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Politeness is a very big topic which could be the focus of a whole semester-long class itself, and for the most part it seems pretty disconnected from the other topics of pragmatics we have learned about, such as speech acts and implicatures. Nevertheless, it's still useful to know a little bit about theories of politeness, because they might be relevant to other aspects of pragmatics insofar as they might help us understand why people use language in certain ways (a topic we will return to in the module on the benefits of speaking indirectly). My description of politeness here is based mainly on the summaries in Huang (chapter 4.6.3) and Grundy (chapter 7); Thomas also has a chapter on politeness with some more stuff that isn't touched on here.

Positive and negative face

The classical theory of politeness (which of course is controversial and subject to debate, just like all other theories of pragmatics we have learned about) is based largely on the idea of face. If you speak Chinese then you are probably already very familiar with the concept of "face", since this term as used in pragmatic theory comes from Chinese (面子). People usually describe it as being similar to "self-esteem" or "public self-image"; essentially, people want to feel good and want to look good to others. That's "face".

More specifically, though, the traditional theory of politeness claims that there are two kinds of "face": positive and negative. Positive face is your desire for others to have a positive attitude about you; in other words, you want people to respect you, to like you, etc. Negative face, on the other hand, is your desire for freedom and autonomy; in other words, you want to be able to do what you want, when you want.

According to the traditional theory, understanding politeness starts with understanding face. In general, everyone wants to preserve their "face", but certain kinds of actions will hurt people's "face". Politeness is all about recognizing what sorts of actions might affect someone's face, and knowing how to mitigate the harm done to someone's face (or not mitigate it, if you don't want to be polite!). We will examine those actions now.

Face-threatening acts

As we discussed above, we all have positive and negative "face", which is our desire to be respected and to have autonomy. But some things in life threaten one or more aspects of our "face".

For example, if I share with you a story that I wrote and you tell me the story is bad, that might hurt my positive face, because it will make me worry that you don't think very highly of me anymore. Likewise, if you tell (or even ask) me to send you some document before the end of the day, that will hurt my negative face, because it will impinge on my freedom to do other things or to not do the thing you asked me to do. (Of course I could refuse to do it anyway, but saying "no" to something you specifically asked me to do is harder than just not doing something you never asked me to do! Therefore, even though I could refuse to do the thing, you still will have damaged my negative face because you put me in the position where I need to choose whether to do it or refuse.)

These sorts of actions are called face-threatening acts, because they "threaten" to damage someone's positive and/or negative face. Of course, while both of the examples I gave above are ones where the speaker's utterance threatens the hearer's face, the reverse is also possible (e.g., if I apologize for doing something bad, that may threaten my own positive face, because admitting that I did something bad might bring risk of making you think less of me.)

How to do face-threatening acts

The core of the traditional theory of politeness is the idea of how we handle face-threatening acts. According to the theory, when we want (or need) to do something that is face-threatening, we have several decisions we can make about how to do it.

First, we have to decide whether to do the face-threatening act or not do it. In some circumstances we might decide that the consequences of doing the act are so bad (maybe because it would be very face-threatening, or maybe because there is a very big power imbalance between the speaker and hearer) we just decide not to do it at all.

If we do do it, we have to decide whether to do it directly and explicitly, or to just hint at it. In politeness theory they call the latter "off the record"—I can do a face-threatening act in an "off-the-record" way by hinting at it indirectly, such that I might be able to plausibly deny that I really meant it. For example, instead of directly telling (or asking) someone to turn on the air conditioning, I might just say, "It's so hot in here". On the other hand, an "on-the-record" face-threatening act doesn't really leave any room for misinterpretation.

If we decide to do a face-threatening act in an on-the-record way, we can then decide whether we want to do something to try to mitigate the face-threat (as we'd say in Chinese, 給一點面子, or "give a little face"), or just do it without caring about the consequences to anyone's face. The latter, in politeness theory, is called doing it "baldly", or "without redress". The former is called doing it "with redress" (or "with redressive action")—doing something to "redress" (mitigate or reduce) the potential harm to someone's face.

Finally, if we decide to do the face-threatening act in an on-the-record way but with redressive action, then we can decide whether to try to redress the threat to positive face or to negative face. We could try to preserve positive face by trying to emphasize that we are close to the person we are talking to or that we respect them or whatever. Or we could try to preserve negative face by minimizing the extent to which we are interfering with the other person (such as by trying to give them more leeway to say no, or by trying to make it sound like the thing we're asking for is a very small request).

If we put all these options together, we end up with the following five strategies, ranked from what politeness theory says is most to least face-threatening:

  1. Do the face-threatening act on the record and baldly (e.g., "Turn on the air conditioning");
  2. Do the face-threatening act on the record but with redress to positive face (e.g., "Let's turn on the air conditioning"; see also the example discussed below this list);
  3. Do the face-threatening act on the record but with redress to negative face (e.g., "Could you maybe turn on the air conditioning if it's not too much trouble?" or "Could you hop on over and turn on the air conditioning real quick?");
  4. Do the face-threatening act off the record (e.g., "Wow, it's so hot in here!");
  5. Don't do the face-threatening act (i.e., just suffer in silence).

Here's another example. A Mandarin-speaking friend of mine told me that when she was in university, she and her advisor generally used the "familiar" pronoun 你 (ni3) when talking to each other. (Note that Mandarin has two first-person singular pronouns, 你 ni3 and 您 nin2. The latter is a "respectful" or "formal" pronoun, typically used for addressing a person of higher social status, or used when people of equally high social status interact in a formal setting.) Using the familiar pronoun with each other is probably a way they can feel more closely connected, which is good for both of their positive faces. But, when my friend would disagree with her advisor (e.g. if her advisor suggested some idea about a concept and my friend wanted to propose a different idea), she found she would often switch to using the more "respectful" pronoun, 您 nin2. To me this seems like a perfect example of positive politeness redress: disagreeing with someone is a potentially face-threatening act (specifically, it threatens the advisor's positive face by suggesting that maybe her idea was bad, and I guess it arguably also threatens her negative face in that it threatens her ability to tell the student what to do), but my friend mitigated the threat to her advisor's positive face by using a pronoun which shows that she respects her advisor.

Which strategy you will choose always depends on a variety of factors, of course. Your strategy may be influenced by the relationship between yourself and the person you're talking to (e.g., you might use a more "polite", less face-threatening strategy when talking to a stranger or someone of higher social status, and you might use a less "polite" and more face-threatening strategy with a close friend). It may also be influenced by your own personal attitude and mood; for example, you might use a more face-threatening strategy with someone who you just don't like. And you might even strategically use these strategies to change the circumstances of the conversation; for example, if you're pissed off at someone and you want them to know it, you might use a more face-threatening strategy than what might be normal for that situation. (For example, my French teacher told me that once she addressed a waiter using the familiar/informal pronoun tu—in a context where the more formal pronoun vous would have been expected—in order to convey how dissatisfied she was with his bad service.)

Keep in mind that these strategies, and the different types of face, are not always mutually exclusive. Sometimes the same act may threaten both kinds of face, or the same strategy may provide redress to both kinds of face. For example, if you are talking to your boss and your boss interrupts you, that may be damaging to both your positive and your negative face. It's damaging to your negative face because it limits your ability to do what you want (including your ability to finish saying what you were trying to say). But it's also damaging to your positive face because it suggests that your boss doesn't care enough about your opinion to hear what you are saying, or doesn't respect you enough to let you finish what you're saying. Similarly, certain ways of doing a face-threatening act may fit multiple strategies. For example, I feel like off-the-record face-threatening acts are inherently also a form of negative redress, because they leave the hearer the freedom to get the intended meaning or not (e.g., if I tell you "Wow, it's so hot in here!", you are free to interpret that as an indirect request or to just pretend that I didn't ask you to do anything).

As I mentioned above, some of these ideas (and particularly the idea of negative face redress) will come up indirectly again in a later module. Ultimately, while I feel like the theories of politeness do not directly build off of the other pragmatics concepts we have learned about (like implicatures, speech acts, etc.), these two areas of pragmatics do sometimes inform one another (e.g., understanding things like implicatures helps us understand how people can do and interpret these various kinds of face-threatening acts, and understanding face-threatening acts can help us understand the reasons why people make certain kinds of implicatures).

In-class activities

Have students think of an example of a face-threatening act, and think of five different ways they could do it. (#5, of course, is a freebie.)

Have students look at an example scene from a movie or show which involves one or more face-threatening acts and strategies to redress it, and have them discuss and figure out what various strategies are used. Below is my own example, but this activity could be done with pretty much any example, as long as you find one that you think is interesting and that shows similar sorts of things.

What follows is an excerpt from a scene in the show Better Call Saul (the scene is in season 1 episode 7, "Bingo", but I can't find a clip on YouTube). Jimmy and his friend Kim are both lawyers; Jimmy is trying to build his own practice, and Kim is working in a large law firm called HHM. In this scene, Jimmy takes Kim to show him the fancy new office suite he is planning on renting, but he also has another motive: he wants to ask him to join him as his law partner. When Kim refuses his offer, we'll see her employ several different methods of redress to try to soften this face-threatening act. They spend a few minutes looking around the office suite talking about how nice everything is, then Jimmy shows her the nicest office in the suite and suggests that he wants her to be his law partner and work in that office. Here is the conversation that follows:

Both Kim and Jimmy do a lot here to try to reduce the threat to face. Students should be able to notice lots of their strategies; below I have just a few suggestions, but I imagine students can think of others too.

Kim's refusal is arguably off-the-record (she never explicitly says "no", she just starts to give some reasons and then lets Jimmy figure out the rest). She also seems to give lots of positive face redress: she emphasizes how much she appreciates the offer (which should make Jimmy feel like she has a good opinion of him) and she gives several reasons for why she can't accept the offer (this also seems like positive face redress to me, because it's a way of letting Jimmy think that she's not refusing the offer because he isn't good enough, only because there are other factors preventing her from accepting the offer). The strategy I find most interesting is what she does at the end: by going back to looking at the suite and marveling at how nice the pantry is, she seems to be trying to move past the awkward conversation and go back to the "office-shopping" conversation they were having before, in order to make them feel closer again. Jimmy also says several things to try to minimize the offer and make it look like it wasn't a big deal to him; this seems to me like an attempt to save his negative face (by making it look like he wasn't denied something that was really important to him, just something that he didn't care about very much anyway) but there could also be good arguments for saying it's about positive face.

Above, I suggested that being interrupted by your boss threatens positive face. Are interruptions always face-threatening?

My intuition is that they are not. For example, one piece of dating advice I once heard is that if two people on a date are interrupting each other a lot, the date might be going well, and if they are not interrupting each other then the date might be going badly. The idea here is that if people are often talking over each other, finishing one another's sentences, etc., that may mean it's because they are interested in the conversation and excited about whatever they're discussing. This makes a lot of sense to me (although of course there are a lot of contextual factors that might change this, and it varies from person to person—some people may be more sensitive about being interrupted than others).

Why this difference? Does the theory of politeness and face-threatening acts offer any explanation for why it might be more face-threatening to be interrupted by your boss than to be interrupted by your date? Discuss.

Recall that when we learned about implicatures, we learned about the Cooperative Principle (that people should say things that are appropriate contributions to the goal of the conversation) and its four sub-maxims (the maxims of Quality, Quantity, Manner, and Relation).

Some pragmaticists have proposed that there should be another maxim, the Maxim of Politeness. Supposedly that would help explain why people talk in the way they do, just like the other four maxims do. Or, going even beyond that, some have proposed that politeness is in of itself a major conversational principle, on the same level as the Cooperative Principle. In other words, they say that conversational behaviour (and, in particular, the way we interpret a speaker's meaning) is based on not just the Cooperative Principle, but the Cooperative Principle plus the "politeness principle".

Have students discuss what they think. Does there seem to be a politeness principle that operates in the same way as the Cooperative Principle and its maxims?

There is no right or wrong answer to this, but Huang (chapter 2, note 11) offers what I think are some pretty strong arguments against the idea of a "pragmatic principle". I won't list all of the arguments here (you can read them there), but I'll just note one of them. Huang points out that the Cooperative Principle and its maxims are "hard to undermine"; i.e., we usually think that the principle is in effect. For example, if someone says something that appears to violate the maxim of Relevance (or any other maxim), we usually don't assume they are actually being irrelevant, but we instead figure out an implicature that makes the real meaning of their utterance actually relevant. On the other hand, if there is any assumption of politeness, it is not hard to undermine like that. If someone says something that appears impolite, we are likely to understand that they are indeed being impolite. If this argument from Huang is correct, then it seems like a good piece of evidence that politeness does not work in the same way as the Cooperative Principle does.

⟵ Experimental pragmatics
Risks and costs of indirect utterances ⟶

by Stephen Politzer-Ahles. Last modified on 2022-04-18. CC-BY-4.0.