistics with a focus on Spanish Heritage Learners and Spanish in the United States.
Politeness in U.S. Spanish
Making a request can be a difficult social situation to navigate. How do we manage our wants without offending another person? When making requests, we choose our words to strike balance between achieving our own goals and imposing on another person’s freewill. Besides softening our requests with phrases like if you don’t mind,we also modify our verb conjugations to sound more polite. For example, if you want to ask your boss to leave work early, you might start with, “I wanted to know…” even though your request applies to the present, not the past. By saying wanted, the request sounds more distanced and less imminent. Having a repertoire of different verb conjugations allows us to sound more polite.
I’ve studied how Spanish speakers in Texas and Mexico use verb conjugations to express politeness. Speakers born in Mexico employ a variety of tenses and moods in their requests. In addition to using past and future tenses, they also use subjunctive and conditional forms, which is similar to adding would, could, or might to sound less demanding.
However, those born in the United States have less exposure to these complex verb forms. With fewer opportunities to use Spanish, they are more confident expressing requests in simple present tense forms. In requests made by U.S.-born speakers, we find an increase in the use of phrases such as if you don’t mind or if you have time. By relying more on phrases than verb conjugations, speakers of U.S. Spanish can express politeness with limited exposure to the language.
Not all speakers of a language use the same tools to communicate a message, but they are all valid forms of expression. Rather than view U.S.-born Spanish speakers as inadequate,we can develop their skills if we first acknowledge their communicative strategies.