The ‘serious’ event that the American linguist Charles Ferguson is referring to in these ominous lines is the outcome of an informal experiment he had conducted as a preliminary step in his research into what he calls ‘politeness formulas’. Against his normal practice, he deliberately failed to return his secretary’s customary ‘Good morning’ on two successive occasions. While the first omission merely caused surprise, by the time he had greeted her with no more than a silent smile for the second time considerable tension had developed in his office and his colleagues were seriously beginning to wonder what was wrong with him (was he on the verge of a breakdown? Was his marriage collapsing?). Misunderstandings like this are easily repaired with a simple explanation and an apology, but trivial though this isolated episode may be, taken together with Ferguson’s zoological parallels it serves to show that even such mundane routines as greetings are both rule-governed and culturally relative activities. In other words, there are particular ways of ‘doing’ greetings and these may differ from one culture to another, indeed even among subgroups within one culture. For example, in a Chinese workplace, Ferguson’s behaviour would have been considered perfectly normal.
■ Greetings constitute one speech event among many that make up a substantial proportion of our everyday encounters with other people. Others include asking for directions, making/accepting/ declining an offer of a drink, making an appointment, telling a joke/story. Can you add to this list? Choose one speech event and analyse in as much detail as possible the ‘rules’ that apply to its structure (a) in your own cultural environment and (b) in any German-speaking environment with which you are familiar (or consult a native speaker of German). You will need to take into account such variable factors as the following: do the participants know each other? If so, how well and on what basis? Is one older than the other(s)? Are some elements of the structure obligatory and others optional? Is there a particular sequence in which the