Language differences, not rudeness


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I’d like to talk about the language that leads to cultural differences I’ve noticed since being in Greece.

I was teaching a new class of 5 year olds the other day and a boy piped up,

Give me a pencil.

How rude! I thought and introduced him to the concept of “Please” and “Thank you.”

However, I then remembered that a few weeks ago, an adult had said to me

Give me the sugar,

and I remembered that in the Greek language, you do not, unlike in the English language, say

“Please can you pass the sugar?  Thank you (very much).”

When Greeks have something to say, they just say it, no fancy language.

And if they have difficulty saying it in English, then they just translate directly from the Greek (and let’s face it, who wouldn’t use that approach?  I know I do).

I once asked a man to press the bell for me on the bus so I could get off…I said ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ in the same sentence (in Greek) and he looked genuinely baffled.

So, if someone isn’t ‘polite’ (by our standards), it doesn’t mean they’re being rude either.

It could just be the way things are said in their own language and they are unaware of the cultural norm to be (ingratiatingly) polite in the British language.  Besides, I rather like this way of just coming out and saying what you mean.

On a different note, my Greek is still appallingly bad for having lived here for just over 4 years, hence when a taxi driver chats to me and asks me (in Greek) how long I’ve been here, I lie and shave off about 3 years.  They proceed to compliment me on how much Greek I know in such a short space of time, for which I have the good grace to feel marginally guilty.

Luckily for me, Greeks, like many Southern Mediterranean countries, gesticulate a lot hence making communication easier.  Read more on hand gestures from my past post.

My advice:

Learn a few basics of the language before moving to foreign climes, even if it’s from a Lonely Planet phrasebook.

Don’t follow my (lazy) example and rely on taxi drivers to be your sole source of language instruction, you may learn more words than you bargained for!

Remember, we’re guests in our adopted countries…people are being kind by talking to us in English, therefore if we think they’re being rude, they probably aren’t (unless you can see they pointedly are!)

Talking of hand gestures…

I went into the butchers because I intend to try to make my own chicken liver pate.  I don’t know what chicken livers are in Greek….you try miming “chicken livers” to a butcher.  I will leave it to your imagination…suffice to say I got there in the end -after about 5 minutes – a growing queue of bemuzed locals.

Ah, she’s foreign

they nodded to themselves, as if that explained everything.

Header photo by Unsplash (Pixabay)


  1. Even in American cities, taxi drivers often use hand gestures (and more often than not, they’re not being polite). Good insights.

  2. LOL – Yes, there is a particular Greek hand gesture that I can think of that is not polite: palm raised and aiming to push it into the other person’s face is very rude and likely to get one into a fight.

  3. It’s interesting how subjective politeness is, isn’t it? I have to remember when I return to the UK to not say “Give me sugar” when I go to a cafe to have a cup of tea – it’s not something I would even say to my own father!

    Language differences/translations account for a lot of misunderstandings.

  4. The French are pretty direct too, but generally quite respectful with it. Even if someone is being grumpy with you, they’ll still say Madame or Monsieur! And they love their hand gestures. Our kids come out with them all the time, and it’s great. Since Rors has begun collège, he’s taken to doing the exaggerated shrug with arms outstretched and an accompanying ‘pfft’ from a downturned mouth. Is he getting that from a fellow pupil or a teacher, I wonder!

  5. Steph – the Greeks have a version of the ‘shrug pffft’ too!
    It’s a raise of the eyes, a slight throw back of the head and an big “Ehhhhh!” that erupts, together with a shrug as if to say “And????”
    And don’t get me started on the non verbal “No”: raised eyes, slight throw back of head, jutting out of chin (as if about to nod) and a slight cluck/tut of the tongue. I thought they were saying “Yes” initially, and got very confused!

    Looking forward to your post when you conribute

  6. I shall never forget when I first came to the US from Europe, I thought how rude Americans were not to say, “Excuse me please, but where can I….?” Instead they woiuld stop someone and say, “Where can I…?” Now that I’ve lived in the US for 30 yers, I say the same as they do, and when I go back to England, I have to remember to switch back to my polite manners.

  7. In greek there are a few things that are easily misunderstood. we have the plural from for politeness. it doesnt exist in english as you is the same for singular and plural. in greek there is a difference when addressing someone in saying “ti kaneis?” and “ti kanete” if u refer to a person in the plural it is considered polite and respectful. same with the verb tenses. “tha ithela” is more polite than “thelo”. its small nuanced which alot of languages have which if you dont live within the society its easy to miss and misunderstand for rudeness. I tend to find that its the people who are rude or polite all languages have ways to express things both rude and polite. I find i make rude comments by mistake in english by unthinkingly translating greek directly. for example i was talking to a colleague today and she said she wasnt married and I said “so you are a free bird” without thinking. in greek it means that either a man or a woman is single and free to fly and not in a cage. in english a bird is a kinda rude way to refer to women. Had to apologise once i realised what i said :). wow long comment.

  8. Thanks for these observations from a native Greek, Vassillis…and yes, calling an English speaking co-worker a ‘free bird,’ well, it depends on how well you know them!
    “Bird” in the use of the English language is a very informal term for “woman.”

    Interesting that you back up that you do, occasionally, slip into translating directly from Greek to English. As I said, I do this from English to Greek and end up saying about 3-4 pleases and thank you’s in one sentence, completely baffling the Greeks (or the taxi driver’s anyway).


  9. The general belief at least where I grew is that please and thank you are precious and should be used for situations that warrant it. The rest of time the respectful form of phrase and tone should be used. Same way that you might refer to an elder as thio or pappou and so on. Making a stranger fanily.

  10. I agree with all this. It can certainly be jarring when someone seems rude or seems to be standing awkwardly close to you, but that is their normal. You live and learn!

  11. Thanks for the observation Chuck, and for reading the post :0)

    Ahhh yes, the relative definition of ‘norm’…actually, apparently there is no Greek phrase for ‘Privacy,’ so maybe the concept of personal space and lack of inquisitiveness is confusing in Greece? Any Greeks reading this, please correct me if I’m wrong.

    And us Brits – our sarcastic,dry sense of humour can be mistaken for waspishness at times ;0)

  12. Hi Bex! Great observations as always! There are indeed more than one words for “privacy” in Greek, either one-word (e.g.ιδιωτικότητα) or periphrastic (e.g.ιδιωτικός/προσωπικός χώρος), so I’d say it’s more of a difference in what notion consists of. In Greece for example it is not considered rude or intrusive to stand close to and/or touch someone (in a reasonable context of course!). It all comes down to the way of behaving, the respect one shows. That’s why at one occasion you might see someone reacting to such a proximity and at another accepting it. It is the same in oral expression. It is considered equally polite to say “would you please bring me a glass of water?” and “can I have a glass of water?”, as long as the tone is respectful and kind. All in all a respectful and kind attitude and tone is considered much more importand in everyday life, it is what is considered as the genuinely polite behaviour. If you take notice, it is more recognised than polite words and usually reciprocated. 🙂

  13. Thanks for the corrections Nancy.
    Yes, I would agree whole heartedly that actions speak a lot louder than words (hence why I love gesticulations in this part of the world).
    And tone plays an important role too. An interesting experiment would be to say something relatively ‘rude,’ but with an up and down pitch and big smile on one’s face! I dunno, like “Go to hell”!
    Joking, of course ;0)

    But yes, a smile goes a long way, as does a self-depricating shrug of shoulders. People love it if can point and laugh at your own stupidity, regardless of nationality.

  14. tone of voice and intentions is important in greek. for example the expression “gia se parakalo” word for word is polite as it could be translated as “excuse me”. however the majority of times in greek it is part of an argument ans in shouting Excuse me who do you think you are. Languages and how people use them is a fascinating subject. a neverending subject as it always changes.