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Impoliteness in context: impoliteness, gender and construction of identities at a South African university.

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This thesis explores gender and impoliteness in the multilingual and multicultural context of the University of Natal, South Africa. My study uses respondents' perceptions of impoliteness to investigate how male and female students of different African cultures and language backgrounds construct and reconstruct their identities through their choices to use the languages available at the University of Natal. The study was motivated by a perceived dearth of research into gender-sensitive accounts of multilingual situations. The goal of this study is to contribute to the understanding of the invention of identities in a multilingual, multicultural and multiracial environment, while interrogating the relationship between impoliteness, whether perceived or intended, and the gendered identities available to the different African subgroups at the university. Hence the thesis reviews recent theoretical approaches to intercultural communication, impoliteness and gender, and attempts to identify a suitable framework for the understanding of gendered aspects of multilingualism in the university. A combination of qualitative and quantitative research methodologies was adopted for the study. I used several modes of data collection which included indirect observation carried out through the reporting of perceived impoliteness, questionnaire surveys for evaluations of instances of impoliteness and focus group discussions with different categories of students. Discourse analysis was drawn on for the presentation of the data. The body of data reveals that while there are some general perceptions of impoliteness amongst the students that transcend culture and language diversity, differences in the perceptions of and responses to impoliteness impact greatly on the ability of individuals to communicate effectively. The study shows that the different groups identified in the study: Zulu bradas, dilute males, Model C guys, diverse males, modern Zulu women and decisive females, whilst they are attending university, decide on and construct their identities according to their preferences. This is not necessarily a matter of their original cultural identity, especially in the case of the modern Zulu women, decisive females and Model C guys. A range of different identities from which the individual may choose is made possible at the university, given that the university has its own, non-ethnic culture. The preferred identity varies amongst the students: for instance, the Zulu bradas' desire to be seen as 'traditional' pushes them to construct a 'traditional' - as they see it - Zulu identity. The decisive females in contrast are far less culture-conscious and construct an identity that is related to their personal needs. Consequently, some respondents construct communal and others individual identities. The students' interpretations and judgements of impoliteness reveal that the preferred identities influence their evaluations of behaviour. Similarly, the gender of perceiver or speaker may influence the interpretation and assessment of the degree of impoliteness. A majority of the male respondents draw on gendered cultural expectations in their judgements, while the female respondents were more egalitarian in their approach. Identity in this study emerges as crucial for the understanding of impoliteness. The study further shows that whenever the individual's constructed identity is seen to be under attack, a student may respond with equal impoliteness to defend him/herself. While this research is specifically located in the context of the University of Natal, it is relevant to the South African workplace today, where linguistic and cultural diversity may enhance or impede racial integration and gender equality.


Thesis (Ph.D.)-University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, 2007.


Intercultural communication--South Africa., Sociolinguistics--South Africa., Language and languages--Sex differences., Students--KwaZulu-Natal--Attitudes., Theses--Gender studies.