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The Oxford Handbook of Pragmatics

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20 Politeness and Impoliteness

Penelope Brown is a Senior Researcher Emeritus at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen, The Netherlands. She has worked for many years in a Tzeltal Maya community in southern Mexico, on research that broadly addresses relationships between language, culture and cognition and ranges across spatial language and cognition, conversational structure and inference, the systematics of social interaction and child language socialization. She is (with Stephen Levinson) the author of Politeness: some universals in language usage, and editor (with Melissa Bowerman) of Crosslinguistic perspectives on argumentsStructure: implications for language acquisition. She is currently writing two books based on her research in Mexico, one on Tzeltal conversation, the other on spatial language and cognition.

  • Published: 09 June 2015
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This article selectively reviews the literature on politeness across different disciplines—linguistics, anthropology, communications, conversation analysis, social psychology, and sociology—and critically assesses how both theoretical approaches to politeness and research on linguistic politeness phenomena have evolved over the past forty years. Major new developments include a shift from predominantly linguistic approaches to those examining politeness and impoliteness as processes that are embedded and negotiated in interactional and cultural contexts, as well as a greater focus on how both politeness and interactional confrontation and conflict fit into our developing understanding of human cooperation and universal aspects of human social interaction.

20.1 Introduction

Politeness means many different things to different people. In lay terms it refers to socially correct or appropriate speech and behaviour. Its core sense is perhaps a matter of attention to interactional sensibilities, of speech and behaviour that attends to the feelings and expectations of those one is interacting with so that social interaction proceeds smoothly. Politeness is the oil that keeps the interactional hinges from creaking, and prevents offence by pre-emptively anticipating the possibilities for offence and offsetting them. Many folk notions capture different aspects of these kinds of attention to feelings, expressed in terms like manners, courtesy, tact, deference, sensibility, poise, rapport, urbanity, civility, graciousness, as well as terms for the contrasting behaviours—interactional offences such as rudeness, gaucheness, social gaffes, insults—and their consequences, from embarrassment or humiliation to conflict and even warfare. Such terms attest both to the pervasiveness of notions of politeness and to their cultural and situational framing. Politeness in its varying forms is an issue in every culture, and—at least latently—in every social interaction.

The written history of attention to politeness goes way back, with for example prescriptive etiquette books dating back to ancient Egyptian times ( Terkourafi 2011 ) and extending up into modern times with prescriptions in the popular media (e.g. the American Ann Landers and Dear Abby advice columns), and to Henri Bergson’s (1885) philosophical discourse on three kinds or senses of politeness: politeness of manners as ‘some art of testifying to each by his attitude and words, the esteem and consideration to which he is entitled’, politeness of mind as the intellectual flexibility involved in ‘the faculty of putting oneself in the place of others’, and politeness of the heart , as the ‘grace of the spirit’ exemplified in words and movements detached from usefulness and aiming only to please. Linguists too have puzzled over how to analyse routinized formulaic utterances, including stereotypical polite formulae, as part of a linguistic system (e.g. Ferguson 1976 ; Coulmas 1981 , 1991 ), and since the 1970s, politeness has been a major focus for work in linguistic pragmatics.

Clearly, such a wide range of notions covers much ground, from etiquette to morality. But what these notions have in common is this: generally, such attention to interactional expectations and feelings requires work, the production of some kind of evidence that one is attending to interlocutors’ concerns, and hence deviations from the direct efficient expression of Gricean communicative intentions ( Grice 1975 ). This observation was the motivation behind the scientific study of politeness as a linguistic phenomenon, which began in the early 1970s with a paper by Robin Lakoff (1973) using a Gricean framework to understand linguistic politeness. A broader view of politeness considers it to be an intrinsic aspect of social interaction, crucial to the construction and maintenance of social relationships (Goffman 1967a , b ; Gumperz 1982b ; Goody 1995 ) and hence bearing on human cooperation and universals in human interaction ( Carrithers 1992 ; Enfield and Levinson 2006 ; Tomasello 2008 , 2009 ). In this perspective, politeness in communication goes right to the heart of social life and interaction; indeed it is probably a precondition for human cooperation in general. Language use is a crucial arena for expressing and negotiating such cooperation, and politeness is the feature of language use that most clearly reveals the nature of human sociality as expressed in speech.

Politeness phenomena have therefore attracted interest in a wide range of social sciences, particularly linguistics, anthropology, social psychology, sociology, and communication. In this article I survey work in these disciplines that focuses on linguistic politeness. I first present—in section 20.2 —the theories of the ‘founding parents’ of the study of linguistic politeness: the linguists Robin Lakoff and Geoffrey Leech and the linguistic anthropologists Penelope Brown and Stephen Levinson, all of whom attempted to capture general principles of politeness with some claim to universality. In section 20.3 , I discuss a range of critiques of these universalist approaches and the corresponding alternative proposals. Section 20.4 surveys some empirical findings of research on politeness in different cultural settings, focusing mainly on work since 1990 and especially on recent attention to impoliteness and interactional conflict. The final section offers some conclusions and suggestions for future research.

20.2 Different Approaches to Defining and Analysing Linguistic Politeness

The first steps in an analytical approach to politeness were taken in the 1970s and ’80s. Three distinct approaches can be identified.

(a) Politeness as social rules or norms.

To the layman, politeness is a concept designating ‘proper’ social conduct, rules for speech and behaviour stemming generally from high-status individuals or groups. In literate societies such rules are often formulated in etiquette books. These ‘emic’ notions range from polite formulae like please and thank you , the forms of greetings and farewells, etc., to more elaborate routines for table manners, or the protocol for formal events. Politeness in this view is conventionally attached to certain linguistic forms and formulaic expressions, which may be explicitly taught to children and may be very different in different languages and cultures. This is how the ‘person on the street’ tends to think about politeness, as inhering in particular forms of words.

Some analytical approaches to politeness are formulated in terms of the same sorts of culture-specific rules for doing what is socially acceptable: for example, the work by Ide and others on Japanese politeness as social indexing or ‘discernment’ ( Ide 1989 ; see also Watts et al. 1992 ). In these approaches, politeness is a matter of social norms, and inheres in particular linguistic forms when used appropriately as markers of pre-given social categories. This approach is most appropriate for fixed aspects of language use—the more or less obligatory social marking of relatively unalterable social categories and social actions.

The two other approaches were influenced by Generative Semantics, and share an interest in developing a general theory of the construction of polite utterances.

(b) Politeness as adherence to Politeness Maxims.

A second rule-based approach derives politeness as a set of social conventions coordinate with Grice’s Cooperative Principle for maximally efficient information transmission (‘Make your contribution such as required by the purposes of the conversation at the moment’), with its four ‘Maxims’ of Quality, Quantity, Relevance, and Manner ( Grice 1975 ; see Huang this volume). Lakoff (1973) suggested that three ‘rules of rapport’ underlie the choice of linguistic expression, rules which can account for how speakers deviate from directly expressing meanings. Choice among these three pragmatic rules (‘Don’t impose’, ‘Give options’, ‘Be friendly’) gives rise to distinct communicative styles. Lakoff (1973) aims to identify general rules guiding interaction, arguing that ‘[p]‌oliteness is a system of interpersonal relations designed to facilitate interaction by minimizing the potential for conflict and confrontation inherent in all human interchange’ ( Lakoff 1990 : 34).

Leech’s more detailed proposal (1983) is in the same vein. Complementary to Grice’s Cooperative Principle, Leech proposes a Politeness Principle—‘Minimize the expression of impolite beliefs,’ with the six Maxims of Tact, Generosity, Approbation, Modesty, Agreement, Sympathy. As with Grice’s Maxims, deviations from what is expected give rise to inferences. Cross-cultural differences, in Leech’s theory, derive from the different importance attached to particular maxims, which provide pragmatic scales that are ‘very widespread in human societies, but their interpretation differs from society to society, just as their encoding differs from language to language’ ( Leech 2007 : 200).

The conversational maxim approach shares with the social norm approach the emphasis on codified social rules for minimizing friction between interactors and the view that deviations from expected levels or forms of politeness carry specific messages.

(c) Politeness as strategic face management.

A more sociological perspective places ‘face work’ at the core of politeness. The sociologist Erving Goffman ( 1967a , b ) considered politeness as an aspect of interpersonal ritual, central to public order. He defined face as an individual’s publicly manifest self-esteem, and proposed that social members have two kinds of face requirements: positive face, or the want for approval from others, and negative face, or the want not to offend others. Attention to these face requirements is a matter of orientation to Goffman’s ‘diplomatic fiction of the virtual offense, or worst possible reading’ ( Goffman 1971 : 138ff.), the working assumption that face is always potentially at risk, so that any interactional act with a social–relational dimension is inherently face-threatening and needs to be modified by appropriate forms of politeness.

Brown and Levinson ( 1978 , 1987 ) drew on Goffman’s analysis but introduced a new, comparative perspective by drawing attention to the detailed parallels in the construction of polite utterances across widely differing languages and cultures, and argued that universal principles underlie the construction of polite utterances. The cross-linguistic parallels they noted are of two sorts: how the polite expression of utterances is modified in relation to social characteristics of the interlocutors and the situation, and how polite utterances are linguistically constructed. At least three social factors are involved in deciding how to be polite: (a) one tends to be more polite to social superiors; (b) one tends to be more polite to people one doesn’t know. In the first case, politeness tends to go one way upwards (the superior is less polite to an inferior); in the second, politeness tends to be symmetrically exchanged. (This regular pattern of language use was first described by R. Brown and Gilman (1960) for the ‘T/V’ ( tu / vous ) pronouns of ‘power’ and ‘solidarity’.) In addition, (c) in any culture there are norms and values affecting the degree of imposition or unwelcomeness of an utterance, and one tends to be more polite for more serious impositions.

In language there are also detailed parallels, with the linguistic structures for realizing particular kinds of politeness displaying remarkable similarities across languages. The politeness of solidarity is characterized, for example, by the use of intensifiers, in-group identity markers and address forms, exaggerated intonation patterns, and forms for seeking or emphasizing agreement and avoiding disagreement. Avoidance-based politeness is characterized by self-effacement, formality, restraint, deference, with the use of honorifics, hedges, indirect speech acts, and impersonalizing mechanisms like pluralization of pronouns, nominalization, and passive constructions.

The question motivating Brown and Levinson’s approach to politeness is this: Why are these kinds of detailed parallels across languages and cultures to be found in the minutiae of linguistic expression in socially analogous contexts? Explanations in terms of social norms or rules can account for politeness in a particular social group, but not the cross-cultural patterns, which seem to require a strategic account in terms of what people generally are trying to do when they are being polite. Brown and Levinson ( 1978 , 1987 ) proposed an abstract model of politeness wherein human actors are endowed with two essential attributes: face and rationality . Face consists of two specific kinds of wants: positive face (i.e. the desire to be approved of, admired, liked, validated), and negative face (the desire to be unimposed upon, unimpeded in one’s actions). The second ingredient in the model—rationality—provides for the ability to reason from communicative goals to linguistic means that would achieve these goals. From these two assumptions—face and rationality—and the assumption that speakers mutually know that all interlocutors have these attributes, Brown and Levinson developed a model of how speakers construct polite utterances in different contexts on the basis of assessments of three social factors: the relative power (P) of speaker and addressee in the context, their social distance (D), and the intrinsic ranking (R) of the face-threateningness of an imposition. P, D, and R are seen as abstract social dimensions indexing kinds of social relationship (P and D) and cultural values and definitions of impositions or threats to face (R).

Brown and Levinson distinguish five general types of strategies of politeness, ranging from avoiding a face-threatening act (FTA) altogether, to carrying it out but ‘off-record’ (indirectly). On-record realization of an FTA can be done without any redressive action at all (‘baldly’). It may be carried out with positive redress, which is essentially approach-based, addressing the hearer’s positive face wants by emphasizing closeness and solidarity. Politeness may also be carried out with negative redress, which is essentially avoidance-based, addressing negative face wants for distance, deference, freedom from unexpectable impositions. Speakers are assumed to choose the linguistic framing of their utterance from this set of strategic possibilities according to the weightiness of the FTA, which is assessed with reference to the three contextually dependent social factors P, D, and R. For low levels of FTA threat, bald on-record or positive politeness is most appropriate and cost-effective; for higher levels, negative politeness is required; for the highest threats, indirectness is the safe option.

In short, the argument is that there are universal dimensions to cultural values and social structures, which can be abstracted from the variety of individual societies and compared—that underlying the variety, in all societies people recognize degrees of social distance, degrees of (vertical) social hierarchy, and degrees of impositions which can be made to their universally recognized desires to maintain ‘face’, and that universal pragmatic principles produce cross-linguistic parallels in the ways in which people linguistically encode their speech acts in different contexts. Cross-cultural variability in politeness is attributable to facts of social structure, cultural meaning, and cultural value (how hierarchical/egalitarian is the society, how much value do people place on respect and social distance vs brotherhood and conviviality, what kinds of social relationships do they have, how do they define situations and activities and what kinds do they find especially threatening, etc.), but across diverse societies, the same principles are at work producing analogous ways of putting things—communicative styles—in relatively analogous situations (e.g. intimate vs formal). However culturally and situationally variable the kinds of social relationship and kinds of face threat might be, underlying them are pan-cultural social dimensions (relative power, social distance, ranking of face threateningness) which universally go into the reckoning—and the interpretation—of strategic language choice, and hence one can derive the cross-cultural similarities in choice of linguistic realizations of politeness strategies that empirically seem to be in evidence. Brown and Levinson claimed further that stable social relationships are characterized in part by stable patterns of language use, which may distinguish particular societies or social groups, and that therefore their model of politeness universals could be applied in particular cultural settings as an ethnographic tool for analysing the quality of social relationships in any society.

This model of politeness provides a set of analytical tools for studying linguistic politeness, and makes detailed predictions about what one will—and won’t—find when looking at patterns of politeness in different cultures. It stimulated a flurry of research on politeness, as well as a barrage of critiques from many directions, to which we now turn.

20.3 Critiques of Politeness Theory

The goal of Brown and Levinson was ambitious: to formulate a universally applicable ‘etic’ set of concepts in terms of which politeness can be analysed in ‘emic’ terms for any particular society. Etic analytical concepts are drawn from a universal set, defined from outside a particular culture and used to compare behavioural or linguistic systems across different cultural groups; emic ones are within-culture meaningful ones used to describe a system in its own terms. The etic/emic distinction is derived from the linguists’ distinction between phonetic and phonemic analyses, and is often conflated with cross-cultural vs within-cultural analysis ( Jahoda 1995 ). Critiques of the Brown and Levinson model reveal several major points of contention about what politeness is, what an emic vs etic kind of analysis is, whether it is legitimate to generalize across cultural systems, and how a theory of politeness should be formulated. I review these in turn.

The universality of face and of politeness scales.

Many critics have challenged Brown and Levinson’s formulation (via Goffman and Durkheim) of positive and negative face wants, as a valid way of conceptualizing the universal underpinnings of politeness. Negative face, in particular, considered as wants for freedom from imposition, appears entirely too embedded in Western individualism to sit well with conceptions of face in some other (e.g. East Asian) cultures. In part, this objection is due to a misconstrual: face wants in the Brown and Levinson model are abstract; they do not necessarily correspond clearly to conscious emic notions in a particular cultural setting. What Brown and Levinson claimed is that underlying very diverse folk notions is a cross-culturally applicable core of two interactionally relevant wants (for ratification and for freedom from impositions), desires concerning one’s public self-image in the context of the moment of articulating a communicative intention which are assumptions oriented to in interaction . Other theorists (e.g. O’Driscoll 1996 ; Arundale 1999 ) have argued for notions of positive/negative face that are even more abstract, in terms of merging/individuation or closeness/separation, as the universal heart of politeness. In this highly abstract sense, politeness has universal aspects, and these universals are consistent with the many different cultural ideologies concerning polite speech that can be found in different social groups.

Challenges to the universality of the Brown and Levinson model also extend to the proposed hierarchy of increasing politeness (from bald on-record to positive to negative to indirectness) with increasing threat to face. Assessments of the P, D, R factors are both situationally and culturally very variable, it is possible to accumulate different strategies in one utterance and to balance elements of negative politeness with positive politeness in one communicative act, and indirectness is not always seen as the most polite option; indeed, there are many uses of indirectness that can be construed as im polite (Blum-Kulka 1987 , 1989 ). These observations have led some researchers to argue against the possibility of identifying any kind of universal basis for polite behaviour; politeness is simply incommensurate across societies. Those who take this extreme relativistic line can have no explanation for the observable cross-cultural parallels in patterns of language use, for how people manage (sometimes) to understand others from culturally different backgrounds, or for cross-linguistic parallels in the diachronic sources of particular linguistic features—for example, honorifics—from politeness strategies.

Politeness as communicated or taken for granted.

In contrast with rule- and norm-based approaches, Brown and Levinson insist that politeness inheres not in words or in sentences per se, but in utterances uttered in a context, by virtue of the successful communication of a polite attitude or intention at that moment. Politeness is an implicature , an inference that may be conveyed by utterances spoken in context, by virtue of successful communication of a polite attitude or intention. Polite utterances are not necessarily communicating ‘real’ feelings about an interlocutor’s social persona, but expressing contextually expected concern for face. Politeness is ascribed to a speech act, or to an interactional move (if you prefer), not to a strategy or its linguistic realization per se. Even the use of apparently inherently polite formulae—like ‘please’, ‘thank you’, or honorifics and other ‘markers’ of social status—does not guarantee politeness in any given utterance, as they may be overridden by intonation or other contextual cues suggesting a lack of sincere polite attitude or intention. Politeness cannot be automatically ‘read off’ of a linguistic form—it is the use of the form in a specific context, along with the associated prosodic and kinesic features, that together produce a ‘meaning-in-context’ that is the basis of the assessment of the utterance as polite or not ( Brown 1995 ).

In other approaches to the analysis of polite phenomena (for example, Fraser’s (1990) ‘conversational contract’, Watts et al.’s (1992) ‘politic behavior’), politeness is taken to be the expected background to interaction; it is normally not communicated but consists in following expectations as to appropriate behaviour.

Broad vs narrow scopes for politeness theory.

Another bone of contention is the scope of phenomena considered under the rubric of ‘politeness’. The narrower view taken by Brown and Levinson takes politeness to be strategic orientation to potential face threats. Many motivations other than politeness guide human behaviour: there are some situations (e.g. task-oriented ones, highly urgent ones, confrontational ones) where politeness may be subsumed to other goals, and there are many reasons for being indirect in speech other than politeness (e.g. humour, irony, rhetorical force). A more inclusive view, favoured by many scholars in the fields of social psychology and communication, sees politeness as orientation to the social-relationship dimension of every interaction, with attention to face taken to be an omnipresent necessity. The whole continuum, from extreme politeness through a quite neutral level of politeness (maintaining the status quo, ‘discernment’) to rudeness to face attack (outright intentional face threat), then needs to be brought into the theory.

Politeness from the point of view of the individual, the dyad, or the social group.

The Brown and Levinson model takes the interacting dyad as its unit; it models how interlocutors pre-emptively foresee the possibilities for offending each other and adjust their utterances to display this attention, how they make inferences of politeness from one another’s strategic deviations from Gricean efficient communication, and how stable patterns of strategies that characterize particular dyadic interactions provide an index to the quality of the social relationship. Many of the Brown and Levinson politeness strategies are quintessential examples of ‘intersubjective perspective-taking’—putting oneself in the others’ position, which presumes a dyad as the minimal unit of analysis. Indeed, a major goal of Brown and Levinson was to insist on the centrality of social interaction as a significant level of social life, intermediate between the individual and society, where social/cultural facts (status, role, values, norms, rights, and obligations) are integrated with individual ones (goals, plans, strategies, communicative intentions).

Yet the Gricean foundation of the theory and the speech-act-based formulation of the strategies have made many critics see the Brown and Levinson model as purely psychological (how a speaker calculates how to frame an utterance). Arundale ( 1999 , 2006 ), for example, argues for a theory of how face is jointly constituted in ongoing interaction: it is not a property of individuals. In fact, I believe we need both perspectives: face is indisputably interactionally created and manipulated. Nevertheless, it can be considered from the point of view of the individual speaker or hearer (as Brown and Levinson do in their production/comprehension model), or of the society or social group (as Arundale’s ‘face constituting theory’ and most sociolinguists do). A more recent attempt at a broader theory of interpersonal communication incorporating politeness is the ‘rapport management theory’ of Spencer-Oatey ( 2000 , 2005 , 2007 , 2008 ). In both of these approaches, relations, not the individual or the dyad, are the focus, and both are more appropriate to the study of politeness in a specific cultural setting ( Watts’ 2003 ‘pol1’), rather than to assessing cross-cultural patterns and parallels in interaction.

A major reason for misconstruing the Brown and Levinson model as a psychological model of the individual is that, as formulated, it is too reliant on analysis at the utterance level, which places limitations on how applicable it is to analysing naturally occurring empirical data, as opposed to peoples’ judgements of relative politeness. To understand politeness phenomena in any situated context, we need to look at how politeness strategies evolve and are co-constructed through interactional time ( Kasper 1990 ; Haugh 2007 ).

The indeterminacy problem.

A further shortcoming of the Brown and Levinson model as an ethnographic tool for analysing the quality of social relationships in any society is that its usefulness in analysing naturally occurring interactions is undermined by the contextual dependency of ratings of the social factors. The problems of the mixing and ordering of strategies in ongoing discourse are compounded by the indeterminacy of context-dependent P, D, R assessments, which make it hard to reliably code levels of politeness in any concrete situation. This is a problem with any theory in terms of actors’ intentions when applied to empirical data; as both interactors and conversation analysts know, it is not always possible to be certain what interlocutors’ intentions are at a particular point in natural interaction.

First-order politeness (Pol1) vs second-order politeness (Pol2) and the nature of the individual/society relation.

A final critique is more fundamental; this is the postmodernist critique derived from Bourdieu (1977) , which rejects entirely the enterprise undertaken by Brown and Levinson. This is cast by Eelen (2001) , perhaps its most coherent advocate in the politeness literature, as follows: the ‘Parsonian’ models of linguistic politeness (a set to which the Brown and Levinson model is said to belong) share a flawed world view about the nature of language and social reality. They collapse emic/etic concepts and treat politeness as a characteristic of behaviour, related to social norms that are independent of speakers and hearers, with an implicit view of culture as an ‘ideal consensus’ and with politeness as the regulatory force geared to maintaining social order. Eelen prefers Bourdieu’s approach through ‘habitas’, with its three crucial properties of argumentativity, historicity, and discursiveness, which takes politeness to be a ‘moral argumentative social tool’, essentially contested (like ‘beauty’ or ‘democracy’). This perspective, says Eelen (2001 : 247) ‘provides a more dynamic, bi-directional view of the social-individual relationship’.

Watts (2003) takes a comparable line, distinguishing pol1 (a common-sense layman’s view of normative politeness) from pol2 (a scientific, comparative view of politeness principles), and preferring to look at pol1 (based on perceptions of the participants involved), in contrast to pol2 (based on researchers’ interpretations and on pragmatic theory). This distinction tends to go hand in hand with a focus on the interpretation and assessment of utterances (an evaluative hearer’s perspective, hence necessarily pol1) rather than on how polite utterances are constructed by speakers.

This argument, like all postmodernist posturing, draws a line in the sand: study a phenomenon my way or not at all. Comparative work is out of bounds, as there are no etic concepts applicable at the emic (culturally meaningful) level; all cultural phenomena are incommensurate. Recent examples of this ‘discursive’ approach can be found in Mills (2003) , Locher ( 2004 , 2006 ), Locher and Watts (2005) , and in a collection (2011) edited by the Linguistic Politeness Research Group.

In short, a major source of disagreement in research on politeness is whether or not it is legitimate to investigate cross-linguistic, cross-cultural commonalities in how people construct utterances in ways that display attention to their interlocutors’ social persona or ‘face’. Indeed, overviews of the Brown and Levinson programme from a ‘discursive’ perspective (e.g. Locher 2012 ) often ignore its main motivation: the universal patterns of distribution of politeness strategies across disparate languages and cultures. But this is the crucial claim of the Brown and Levinson theory—that there are analogous patterns of language use across contexts in widely differing cultural settings—and it has not (to my knowledge) been addressed in any alternative theory. The one kind of evidence which would really disprove the Brown/Levinson framework is if someone were to find a culture/language where the proposed parallels didn’t hold—for example, where small face-threats (as culturally defined) were handled with a lot of mitigating face-attention and large ones with less (other things being held constant), or where high-status people and strangers (as culturally defined) got imposed upon with less face redress than low-status people and intimates (other things held constant). No one has shown anything like this.

Even if we retain an interest in accounting for such universal aspects of politeness phenomena, the Brown and Levinson model of politeness as originally formulated clearly needs revision. The intellectual climate of research has changed radically in the four decades since the early 1970s, when the model was fostered at the University of California, Berkeley by the confluence of scholars there at the time—including the philosophers of language Paul Grice and John Searle, the linguistic anthropologists John Gumperz, Brent Berlin, and Paul Kay, the linguists George and Robin Lakoff and Charles Fillmore, and the psychologist Dan Slobin—all of whom were constructing innovative theories of language usage. The approach of Brown and Levinson, as anthropologists, was both empirically founded and comparative, based on language usage data drawn from recordings of naturally occurring interactions in two field sites—the Mayan community of Tenejapa in southern Mexico and Tamilnadu in South India—supplemented by American and British English recordings of interaction and by much published work on usage in other languages. The cross-linguistic, cross-cultural parallels are patently observable; the problem is to account for them in a way consonant with modern linguistic and anthropological theorizing. One promising attempt is Claudia Strauss’s proposal (2004) to incorporate a model of ‘cultural stance’-taking into a politeness model, to accommodate the observation that assessments of politeness are negotiable. Strauss’s claim is that a speaker expressing an opinion on a topic should indicate the cultural standing of that view in the relevant ‘opinion community’ ( Strauss 2004 : 161). She argues that Brown and Levinson’s politeness model and her cultural-standing model are complementary, in that neither is complete without the other: ‘Cultural standing considerations affect speakers’ judgments about what would be considered a possible FTA in the expression of opinions, and negative and positive politeness strategies for mitigating FTAs, while politeness considerations help explain why cultural standing is marked in discourse’ ( Strauss 2004 : 166).

Turning now from theoretical debates to empirical research, I will briefly summarize some of the major themes in work on politeness, broadly construed, over the past twenty-five years.

20.4 Empirical Results of Work on Politeness

Empirical studies of politeness phenomena have greatly increased the amount of information we have about language use and social interactional styles in different contexts and different societies. Many books and edited collections are devoted to describing politeness phenomena in particular settings (e.g. Coulmas 1981 , 1991 , Katriel 1986 , Blum-Kulka et al. 1989 , Bayraktaroglu 1991 , Sifianou 1992 , Watts, Ide, and Ehlich 1992 , and more recently, Bayraktaroglu and Sifianou 2001 , Hickey and Stewart 2005 , Lakoff and Ide 2005 , Placencia 2006 , Bargiela-Chiappini and Kádár 2011 , Fernández-Amaya et al. 2012 , and Kádár and Haugh 2013 ). There was a special issue devoted to politeness of the International Journal of the Sociology of Language edited by Walters (1981) , and the journal Multilingua has featured many special issues on politeness, with the most recent one on honorific usage edited by Pizziconi in 2013. There have also been at least three special issues of the Journal of Pragmatics (vol. 14, 1990; vol. 21, 1994; and vol. 28, 1997). More recent are cross-cultural comparisons of impoliteness, as in the special issue of the journal Intercultural Pragmatics ( Garcés-Conejos Blitvich 2010c ). Midstream in this era, a large bibliography of politeness work in linguistic pragmatics appeared in the Journal of Pragmatics ( Dufon, Kasper, Takahashi, and Yoshinaga 1994 ). Since 2005, the study of politeness has had its own journal, The Journal of Politeness Research , published by Mouton; although intended to be an interdisciplinary forum ( Christie 2005 ) this is primarily a forum for advocates of discursive approaches to politeness.

Despite this burgeoning literature, there are unevennesses and some glaring gaps in the data that has appeared. There is a large and rich literature on politeness in Japan. Indeed, Japanese linguists (e.g. Matsumoto 1988 , 1989 ; Ide 1989 ), partly inspired by the Brown and Levinson model and partly reacting to its perceived shortcomings, have since been very active participants in the ongoing development of politeness theory, making major contributions with their emphasis on cultural differences in assumptions about face and propriety in speech and offering alternative views of politeness in Japanese, as well as detailed studies of particular aspects of Japanese language usage (e.g. honorifics, Okamoto 1997 , 1999 ; conversational turn-taking, Tanaka 1999 , 2000 , Hayashi and Mori 1998 ; face, reputation, and self-esteem expressed in conversation, Hayano 2013 ; see also Nwoye 1989 , Wetzel 1994 , 2004 ). A Japanese translation of Brown and Levinson 1987 was published in 2012.

In contrast, there is almost no politeness-related research at all from certain parts of the world—e.g. New Guinea, or Aboriginal Australia (one exception is Wilkins 1986 ). There is also very little from Oceania (exceptions are Duranti 1992 ; Keating 1998 ) or South Asia (except Bickel et al. 1999 ), from Africa (exceptions include Irvine 1974 , 1985 ; Nwoye 1992 ), from South America (except for Hardman 1981 ; Wolfowitz 1991 ; Bolin 2006 ), or from Central or North American Amerindia (exceptions include Scollon and Scollon 1983 , 1995 ; Haviland 1987 , 2005 , 2010 ; Rhodes 1988 ; Brody 1991 ; Cowell 2007 ; Basso 2007 ; Reynolds 2008 ). Another limitation derives from the fact that researchers from the different disciplines studying politeness phenomena (sociolinguists, social psychologists, linguistic pragmaticists, linguistic anthropologists, conversational analysts) are often quite unaware of one another’s work.

20.4.1 Research topics in politeness research

Here it is possible just to sketch the range of phenomena and cite some exemplary studies. Topics investigated include the following:

Speech acts.

An ongoing interest has been in how particular kinds of potentially threatening speech acts—requests, offers, compliments, thanks, apologies, disagreements, criticisms, complaints, etc.—are formulated in different cultural settings, and how strategies for expressing them are shifted in relation to contextual variables (e.g. Blum-Kulka, House, and Kasper 1989 ; Gass and Neu 1996 ; Fukushima 2000 ). Some more recent contributions can be found in Byon (2006) and Fernández-Amaya et al. (2012) .

Cross-cultural pragmatics and misunderstandings.

Closely connected to the cross-cultural study of particular speech acts is the huge literature on miscommunication due to lack of shared understandings of how particular speech acts are culturally expressed. See for example Gumperz, Jupp, and Roberts (1987) , Blum-Kulka et al. (1989) , Gumperz and Roberts (1991) , Kasper and Blum-Kulka (1993a) , Scollon and Scollon (1994) , and Gumperz (2001) (see also the references in Kotthoff and Spencer-Oatey 2007 ).

The cultural construal of face.

Views of face and politeness in different cultures and contexts have regularly appeared, along with proposals for reconceptualizing face as a core element in theories of politeness (e.g. Katriel 1986 ; Matsumoto 1988 , 1989 ; Chen 1990–1 ; Gu 1990 ; Nwoye 1992 ; Mao 1994 ; Ervin-Tripp, Nakamura, and Guo 1995 ). These empirical descriptions contribute to the ongoing debates about the nature of face and its role in social interaction (e.g. O’Driscoll 1996 , 2011 ; Bargiela-Chiappini 2003 ; Terkourafi 2007 ; Sifianou 2011 ).

Politeness strategies as underlying the stylistic coherence of particular types of interaction have been an ongoing research focus, for example, in studies of how speakers convey affiliation with social categories such as gender, age, or ethnicity (e.g. Brown 1980 , 1990 ; Tannen 1981 ; Brody 1991 ; Wolfowitz 1991 ; Rundquist 1992 ; Ochs 1992 ; Holmes 1995 ; Mills 2003 ). Honorific usage as a style is another focus (Irvine 1985 , 1998 ). Recent related work can be found in the ‘genre’ approach to politeness and impoliteness of Garcés-Conejos Blitvich ( 2010a , b ).

Politeness in child language.

How children are inducted into appropriate speech styles has long been a preoccupation of sociolinguists and scholars in the field of language socialization (e.g. Mitchell-Kernan and Ervin-Tripp 1977 ; Gordon and Ervin-Tripp 1984 ; Ervin-Tripp, Guo, and Lampert 1990 ; Snow, Perlmann, Gleason, and Hooshyar 1990 ; Bolin 2006 ; Hamo and Blum-Kulka (2007) ; Kampf and Blum-Kulka (2007) ; Reynolds 2008 ; Burdelski 2010 , 2013a , b ; Ehrlich and Blum-Kulka 2010 ; Burdelski (2011) ; Schöll 2011 ; Cekaite, Blum-Kulka, Grǿver, and Teubal 2014 provides a recent overview of this literature. For its application to autistic children, often said to have deficits in social cognition that might impact on their ability to produce and understand indirectness (and by implication, politeness), see Sirota (2004) .

The sequential development of face-oriented actions in conversational interaction.

There is an increasing amount of work on interactional practices with politeness implications from a conversation-analytic perspective (e.g. Bayraktaroglu 1991 ; Lerner 1996 ; Okamoto 1999 ; Hayashi and Mori 1998 ; Heritage and Raymond 2005 ; Heinemann 2006 ; Curl and Drew 2008 ; Heritage 2013 ; Hayano 2013 ). Some of this pursues politeness-related themes in interactions in special contexts: for example, doctor–patient interaction ( Aronsson 1991 ), email interactions ( Haugh 2010 ), and online news ( Neurauter-Kessels 2011 ).

The social psychology of face management.

Social psychologists have long been interested in interpersonal perception and in the expression of selfhood and identity in interaction, topics with implications for politeness (e.g. Tracy 1990 ; Penman 1990 ; Holtgraves 1992 , 2005 ; Ting-Toomey 1994 ; Wetzel 1994 ; Tracy and Tracy 1998 ; see also Spencer-Oatey 2007 ; Garcés-Conejos Blitvich 2013 ). Anthropologists have looked into related themes in examining politeness and the expression of identity (see, for example, Brody 1991 ; Bucholtz and Hall 2005 ; Hall and Bucholtz 2010 ).

Politeness as a functional motivation for linguistic structure.

The structure of politeness formulae and honorific systems, and the historical development of these and of other linguistic structures with politeness implications, has been explored intermittently by linguists and linguistic anthropologists (e.g. Ferguson 1976 ; Wilkins 1986 ; Agha 1994 ; Bickel, Bisang, and Yadava 1999 ).

Politeness theory and culture as ‘rhetoric’.

Politeness theory has been adapted by anthropologists and applied to the analysis of formal ritual and to a view of culture as founded in rhetoric (Strecker 1988 , 2010 ; Strecker and Lydell 2006 ; Tyler and Strecker 2009 ; Gudeman 2009 ; Carrithers 2009 ; Meyer and Girke 2011 ). See also the related arguments from an evolutionary perspective, for example Carrithers (1992) and Dunbar (1998) .

Politeness in Shakespearean interactions.

Perhaps not unrelated are occasional efforts to analyse interactions portrayed in literature from the perspective of politeness theory. Brown and Gilman (1989) and Rudanko (2002) are two notable examples.

Impoliteness and interactional conflict.

Research on conflict talk has been a concern of sociolinguists and anthropological linguists since the 1970s—see, for example, the studies of Afro-American ritual insults ( Mitchell-Kernan 1971 ; Labov 1973 ), Goodwin’s studies (1991) of black girls’ street talk and of girls’ recess talk (2006), Haviland’s studies of Tzotzil Mayan and Mexican Spanish insulting talk (1997, 2005, 2010, 2011), and Brown’s on Tzeltal Mayan confrontational talk (1990). A recent special issue of the Journal of Linguistic Anthropology (2010, 2001) which focused on Performing Disputes: Cooperation and Conflict in Argumentative Language , demonstrates that this is an ongoing concern.

The occasional linguist has also turned his attention to conflict talk (e.g. Lachenicht 1980 ). But within the past twenty years, with the recognition that sometimes interactors actually want to be aggressive or insulting, examination of conflict talk and other forms of ‘impolite’ interaction has proliferated across various disciplines, along with attempts to integrate aspects of impoliteness into theories of politeness and of interactional cooperation. Among these are Blum-Kulka (1987) ; Culpeper ( 1996 , 2011 ); Culpeper, Bousfield, and Wichmann (2003) ; Locher ( 2004 , 2012 ); Bousfield (2008) ; Bousfield and Locher (2008) ; Hutchby (2008) ; Stewart (2008) ; Tracy (2008) ; Terkourafi (2008) ; Garcés-Conejos Blitvich (2009) ; Lascarides and Asher (2009) ; Bousfield and Grainger (2010) .

In this work, the distinction between the omission of expectable levels of polite redress (i.e. failing to be as polite as required by the situation, hence ‘rude’) vs commission of overt attacks on face (insults, threats, verbal aggression not contextualized as joking, where ‘impoliteness’ or ‘rudeness’ seems not to be the point) recalls the distinction we raised above between conventional norms of politeness and strategic attention to face. Failure to match up to the conventional expectations of politeness (omissions of redress) in a situation can be readily incorporated into politeness theories (e.g. Culpeper 1996 ). It is much harder to create a unified theory of social interaction that takes into account the entire spectrum from smooth cooperative interaction through the range of forms of ‘aggravated impoliteness’ ( Rudanko 2002 ), that is, intentional aggressive attacks on an interlocutor’s face. Again, the difficult problem of establishing speakers’ intentions raises its head—much apparently aggressive and insulting behaviour occurs between friends, as a form of teasing ( Collier 1991 ).

One wonders whether the burst of interest in documenting and understanding interactional nastiness is related to the notable cultural shift in the popularity—at least in the Anglo-American world—of TV shows featuring overtly aggressive or insulting interactions (e.g. Ann Robinson’s The Weakest Link , or American Idol ). Certainly, these kinds of media performances make it possible to study overt interactional aggression in a readily available form. Yet acted-out aggression (the display of face-threatening actions for an audience) is not the same as naturally occurring face aggression, which is notoriously hard to capture on video and has scarcely been studied. In any case, it is now recognized that studying the various forms of impoliteness can shed light on, and make a necessary contribution to, our understanding of politeness phenomena.

20.5 Conclusion

Politeness has attracted an enormous amount of research attention since the 1970s, and continues to be a major focus for research in disciplines concerned with social interaction. The study of politeness phenomena can provide insight into widely differing issues; foci of interest correspondingly differ widely, as reflected in the wide spread of phenomena examined in empirical research. There continue to be lively theoretical and methodological debates about the nature of politeness and of face, and about the kind of research approach appropriate for their study.

Despite the large amount of empirical work, however, in my view research on politeness has been much weaker on the theoretical front. The fact that politeness research has been a major arena for ideological positioning of scholars on the ‘scientific’ vs ‘postmodern’ spectrum has not improved the level of theoretical debate. Another major limitation is the kinds of data used in analyses. A large proportion of studies take as their data people’s conscious evaluations of politeness expressed in sentences, judgements which tend to be both prescriptive and stereotypical. Many others use role-play, interviews, elicited conversations, or readily accessible sources of staged interactional data: TV shows, radio plays, films, YouTube videos. Far fewer studies use as data recordings of situated conversational exchanges to explore how politeness is achieved sequentially in naturally occurring discourse (as exemplified in conversation-analytic approaches), and only a tiny handful provide the crucial kind of evidence necessary to test the universality of any theory of politeness: for a particular society, an ‘ethnography of speaking’ providing evidence of naturally occurring language usage across different kinds of contexts to show how politeness is modulated in relation to local social factors (P, D, R, and others) in that society.

The emphasis in research has been largely on cross-cultural differences , with insufficient attention addressed to the cross-linguistic/cross-cultural parallels which tend to be taken for granted when they are not disputed. Researchers, impressed by different cultural views of face, propriety, conviviality, the individual, and the self, have generally preferred to study culture-specific patterns of language use. Yet the significance of politeness lies far beyond the culture-specific rules of appropriate behaviour and speech that seem so salient to members of the culture. This wider significance lies in the fact that through their regular patterns of language choice humans interactively construct their social relationships. Work in this area therefore needs to be anchored in a theory of social interaction that takes into account both our common human nature—including our uniquely human capacities for cooperation and our ability to communicate cross-culturally—and the cultural differences which can sometimes lead us to misunderstand one another.

In the new millennium, research agendas and priorities have changed. The study of social interaction is turning to focus on the interactional foundations of language, its cognitive underpinnings, and its instantiation in the brain. Research in the West continues on the sociocultural contexts of language use, with a major emphasis on face as co-constructed in interaction and on the sequential development of this interactional process, and with impoliteness as well as politeness as objects of enquiry. A corresponding emphasis on the sequentially developing contexts for face and related politeness issues (entitlement, ‘ownership’ of knowledge, ‘fairness’) appears in the field of conversation analysis; students of politeness have much to learn from a CA approach about how to demonstrate interactors’ orientations to issues of face in specific contexts ( Haugh 2007 ; Hutchby 2008 ; see also Haugh 2015 ). There is also an increasing trend towards the comparative study of interaction from a conversation-analytic perspective ( Sidnell 2009 ), as well as new theoretical approaches to the study of social relations ( Agha 2007 ), both of which can be expected to feed into politeness theory.

Another new direction is the emerging emphasis on the cooperative basis of human sociality and on the interactional underpinnings to language, its evolution, and its ethological base; see, for example, Goody (1995) , Enfield and Levinson (2006) , Tomasello ( 2008 , 2009 ), Stivers et al. (2009) , Stivers, Enfield, and Levinson (2010) . There are recent investigations into the cognitive and brain underpinnings to interaction (e.g. Noordzij et al. 2009 , 2010 ; De Ruiter et al. 2010 ). This work forms a new context within which the search for universal bases for politeness can be pursued, exploring the cognitive prerequisites, such as recursive theory of mind, without which the elaborate demonstration of mutual regard would not be possible. This context suggests that the inhibition of aggression, the soothing character of politeness work, and the elaborate interpersonal ritual that politeness represents, may have played not only a crucial role in the evolution of the specifically human forms of social life and elaborated culture, but may have also been a fundamental factor driving the evolution of human cognition. From this perspective the early theoretical focus on the maintenance of social harmony—rather than the more recent corrective emphasizing conflict and interactive aggression—seems motivated by an evolutionary perspective on how such constraints on language use could have evolved.

The hugely broad sweep of work on politeness and impoliteness, coming from different academic disciplines, with different methods, different theoretical presuppositions and priorities, and vastly different research goals, has meant that often the work of one group is quite inaccessible to another. A truly interdisciplinary approach, with researchers informed about each other’s disciplines and with the intellectual generosity to accommodate to each other’s presuppositions—as exemplified, for example, in the volume edited by Enfield and Levinson (2006) —would certainly improve the level of discourse, and of discovery, in what remains an area of critical importance in the study of human social interaction.

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Politeness Across Cultures pp 1–14 Cite as

Introduction: Politeness Research In and Across Cultures

  • Dániel Z. Kádár &
  • Francesca Bargiela-Chiappini  

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This volume includes essays on face and politeness in a wide range of cultures. While previous monographs on politeness have tended to concentrate on one or sometimes two languages, the present volume utilises data drawn from as many as nine languages, including some ‘key languages’ in politeness research such as English and Japanese, as well as some lesser-studied languages, such as Georgian. Before introducing the goals, methodology and contents of this collection, we will briefly discuss ways in which ‘culture’ is represented in contemporary politeness studies, in comparision with its theorisation in other fields (Lévi-Strauss 1955, Hodder 1982). This selective retrospective will place the present volume in the context of current debates on politeness.

  • Polite Behaviour
  • Discursive Practice
  • Normative Concept
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Kádár, D.Z., Bargiela-Chiappini, F. (2011). Introduction: Politeness Research In and Across Cultures. In: Bargiela-Chiappini, F., Kádár, D.Z. (eds) Politeness Across Cultures. Palgrave Macmillan, London. https://doi.org/10.1057/9780230305939_1

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dissertation on politeness

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journal: Journal of Politeness Research

Journal of Politeness Research

Language, behaviour, culture.

  • Online ISSN: 1613-4877
  • Print ISSN: 1612-5681
  • Type: Journal
  • Language: English
  • Publisher: De Gruyter Mouton
  • First published: February 23, 2005
  • Publication Frequency: 2 Issues per Year
  • Audience: researchers and students with an interest in politeness and politeness theory

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Politeness is a topic on which people have very different opinions (and “people,” in this case, includes linguistic scholars and researchers). According to one view, politeness is a superficial and dispensable adornment of human language, rather like icing on a cake. For others, including myself, it is a deeper phenomenon, some- thing that human communicators would find it hard to do without. 1 Many children learning their native language soon discover the importance of saying things like please and thank you, which are insisted on by their parents in the process of social-ization—becoming “paid-up” members of human society. This reminds us that po-liteness is a social phenomenon—and yet a social phenomenon largely manifested through the use of language.

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    Algiovan, Politeness Strategies Used by Lecturer and Students in Thesis Guidance through Virtua l 108 The lecturer a pologized for the delay in correcting the thesis draft, by sending a


    POLITENESS: LINGUISTIC STUDY January 2019 Authors: Iman Kareem Mansoor University of Baghdad Abstract This study is an endeavor to shed light on some relevant linguistic aspects of politeness...

  19. PDF A Study of Politeness Theories on Social Media Forums

    This study investigates the use of popular politeness theories over social media forums like Stack Exchange and Reddit. Various popular politeness theories are hypothesized and tested over social media forums. In order to conduct the hypothesis testing, thorough investigation of various tools,

  20. PDF A Pragmatics Analysis of Politeness Strategies and Cooperation

    politeness appeared in the beauty and the beast dialogues. From the table we can conclude that positive politeness became the dominant types appeared compare to the other, it is mean the dialogue in this movie consist more on positive politeness. Figure1. Percentage of Politeness Strategy Used MIn Beauty and the Beast ovie ...

  21. (PDF) Using of the Politeness Principle in Dissertation Writing: Focus

    Using of the Politeness Principle in Dissertation Writing: Focus on the English Department of the Teacher Training College of Mbujimayi CC BY 4.0 Authors: Patrick KABUYI KAHAMBA Abstract...

  22. PDF The Analysis of Politeness Strategies Used by Durinese Speakers of

    politeness is specifically concerned with language use that is connected with pragmatics-and it is a phenomenon that represents a link between language and the social world. Polite language is an important part of communication. It may be defined in a number of ways and also be dependent on a variety of

  23. Literature Review on the Phenomenon of Politeness

    The phenomenon of interest in politeness, both socially and linguistically, has seen a significant increase over the last three decades as evidenced by the numbers of paper that have appeared on the subject in international journals and monographs. As a part of discourse analysis studies, the researcher also hopes that this study is able to ...

  24. Dissertation On Politeness

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