Ways of Expressing Apologies and Thanks in French and Japanese Personal Emails: a Comparison of Politeness

Cover Page


This article examines the ways in which politeness is used in French and Japanese personal emails (i.e. from one person to another). The data for the study consist of 411 emails from both communities and regrouped by criteria such as the correspondents’ gender, age and relationship (close vs distant; hierarchical vs equal). Two widely studied acts, very present in the French and Japanese data, namely thanking and apologising, are analysed. First of all, the notion of politeness is examined as it is understood in French and Japanese cultures, followed by a discussion of the positioning adopted by the various established approaches to this notion. This leads us to reconsider the concept of face as it is understood in Europe and Asia, the notion of discernment (Ide) and the theory of the territory of information (Kamio), as well as to re-examine the approach of politeness in the light of recent research findings. Following this overview, the paper proposes a framework where a distinction between politeness and civility is advocated. In this perspective, the means used to express politeness ( politeness in its broader meaning) are based on personal choices: either due to politeness (in a specific meaning) or according to social obligations ascribable to civility. More specifically, politeness (in it specific meaning) in one side is linked to personal choice. In French for instance, this can result from language used: formal language vs common language ( convier vs inviter ); verbal choices (conditional verbs instead of indicative tenses: je voudrais vs je veux ); syntax (inversion of the subject or not in questions), etc. In Japanese, politeness can be detected through the choice to use of the suffix desu ( kawaii desu ( it is cute )) when neutral or common language could be suitable ( kawaii ( it is cute )). In the other side, civility refers to the obligation to respect social norms. In French, the speaker may have to use the pronoun of address vous (vs tu ) as required by his and the hearer position, status, rank, etc. while his Japanese counterpart may have to use forms of humility or deference. The two visions embrace the Western and Asian conception of politeness: they complement each other. Furthermore, the impact of electronic devices on the evolution of writing practices is considered, with particular regard to the function of politeness discursive configurations such as apologies and thanks, and compared to another genre like letters. Thus the analysis of the writing styles shows the kind of patterns of linguistic behaviour chosen by cyberwriters of each language and culture. Finally, the results of the analysis show that attention to the addressee leads to the use of apologies in Japanese where in French, attention to the speaker/writer leads to the use of thanks. In addition, some expressions seem to be used only in certain relationships.

About the authors

- Chantal Claudel (

University Paris 8-Vincennes-Saint-Denis

Email: chantal.claudel@univ-paris8.fr
General and Applied Linguistics


  1. Adam, Jean-Michel. 1998. Les genres du discours épistolaire. In Jürgen Siess (dir.), La Lettre entre réel et fiction. Paris: Sedes. 37-53.
  2. Baresenová, Ivona. 2008. Politeness Strategies in Cross-Cultural Perspective, Politeness Strategies in Cross-cultural Perspective: Study of American and Japanese Employment Rejection Letters. <http://www.kas.upol.cz/fileadmin/kas/veda/Publikace_katedry/Politeness_Strategies_ in_Cross-cultural_Perspective.pdf>.
  3. Bayraktaroglu, Arin. 1991. Politeness and interactional imbalance. International Journal of the Sociology of Language, 92: 5-34.
  4. Brown, Penelope, Levinson, Stephen C. 1987. Politeness, Some universals in language usage. Cambridge, CUP (1978).
  5. Claudel, Chantal. 2012a. Les formules d’ouverture dans les courriels personnels en français et en japonais: l’exemple de ‘comment ça va?’ et ‘genki?’. In Auger N., Béal C., Demougin F. (éds), Interactions et interculturalité: variété des corpus et des approches, Berne: Peter Lang. 81-100.
  6. Claudel, Chantal. 2012b. Projet, salutations, demande de bienveillance : quelques actes rituels de clôture en français et en japonais. In Rentel, N. et Venohr, E. (dir.), Text-Brücken zwischen den Kulturen. Festschrift zum 70. Geburtstag von Bernd Spillner, Frankurt am Main: Peter Lang. 183-201.
  7. Claudel, Chantal. 2014. Présentation synthétique de quelques cyber-comportements discursifs en français et japonais. In Rentel, N., Reutner, U., Schröpf, R. (éds), Von der Zeitung zur Twitterdämmerung. Medientextsorten und neue Kommunikationsformen im deutshc-französischen Vergleich, Münster: Lit-Verlag. 165-183.
  8. Coulmas, Florian. 1981. 'Poison to your soul': Thanks and apologies contrastively viewed. In Coulmas, Florian (ed.), Conversational Routine. La Haye, Paris, New York: Mouton. 69-92.
  9. Cook, Haruko M. 2006. Japanese politeness as an interactional achievement: Academic consultation sessions in Japanese universities, Multilingua Journal of Cross-Cultural and Interlanguage Communication, 25-3: 269-291.
  10. Cook, Haruko M. 2011. Are honorifics polite? Uses of referent honorifics in a Japanese committee meeting, Journal of Pragmatics, 43: 3655-3672.
  11. Doi, Takeo. 1993. L’endroit et l’envers. Arles: Philippe Picquier.
  12. Eelen, Gino. 2001. Critique of Politeness Theories. Manchester: St Jerome Press.
  13. Geyer, Naomi. 2008. Discourse and Politeness: Ambivalent Face in Japanese. London, New-York: Continuum.
  14. Goffman, Erving. 1967. On Face-Work, An Analysis of Ritual Elements in Social Interaction. In Interaction Ritual, Essays on Face-to-Face Behaviour. Victoria: Penguin Books. 5-45.
  15. Grice, Herbert Paul. 1979. Logique et conversation. Communications, 30: 57-72.
  16. Hayashi, Chikio, Kuroda, Yasumasa. 1997. Japanese culture in comparative perspective, Westport: Praeger.
  17. Hendry, Joy. 1994. Politesse. Dictionnaire de la civilisation japonaise, Paris: Hazan.
  18. Hill, Beverly, Ide, Sachiko, Ikuta, Shoko, Kawasaki, Akiko, Ogino, Tsunao. 1986. Universals of Linguistic Politeness, Quantitative Evidence from Japanese and American English. Journal of Pragmatics, 10: 347-371.
  19. Ide, Risako. 1998. ‘Sorry for your kindnesse’: Japanese interactional ritual in public discouse. Journal of Pragmatics, 29: 509-529.
  20. Ide, Risako. 2009. Aisatsu. In Senft, Gunter, Östman, Jan-Ola, Verschueren, Jef (ed.). Culture and Language Use, Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company. 18-28.
  21. Ide, Sachiko. 1989. Formal forms and discernment: two neglected aspects of universals of linguistic politeness. Multilingua, 8: 223-248.
  22. Ide, Sachiko. 1992. On the Notion of Wakimae: Toward an Integrated Framework of Linguistic Politeness. Mejiro Linguistic Society (MLS). 298-305.
  23. Ide, Sachiko, Yoshida, Megumi. 1999. Sociolinguistics: Honorifics and gender differences. In Tsujimura, Natsuko (ed.). The Handbook of Japanese Linguistics, Malden: Blackwell. 444-480.
  24. Kádár, Dániel Z. 2009. Questions on Discursive Politeness Research - A Research Report, Sheffield, UK, LRPG (on line).
  25. Kamio, Akio. 1990. Jôhô no nawabari riron: gengo no kinôteki bunseki. Tôkyô: Taishûkan Shoten.
  26. Kamio, Akio. 1994. The theory of territory of information: The case of Japanese. Journal of Pragmatics. 21: 67-100.
  27. Kamio, Akio. 1995. Territory of information in English and Japanese and psychological utterances. Journal of Pragmatics, 24: 235-264.
  28. Kerbrat-Orecchioni, Catherine. 1990. Les interactions verbales, Tome I, Paris, A. Colin.
  29. Kerbrat-Orecchioni, Catherine. 1992. Les interactions verbales, Tome II, Paris, A. Colin.
  30. Kerbrat-Orecchioni, Catherine. 1994. Les interactions verbales, Tome III, Paris, A. Colin.
  31. Kerbrat-Orecchioni, Catherine. 1997. A multilevel approach in the study of talk-in-interaction. Pragmatics, 7-1: 1-20.
  32. Kerbrat-Orecchioni, Catherine. 1998. L’interaction épistolaire. In J. Siess (dir.), La lettre entre réel et fiction. St-Just-la-Pendue: Sedes, 15-36.
  33. Kerbrat-Orecchioni, Catherine. 2001a. 'Je voudrais un p'tit bifteck': la politesse à la française en site commercial. Les carnets du CEDISCOR, 7: 105-118.
  34. Kerbrat-Orecchioni, Catherine. 2001b. Les actes de langage dans le discours. Paris: Nathan-Université.
  35. Kerbrat-Orecchioni, Catherine. 2002. Politesse en deçà des Pyrénées, impolitesse au delà: retour sur la question de l'universalité de la (théorie de la) politesse. Marges linguistiques. 1-18. <http://www.marges-linguistiques.com> (18-05-2012).
  36. Koutlaki, Sofia A. 2002. Offers and expressions of thanks as face enhancing acts: tæ’arof in Persian. Journal of Pragmatics, 34: 1733-1756.
  37. Kumatoridani, Tetsuo. 1999. Alternation and co-occurrence in Japanese thanks. Journal of Pragmatics, 31: 623-642.
  38. Lakoff, Robin. 1973. The logic of politeness; Or, minding your p’s and q’s. Papers from the Ninth Regional Meeting of the Chicago Linguistic Society. Chicago: Chicago Linguistic Society. 292-305.
  39. Lakoff, Robin. 1977. What you can do with words: Politeness, pragmatics and performatives. In A. Rogers, B. Wall, J.P Murphy (eds), Proceedings of the Texas Conference on Performatives, Presuppositions and Implicatures. Washington DC: Center for Applied Linguistics, 79-105.
  40. Leech, Geoffrey. 1983. Principles of Pragmatics. Londres: Longman.
  41. Leech, Geoffrey. 2007. Politeness: is there an East-West divide?, Journal of Politeness Research. 3 (2): 167-206.
  42. Lim, Tae Seop. 1994. Facework and interpersonal relationships. In Ting-Toomey, Stella (Ed.), The Challenge of Facework: Cross-cultural and Interpersonal Issues. New York: Albany, State University of New York Press. 209-229.
  43. Mao, LuMing Robert. 1994. Beyond politeness theory: ‘face’ revisited and reviewed, Journal of Pragmatics, 21 (5): 451-486.
  44. Matsumoto, Yoshiko. 1988. Reexaminations of the universality of face, Journal of Pragmatics, 12 (4): 403-426.
  45. Matsumoto, Yoshiko. 1989. Politeness and conversational universals, Observations from Japanese, Multilingua, 8 (2/3): 207-221.
  46. Mills, Sara. 2011. Discursive approaches to politeness and impoliteness, in Linguistic Politeness Research Group (ed.), Discursive approaches to politeness, Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton. 19-56.
  47. Miyake, Kazuo. 2002. Kotoba no arawareru nihonbunka no shikô-sei, [The intentionality of Japanese culture in words]. Nihon bungaku bunka, 2: 8-14.
  48. Mizutani, Osamu, Mizutani, Nobuko. 1985. Notes de japonais 1 - parler et vivre au Japon, Tokyo: The Japan Times.
  49. Mizutani, Osamu, Mizutani, Nobuko. 1986. Nihongo notes 5 - Studying Japanese in context, Tokyo: The Japan Times.
  50. Mizutani, Osamu, Mizutani, Nobuko. 1988. Nihongo notes 2 - Expressing oneself in japanese, Tokyo: The Japan Times.
  51. Sifianou, Maria. 1995. Do we need to be silent to be extremely polite? Silence and FTA’s. International Journal of Applied Linguistics. 5(1): 95-110.
  52. Tatematsu, K. et al. 1997. Nihongo no tegami no kakikata, Writting letters in Japanese. Tôkyô: The Japan Times.
  53. Tegami, hagaki no kakikata, jisturei hyakka [Write letters and cards, Collection of examples]. 1996. Tôkyô: Nihon bunkei sha.
  54. Triandis, Harry C., Betancourt, Hector, Iwao, Sumiko, Kwok, Leung, Jose Miguel, Salazar, Bernadette, Setiadi, Jai B. P., Sinha, Hubert, Touzard, Zbignew, Zaleski. 1993. An etic-emic analysis of individualism and collectivism. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology. 24-3: 366-383.
  55. Watts, Richard J. 2003. Politeness. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.



Abstract - 711

PDF (English) - 363


Copyright (c) 2015 Шанталь Клодель -.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

This website uses cookies

You consent to our cookies if you continue to use our website.

About Cookies