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Post-Vacation Musings: How rude should I be to my mother?

Written by Andreas Kappes

A couple of years ago, my mother flew in from Germany to visit and help us with looking after my daughter during a school break. One night, I can’t remember the exact circumstances, she angrily told me: “Stop being so polite”. I might have thanked her for something that in her mind, obviously, did not deserve a “thank you”. My mother embodies some of the stereotypical ideas about Germans. She prefers directness over politeness and avoids the unnecessary expression of feelings. Yet, weirdly, her remark rang true to me. I felt guilty of being too polite and I understood the sentiment without being able to verbalize to my wife – who is American – later that evening why my politeness was offending my mother. But how impolite should I be?


In one of Harold Garfinkel’s breaching experiments – designed to violate hidden social structures to make them apparent – he asked students to behave at their parents’ homes as if they were a boarder, noting their observations and their families’ reactions (1). Here is what Garfinkel wrote, summarizing some of the things his students reported when they observed their family members while taking an outsider’s perspective: “Displays of conduct and feeling occurred without apparent concern for the management of impressions. Table manners were bad, and family members showed each other little politeness.” (p.45f). And how did the families like the wonderfully polite and considered “boarders?” Not at all. Instead, family members reacted with sarcasm, irritation, and anger to the students’ new-found politeness: “”Mind if you have a little snack? You’ve been eating little snacks around here for years without asking me. What’s gotten into you?” One mother, infuriated when her daughter spoke to her only when she was spoken to, began to shriek in angry denunciation of the daughter for her disrespect and insubordination and refused to be calmed by the student’s sister. “(p.46)[i]. Politeness and good manners were not welcomed at home; rather, the ones we love the most demand interactions that an outsider would describe as rude.

Most sociological theories of politeness focus on how it is strategically used in social interaction, as a means to save face (2) – avoiding and tackling threats to the perceived prestige or status of another person; politeness is used to make everyone feel affirmed (3). Such definitions focus on the strategic aspect of politeness; good manners are used to achieve something or get something (4). And we often become aware of this aspect when we travel to another country, where people are more polite than we are used to. As a German brought up in Berlin, this basically means travelling to any other country. In interactions, we can’t help but wonder why the other person is so polite; what does she want? Yet, when talking to friends and family where behaviour occurs “without apparent concern for the management of impressions”, politeness suddenly introduces strategic considerations and people become uneasy.  We don’t want to consider our “face” when being with family. Another aspect of politeness is that it characterize often exchange relationships, in which tit-for-tat rules apply. Yet, when interacting with family member, we don’t want anything back for a favour; I don’t want my family to thank me for cooking for them; it was my pleasure.

Politeness and manners, to some degree, have no place at home. While people often feel that we are treating the ones we love the worst because we are taking them for granted (5) or some other version of the familiarity-breeds-contempt story, I would suggest that often the lack of manners at home is a sign of a happy home, where people are at ease not thinking about impressions to make or favours to trade. Of course, we want our families and friends to be considerate of one another; but this consideration should be motivated by affection, not by rules and manners. I will try to remind myself of that the next time my daughter tells me that “this was probably the worst dinner ever.”


[i] Here is another example: “A father followed his son into the bedroom. “Your Mother is right. You don’t look well and you’re not talking sense. You had better get another job that doesn’t require such late hours.” To this the student replied that he appreciated the consideration, but that he felt fine and only wanted a little privacy. The father responded in a high rage, “I don’t want any more of that out of you and if you can’t treat your mother decently you’d better move out!””

  1. Garfinkel H (1984) Studies in Ethnomethodology (Polity Press, Cambridge, UK). 2Rev Ed edition.
  2. Face (sociological concept) (2015) Wikipedia Free Encycl. Available at: [Accessed September 11, 2015].
  3. Politeness theory (2015) Wikipedia Free Encycl. Available at: [Accessed September 11, 2015].
  4. Bargiela-Chiappini F (2003) Face and politeness: new (insights) for old (concepts)☆. J Pragmat 35(10–11):1453–1469.
  5. Why We’re Nicer to Strangers Than the People We Love Most Psychol Today. Available at: [Accessed September 11, 2015].


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3 Comment on this post

  1. I experience this a lot. I’m British, but live in China, and have spent some time living with my Chinese in-laws. In my childhood home, “please” and “thank you” were a prerequisite for getting anything you wanted. In China, the word “please” doesn’t exist, and the word “thank you” in the home provokes bafflement and derision. It’s also harder to apologise here.

    Of course, there are certain things that go the other way, as well. I can’t contradict my mother-in-law; I would have no problem contradicting my mother, so long as I couched it in the proper terms.

    One possible theory I’ve been working on is that it’s about homogeneity. Where a group is more homogeneous, and more views/values are shared and can be assumed, there is less need for verbalisation of politeness. You need to use verbal politeness tactics at precisely those times when your conduct might be seen as irregular. Where a high level of uniformity in conduct means that verbal softeners haven’t evolved very well, conflict can result in more drastic actions – and indeed, I’ve seen more family disownings and divorces here, driven in part, I think, by the fact that the people involved don’t have the linguistic politeness resources to smooth their divergent behaviours.

    Where there is greater diversity, or more acceptance of diversity, there is more need to allow divergent conduct, explain it, and soften it with linguistic tools, while allowing the conduct to continue unchanged. Hence, more explicit verbal politeness.

    All of that is just a theory, and I’m not sure how Berlin would fit in! I’ve always thought of it as a diverse place, so something must be wrong with the theory, I guess…

  2. This is complicated by cultural factors, of course. Working in an international group, the English and Irish were the most indirect and (by far) the most likely to say “sorry”. A Danish co-worker found the apologies very confusing. The Germans and Swedes were most serious and the Norwegians told me saying “please” in Norwegian sounded sarcastic. (I’m aware of the dangers of stereotyping, but I do think cultural differences are real.)

    I think it’s true for all that people are less polite in families than in public though. Also true with friends – there’s even that phenomenon of people being mock-rude with their friends. It shows a high level of security with the other person, but can be a dangerous game to play.

  3. i as well believe that less polite in families than in public or maybe because when home they are familiar with them thats why the respect the respect is less

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