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Currently I am reading a book entitled "Conversational American English expressions". I found this book very interesting because the author elaborates the level of decency of each phrase depending on the type of the social encounter.

However, it triggers a thought within me that I, as a non-native English speaker, should notice how others are addressing me and the way they are talking to me. For instance, in the book it was mentioned that Wassup? is a slang greeting. Thus, if a stranger is greeting me by using this phrase should I feel disrespected? Another example for slang way to ask someone how things are going is how's it shakin'?

Consequently, if the answer is yes, these are inappropriate phrases to use in a respectful conversation with s How should you respond? Watch your mouth? You crossed the line? You shouldn't talk to me in that way?

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    The answer really depends on which slang expressions they're using with you. I wouldn't think wassup or how's it shakin' as being disrespectful. Aug 18, 2023 at 21:02
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    @YosefBaskin True, but there are times when friendliness is not expected. Don't say, "How's it hanging, Your Honor?" when you take the stand at court.
    – Barmar
    Aug 18, 2023 at 22:15
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    What's up hasn't been slang for 20y, unless you put three extra S's in there. how's it shakin' is archaic (is it making a comeback?). You're from somewhere that has to conjugate its pronouns and there's high and low speech? Yeah, we don't have that. We have derogatory and pompous. Between that is everything else and informal (aka, common parlance; which you will get no good answer here for because I can't use swears) "I'm American, honey. Our names don't mean shit." – Pulp Fiction
    – Mazura
    Aug 19, 2023 at 17:30
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    I continue to wonder about questions that are asked here that seem to be really about culture rather than language. Do other languages... not have slang? Do they lack a concept of formality? Do their speakers not have social expectations about speaking register? Do their listeners not make assumptions about people based on how they speak? Or do people who don't have English as their first language, assume that English is somehow different in this regard, just because it's English? Aug 19, 2023 at 19:21
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    However you feel, do not respond aggressively like that. That would be awful! You might have completely misjudged the situation.
    – TonyK
    Aug 19, 2023 at 21:42

6 Answers 6

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This is mainly a cultural question, and I'll answer it from the perspective of someone familiar with US culture, specifically mid-west and north-east:

While usually considered informal, slang directed at strangers is an acceptable mode of conversation and is not typically considered cause for offense.

What matters far more than the mode of speech is the content and tone of the speech delivered. For example, by using different tones of voice, "what's up with you" can convey concern, contempt, or simply insincere salutation.

Most English speakers in the US do not use mode of speech as a subtlety.

Of course, exceptions to the above abound.

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    This is also true in Australia. Using slang or other informal speech is fine in almost every context with a few exceptions, such as in a courtroom. Similarly, in Australia tone is much more important than formality of language for english speakers. Aug 21, 2023 at 0:47
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    Actually, in Australia I'd say it works both ways. People sound terribly friendly ("how are you?") and takes time to realize that for them it's just as formulaic as "hello" elsewhere.
    – hmijail
    Aug 21, 2023 at 2:21
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Postel's Law applies: "be conservative in what you do, be liberal in what you accept".

If addressing somebody you don't know, be careful in how you phrase things until you understand what they might and will not consider offensive. If being addressed by somebody you don't know, bear in mind that they might not know any better than to use slang.

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If a native speaker addresses you with Wassup in a normal everyday situation, it means that they are saying hello in a manner that they consider friendly and collegiate. It is not very formal, but formality usually has little to do with either respect or friendliness.

Note that formality is not something we generally do with friends or people we love.

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However, it triggers a thought within me that I, as a non-native English speaker, should notice how others are addressing me [...] For instance, in the book it was mentioned that Wassup? is a slang greeting. Thus, if a stranger is greeting me by using this phrase should I feel disrespected?

Absolutely not. At least not in the U.S. Perhaps it's different elsewhere.

In the U.S., disrespect is nearly always conveyed with direct, unambiguous insults, not diction. If someone says "wassup" or "'sup" no disrespect is intended. That's just how they talk.

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    This is very interesting to know. I think it is a cultural thing. Moreover, in my own culture if I am a man in my early 40s talking to a stranger like a waiter or a cashier and he/she (specially if much younger like early 20s) is using slang words with me, this will be an indication of indirect disrespect or belittling as he/she should use formal language when dealing with customers. However, this seems not the case in the US obviously. Aug 20, 2023 at 8:36
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    @AhmedAbdellatif - Specifically with respect to casual interactions in a retail environment - store, gas station, taxi, restaurant - everyone acts as if everyone else is their pal. Except for the snootiest of restaurants or high-end retail establishments there is no sense at all that the employee needs to be formal when dealing with customers. Polite, yes. But formal: no way. Plus, difference in age is typically no barrier either.
    – davidbak
    Aug 20, 2023 at 20:50
  • @davidbak Do you recommend an article or a book (other than the cultural map) that elaborates more on this cultural topic? Specifically day to day in real life interactions between people in north America and what is considered polite and what is not? Aug 21, 2023 at 8:52
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    @AhmedAbdellatif - oh, well: that's like asking a fish to describe water. I grew up here ... it's just the way things are. I sort of cringe to think how I've inadvertently offended people when travelling in Europe just behaving like myself. (Good thing I've never been to Germany.) So I've never looked for that information. You'll have to ask a non-native.
    – davidbak
    Aug 21, 2023 at 14:09
  • It all depends on what you mean by slang words.
    – Lambie
    5 hours ago
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I would be more likely to take overly formal speech as rude than overly informal, though it depends a great deal on context, and also on the relationship. If I were applying for a job or a bank loan my speech would be a great deal more formal than if I were talking to a stranger about the weather.

Context is very important, and is really hard to understand without shared cultural background. For example, in the US the computer industry is known for having a far more more informal business culture than the banking industry. In my experience people who intend to be rude are more likely to use formal speech patterns than informal!

In some situations people might not even be aware that they are using slang terms; for example, I was teaching a class on professional practices to a group of my new colleagues and addressed them as "y'all", and then had a brief digression to discuss regional speech patterns they might encounter.

In short, informal speech is more likely to be intended as friendly than as a sign of disrespect, but the converse is not true -- formal speech is often used as a sign of respect or deference to authority.

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This problem in interaction is more a question of distance than of respect, until you can determine that the person that seems not to take into account the notion of distance does that deliberately in order to show some contempt. This may be the case on an initial encounter but it can be very difficult to decide whether this is so; consequently, it is probably better not to take offense too soon, and to do as advised in the comments above (user Barmar), that is, avoid to adopt a similar level of informality; that is a good idea since, in any case, you believe it does not correspond to the situation at hand; in other words, you cannot be reproached with preserving your integrity.

However, you should not take it for granted that your new acquaintance is necessarily fully at ease with a range of behaviours proper in various circumstances, or in other words that he/she is to the manner born when comes the time to use a proper level of formality. It takes some people sometimes a little longer to internalize behaviours that are to them rather unusual, and until they have become comfortable with those, which might, for certain individuals, be never, it is not a negligible imposition on their person to demand of them to adhere to those manners. If the interaction is to be prolonged over a long period, you might just have to be resigned in the thought that your acquaintance is not quite capable of identifying the proper level of formality and/or feels awkward when trying to adhere to manners that aren't quite his/hers, which means preserving your formality while accepting the informal counterpart; I must admit that such an interaction is bound to be found intolerable to many, but the only alternatives are training that person to adopt other norms of politeness or revert to arrangements in which this interaction has no more any reason to exist. Those alternatives, however, are merely theory: it is not much of a problem, in a court of law to whisper into the unknowing witness's ear that he/she should address the judge as "Your Honour", but life is not a court of law.

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    Was an AI assistant used to write this? Aug 21, 2023 at 18:02
  • @PeterMortensen No, if it had been the case I would have mentioned it as a reference, since an AI assistant has to be considered as an author; there seems to me to be no other way.
    – LPH
    Aug 21, 2023 at 18:28

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