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The Many Ways To Be Polite

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Language
Wordcount: 2150 words Published: 4th May 2017

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Politeness is the actions taken by a competent speaker in a community in order to attend to possible social or interpersonal disturbance. Politeness is something strange which can be seen in different forms and levels. What is polite and what not depends on “where you grew up and what norms of politeness you acquired there” ( Meyerhoff 2006: 81). In a conversation a speaker might say something that would be considered very rude by the listener, but that speaker might actually just trying to be polite. He was being polite according to the standards of where he grew up. So, politeness is expressed in different ways, in different places.

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In this essay, we will see the different forms and levels of politeness and how these forms attend to different social needs. Also we will look at examples of the different forms that requests and apologies can take. We will explore how useful is distinguishing between the politeness which is used between friends and with people that we are not very familiar with. Then we will briefly discuss about the frameworks of politeness that are used in a workplace interaction and intercultural communication. All these phenomenon of politeness will be discussed in this paper with consideration of Brown and Levinson’s theory (1978) in order to illustrate how there is more than one way of being polite.

According to Meyerhoff (2006) there are a number of different ways in which linguists can analyse politeness. The various approaches differ primarily in the emphasis placed on the speaker, the addressee or both, and the emphasis given to accounting for behavior that would be considered polite or behavior that would be considered impolite (p. 83). The most widely known and extensively used approach to the study of politeness is Brown and Levinson’s theory which has the most dominant position in the field.”People associate politeness just with ways of speaking that avoid causing offence by showing deference to another person.” (Meyerhoff 2006: 84). Brown and Levinson (1978) state that deference would be inappropriate in any speech community, in some contexts. Comments that orient to in-group membership may be what starts an interaction and avoid causing offence. For example you do not always reply ‘thank you so much’ when someone helps you, ‘cheers’ or ‘thanks’ works better. Extreme deference could be taken as ironic or snobbish.

Now, before continuing in more depth with Brown and Levinson’s theory, it is useful to refer to Grice’s Maxims (1975), a set of rules that people follow in communication to maintain participant harmony. Brown and Levinson’s theory suggests that these four Grice’s principles for speaking in a cooperative way, were correct. These rules can be summed up as the Maxim of quality where a person should be truthful and sincere, the Maxim of quantity: a person must say no more or less than required, the Maxim of relevance: being relevant to that topic and the Maxim of manner: being perspicuous. All of which underpins and is underpinned by the idea that the people involved in a conversation will cooperate with each other (the cooperative principle). These four principles are not considered to be a theory of face but constitute a foundation for a theory of face, later developed by Brown and Levinson. (Adapted for Brown and Levinson 1978:95 )

The theory of Brown and Levinson suggests that there are two types of politeness. The ‘negative politeness strategies’ which are the strategies that avoid offence by showing deference (e.g. Do you mind if I borrow it for a second?) and the ‘positive politeness strategies’ are those that avoid offence by highlighting friendliness (e.g. You look fit and healthy-any chance you could help me push the car?). Also, considering a strategy to be polite or impolite depends on the attention that a speaker pays to his own ‘face wants’ and the addressee’s ‘face wants’. The term ‘face’ derives from the work of Goffman (1967). In Goffman’s work, ‘face’ was a personal attribute or quality that each of us works to protect or enhance. In Brown and Levinson the definition of ‘face’ emphasises less that interpersonal and communal nature of the face wants. ‘Face’ is the public self-image that every model person (MP) claims for him or herself. Brown and Levinson propose that “we want to guard our face against possible damage when we interact with others.” (Meyerhoff 2006: 84)

Now, it is important to refer to the factors involved in choosing politeness strategies. Choosing what kinds of strategies would be polite or impolite in a situation depends on evaluating three main factors. Power, distance and weight (cost) of imposition were identified by Brown and Levinson. Power refers to the difference in status between participants in discourse, distance relates to the level of familiarity that exists between the speaker and the addressee, and weight of imposition relates to the extent to which one wishes to impose on another person.

People often put more effort to be polite to people that their position have greater social power than we have. For example I will use more negative politeness strategies (more polite) to a government official processing a passport application than I will use (less polite) to a telemarketer who rings during dinner. This has to do with power because I want the government official to do me a favor and speed up my application as for the telemarketer, he needs something from me so I am the one with power.

Also, the social distance between speakers has a huge effect on the way that they speak to each other. Generally, we give more attention to the negative face wants (more polite) of people we do not know very well and we are more abrupt to close friends. For example when you are cooking with a close friend you might say ‘You’ve got the butter’ instead of ‘I think the butter is closer to you that it is to me so could you pass it to me’. But, when working with someone that you are not very close you might ask in less direct way, showing more attention to their negative face wants, you might say something like ‘Excuse me, are those the telephone accounts? Could I have them for a second? ‘.

The cost of imposition, according to Brown and Levinson meant how big the social infraction is. An example is when you ask someone for the time, which is considered as a situation with a minor imposition, you can a stranger in the road for the time and the politeness strategies pay little attention to face wants (Sorry do you have the time?). But, asking for money is greater imposition. You usually ask for money someone you are close to and if the amount is big you will probably ask someone who is even closer to you, like a very close friend.

Under this framework there are three social variables which shape the way that people choose the politeness strategies they will use.”Their attention to others’ positive and negative face wants will be determined by the relative power and social of the interactants and by the social lost of the imposition” (Meyerhoff 2006: 88). These three factors are by no means independent.

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Earlier, I referred to the two types of politeness and the term face. Actually, there are two types of politeness because we are concerned with maintaining two distinct kinds of face, the negative and the positive face. The negative face is the want of every competent adult member of a community that their actions be unimpeded by others. The positive face is the want of every member that their wants be desirable to at least some others. (Brown and Levinson 1987:62 in Meyerhoff 2006: 85).

Some societies orientate more towards deference and being attentive to negative face wants. In such societies it seems very rude to ignore the distance that might be between you and your addressee and talk as if you know her or him better than you do. A Language example is ‘Forgive me, Ms Smith, I do apologise, but could I possibly intrude for a second’. In this sentence the title ‘Ms’ shows deference politeness and distance attending to negative face. ‘Forgive me’ and ‘I do apologise’ try to reduce the imposition of the request and attends to negative face. A further attempt to reduce the cost of imposition is ‘could I’, ‘possibly’ and ‘a second’.

In contrast, there are societies which orientate towards positive face. The interaction between strangers is expected to be more personable and friendly. In these societies it is rude to interact by emphasizing or drawing attention to the social distance between the interlocutors. Such a society is the Australians, where the use of first names is the norm even in professional contexts. A language example of such a society is a greeting to an old friend that you have not seen for some time e.g. ‘Tapper! It’s been ages. You’re looking good. What’ve you been doing nowadays?’. In this greeting the use of ingroup code (the nickname Tapper), showing attention to the addressee’s interests (What’ve you been doing nowadays?) and exaggerating the speaker’s interest or approval (You’re looking good) are strategies that attend to the addressee’s positive face wants.

Brown and Levinson suggest that some conversational events which represent a threat to another individual’s self-image are described as inherently facethreating acts (FTAs). When such an event occurs it is sure that somebody’s positive or negative face wants will be threatened, and the participants have to decide what politeness strategies they will use. Examples of FTAs are expressing thanks and making an apology, these are threats to the speaker’s face wants. Saying ‘thanks’ establishes indebtedness to the other person. Making an apology is having to state publicly that you have done something stupid or unkind, this threatens your positive face wants as other people may not identify you and will be unwilling to suggest that they share your wants and desires. So “depending on how serious an FTA is it will require more or less action to mitigate (or reduce) the potential damage to the addressee’s or the speaker’s face.” (Meyerhoff 2006: 90).

As I said in the introduction I will also briefly discuss about the frameworks of politeness which are used in intercultural communication. People’s use of politeness varies in intercultural communication depending on where they come from and how their societies orientate towards politeness. An example of such differences is when making a request for a drink in a bar in English and doing the same in German. In English you usually use strategies to attend the addressee’s negative face wants. (Could I have a glass of red wine, please?). But, in German there is not such an attention to the server’s negative face wants and it is appropriate to say ‘I will get red wine’. Sometimes a ‘could’ or ‘please’ may be added but using both will sound absurd and snooty. (Meyerhoff 2006: 97).

Another example is how people refuse an invitation to a meal from a social superior. In some cultures a general answer like ‘I’m busy that night I’m afraid’ will be perfectly acceptable but in western communities people want to give a reason for your refusal. (Holmes 2001: 275). This has to do with peoples negative and positive face wants. People from western communities are more concerned about their positive face, they want their wants to be desirable to at least some others and they do not like drawing attention to the social distance.

In conclusion, indeed there is more than one way of being polite. As it is presented above, politeness has many forms and levels and can be used in different ways. Politeness is perceived differently depending on where you grew up and your social status so it can be also expressed differently. People use different strategies to express politeness in a conversation depending on who is the addressee, what is his social status and how close they are to him. According to Brown and Levinson’s theory there are two basic strategies, the positive and the negative strategy. These two strategies exist because we are concerned to maintain two kinds of face, the negative and positive face. People have to evaluate three factors in order to decide what strategies they will use, power, distance and cost of the imposition.


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