Blog Entries

Social Distance

From the series Effective Language and Culture Acquisition


COVID-19 has everyone scrambling to mitigate its spread. Elites among the experts, from the World Health Organization to the Centers for Disease Control to the National Institutes of Health issue directives and best guesses that change from day to day, reminding us that much is still unknown about the virus. Vaccines and palliatives are on fast tracks of development, despite the unknowns.

As I write this blog, my wife and I are under self-quarantine at home, keeping “social distance” from others, one of the things we can do to slow the spread of the disease. Other “social distance” things are avoiding groups of 10 or more and maintaining a minimum distance of three to six feet from other individuals.

I put “social distance” in quotation marks because this is a new meaning for that expression. In my opinion, “physical distance” would be more accurate. Since the late 19th century, sociologists and linguists have researched and debated “social distance” in their respective disciplines. Neither sociology nor linguistics includes any shade of pathological connotation in the expression.

“Social distance studies tend to begin with social categories that form the units of analysis: race, class, ethnicity, gender, religion, and so on.”[1] In other words, group identities and relationships between groups are what characterize sociological research pertaining to so-called social distance.

As for the study of language, there are linguistic markers which signal social distance between individuals. That is most salient in forms of address. For example, in most languages, the longer the [title + name], the more formal the form of address and the greater the social distance between individuals. For example:

Fkjkfjkfjk Skfjskfjskfj
Sfjkfjskfj Sfksfjkfjskfj
Sfjksfjskfjskfj Fjskfjskfj
Sjfskfj Sfjdkfjskfjksfj
Fksjfskjfksfjk sfkjfksfjkfjk
Greatest DistanceDr. Mark Newland
A Little CloserDr. Newland
CloserMark Newland (Titles, especially something like “Dr.,” adds distance.)
CloseMark
Closest“Hey, you!” (Just kidding!)

Such variants in forms of address are dynamic, being subject to such things as appropriateness of the occasion, intimacy of relationships, genders of discourse participants, and cultural norms. We learn proper expressions intuitively as we grow up. However, any second language learner will attest that using appropriate forms of address in the target language is where we make frequent errors.

From antiquity, most Chinese relationships have been hierarchical, having prescribed social distance. For instance, the teacher-student relationship is clearly defined, and the social distance between the two is evident in the [title + name] forms of address, e.g. “Teacher Zhang” and “Student Li.” In China, I was used to being called “Professor Newland” or “Dr. Newland.”

Then imagine my surprise one day in the late 1990s when one student addressed me as “Mark” in class! For a moment, I was speechless with two conflicting thoughts. On the one hand, I was confused by this violation of Confucius-inspired social protocol. On the other hand, I was flattered that someone felt close enough to shorten the social distance between us.

Since then, students, colleagues, and my other friends have almost all taken to calling me “Mark.” It gives me a warm feeling that they have welcomed me into their world. I think it also is an indicator of social change in China. With China’s drive toward globalization, ubiquitous access to the Internet, and explosion in international travel and tourism, millions of Chinese are becoming citizens of the world. One thing they like is the informality of the West, the tendency to get on a first-name basis. So I am “Mark.”

I think all this is fine, except that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. I remember one evening when I gave a linguistics lecture to some 400 students and teachers. During the Q&A period at the end, one young man stood up and said, “Mark, I have a question….” I cringed inside. Here we were in a formal environment in a packed auditorium. I was even wearing a coat and tie! Social distance was a characteristic feature of an event like that. No matter how comfortable he may have felt with me, “Dr. Newland” should have been the pragmatic choice of address in that environment.

Besides forms of address, there are other linguistic markers of social distance, such as honorifics, which Merriam-Webster defines as “an honorific term of address especially as used in some Asian cultures to convey verbal respect.”[2] Actually, in my opinion, Merriam-Webster doesn’t get it quite right. The second person singular pronoun, “you” in English, has two forms in both Chinese and French, among other languages, and the connotations and usages are almost identical.

The Chinese terms for singular “you” are ni [你] and nin [您]. Ni is the everyday “you” (singular) and can be used in every environment. Nin is the honorific “you” (singular), and is appropriately used in an environment where there is some social distance between the speaker and listener, as when the listener is an older person or one who has a higher rank than the speaker.

Interestingly, in both Chinese and French, the non-honorific singular “you” form (ni in Chinese and tu in French) is always used when addressing God in prayer. I am still mystified by this. After all, God is transcendent, holy, utterly beyond us. If ever there is a case of social distance, it is when the creature communicates with the Creator.

But God is also closer than a brother to people of faith and obedience. That erases social distance. So should I address God as the Familiar Friend or as the Transcendent One?

Centuries of tradition have solidified the usage of ni, tu, and similar informal forms as the proper way to address God in prayer. Apparently, to people of faith, God’s proximity carries more weight than his transcendence when it comes to addressing him in prayer.

Today my wife and I are self-quarantined at home, watching the TV pundits pontificate about “social distance.” They are talking about the coronavirus, while I keep talking to the TV set, telling them that they should get a better handle on English. It’s “physical distance,” don’t you know?


[1] https://journals.openedition.org/cybergeo/227?lang=en

[2] http://unabridged.merriam-webster.com/unabridged/honorifics

Image credit: Gerd Altmann from Pixabay.

Mark Newland

Mark Newland (pseudonym) lived in Taiwan for a decade and since then has lived and worked for extended periods in the People's Republic of China. His PhD is in General Linguistics, reflecting his deep interest in language and culture. He has been involved in a wide variety of pursuits in …View Full Bio


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