Politeness theory

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Politeness theory is the theory that accounts for the redressing of the affronts to face posed by face-threatening acts to addressees.[1] First formulated in 1978 by Penelope Brown and Stephen Levinson, politeness theory has since expanded academia’s perception of politeness.[2] Politeness is the expression of the speakers’ intention to mitigate face threats carried by certain face threatening acts toward another (Mills, 2003, p. 6). Another definition is "a battery of social skills whose goal is to ensure everyone feels affirmed in a social interaction".[1] Being polite therefore consists of attempting to save face for another.

Positive and negative face

Face is the public self image that every adult tries to protect. In their 1978 book chapter, Brown and Levinson defined positive face two ways: as "the want of every member that his wants be desirable to at least some others executors" (Brown & Levinson, 1978, p. 62), or alternately, "the positive consistent self-image or 'personality' (crucially including the desire that this self-image be appreciated and approved of) claimed by interactants" (Brown & Levinson, 1978, p. 61). Negative face was defined as "the want of every 'competent adult member' that his actions be unimpeded by others", or "the basic claim to territories, personal preserves, rights to non-distraction--i.e. the freedom of action and freedom from imposition".[3] Ten years later, Brown characterized positive face by desires to be liked, admired, ratified, and related to positively, noting that one would threaten positive face by ignoring someone. At the same time, she characterized negative face by the desire not to be imposed upon, noting that negative face could be impinged upon by imposing on someone.[4] Positive Face refers to one's self-esteem, while negative face refers to one's freedom to act.[1] The two aspects of face are the basic wants in any social interaction, and so during any social interaction, cooperation is needed amongst the participants to maintain each other's face.[1]

Face-threatening acts

According to Brown and Levinson, positive and negative face exist universally in human culture. In social interactions, face-threatening acts are at times inevitable based on the terms of the conversation. A face threatening act is an act that inherently damages the face of the addressee or the speaker by acting in opposition to the wants and desires of the other. Face threatening acts can be verbal (using words/language), paraverbal (conveyed in the characteristics of speech such as tone, inflection, etc.), or non-verbal (facial expression, etc.). At minimum, there must be at least one of the face threatening acts associated with an utterance. It is also possible to have multiple acts working within a single utterance.[3]

Negative face-threatening acts

Negative face is threatened when an individual does not avoid or intend to avoid the obstruction of their interlocutor's freedom of action.[3] It can cause damage to either the speaker or the hearer, and makes one of the interlocutors submit their will to the other. Freedom of choice and action are impeded when negative face is threatened.

Damage to the hearer

  • An act that affirms or denies a future act of the hearer creates pressure on the hearer to either perform or not perform the act.[3]
Examples: orders, requests, suggestions, advice, remindings, threats, or warnings.
  • An act that expresses the speaker’s sentiments of the hearer or the hearer’s belongings.[3]
Examples: compliments, expressions of envy or admiration, or expressions of strong negative emotion toward the hearer (e.g. hatred, anger, distrust).
  • An act that expresses some positive future act of the speaker toward the hearer. In doing so, pressure has been put on the hearer to accept or reject the act and possibly incur a debt.[3]
Examples: offers, and promises.

Damage to the speaker

  • An act that shows that the speaker is succumbing to the power of the hearer.[3]
  • Expressing thanks
  • Accepting a thank you or apology
  • Excuses
  • Acceptance of offers
  • A response to the hearer’s violation of social etiquette
  • The speaker commits himself to something he or she does not want to do

Positive face-threatening acts

Positive face is threatened when the speaker or hearer does not care about their interactor’s feelings, wants, or does not want what the other wants.[3] Positive face threatening acts can also cause damage to the speaker or the hearer. When an individual is forced to be separated from others so that their well being is treated less importantly, positive face is threatened.

Damage to the hearer

  • An act that expresses the speaker’s negative assessment of the hearer’s positive face or an element of his/her positive face. The speaker can display this disapproval in two ways. The first approach is for the speaker to directly or indirectly indicate that he dislikes some aspect of the hearer’s possessions, desires, or personal attributes. The second approach is for the speaker to express disapproval by stating or implying that the hearer is wrong, irrational, or misguided.[3]
Examples: expressions of disapproval (e.g. insults, accusations, complaints), contradictions, disagreements, or challenges.
  • An act that expresses the speaker’s indifference toward the addressee’s positive face.[3]
  • The addressee might be embarrassed for or fear the speaker.
Examples: excessively emotional expressions.
  • The speaker indicates that he doesn’t have the same values or fears as the hearer
Examples: disrespect, mention of topics which are inappropriate in general or in the context.
  • The speaker indicates that he is willing to disregard the emotional well being of the hearer.
Examples: belittling or boasting.
  • The speaker increases the possibility that a face-threatening act will occur. This situation is created when a topic is brought up by the speaker that is a sensitive societal subject.
Examples: topics that relate to politics, race, religion.
  • The speaker indicates that he is indifferent to the positive face wants of the hearer. This is most often expressed in obvious non-cooperative behavior.
Examples: interrupting, non-sequiturs.
  • The speaker misidentifies the hearer in an offensive or embarrassing way. This may occur either accidentally or intentionally. Generally, this refers to the misuse of address terms in relation to status, gender, or age.
Example: Addressing a young woman as "ma’am" instead of "miss."

Damage to the speaker

  • An act that shows that the speaker is in some sense wrong, and unable to control himself.[3]
  • Apologies: In this act, speaker is damaging his own face by admitting that he regrets one of his previous acts.
  • Acceptance of a compliment
  • Inability to control one’s physical self
  • Inability to control one’s emotional self
  • Self-humiliation
  • Confessions

Politeness strategies

Politeness strategies are used to formulate messages in order to save the hearer’s positive face when face-threatening acts are inevitable or desired. Brown and Levinson outline four main types of politeness strategies: bald on-record, negative politeness, positive politeness, and off-record (indirect).

Bald on-record

Bald on-record strategies usually do not attempt to minimize the threat to the hearer’s face, although there are ways that bald on-record politeness can be used in trying to minimize face-threatening acts implicitly. Often using such a strategy will shock or embarrass the addressee, and so this strategy is most often utilized in situations where the speaker has a close relationship with the audience, such as family or close friends. Brown and Levinson outline various cases in which one might use the bald on-record strategy, including:[3]

  • Instances in which threat minimizing does not occur
  • Great urgency or desperation
Watch out!
  • Speaking as if great efficiency is necessary
Hear me out:...
  • Task-oriented
Pass me the hammer.
  • Little or no desire to maintain someone's face
Don't forget to clean the blinds!
  • Doing the face-threatening act is in the interest of the hearer
Your headlights are on!
  • Instances in which the threat is minimized implicitly
  • Welcomes
Come in.
  • Offers
Leave it, I'll clean up later.

Positive politeness

Positive politeness strategies seek to minimize the threat to the hearer’s positive face. They are used to make the hearer feel good about himself, his interests or possessions, and are most usually used in situations where the audience knows each other fairly well.[1] In addition to hedging and attempts to avoid conflict, some strategies of positive politeness include statements of friendship, solidarity, compliments, and the following examples from Brown and Levinson:[3]

  • Attend to H’s interests, needs, wants
You look sad. Can I do anything?
  • Use solidarity in-group identity markers
Heh, mate, can you lend me a dollar?
  • Be optimistic
I’ll just come along, if you don’t mind.
  • Include both speaker (S) and hearer (H) in activity
If we help each other, I guess, we’ll both sink or swim in this course.
  • Offer or promise
If you wash the dishes, I’ll vacuum the floor.
  • Exaggerate interest in H and his interests
That’s a nice haircut you got; where did you get it?
  • Avoid Disagreement
Yes, it’s rather long; not short certainly.
  • Joke
Wow, that’s a whopper!

Negative politeness

Negative politeness strategies are oriented towards the hearer’s negative face and emphasize avoidance of imposition on the hearer. These strategies presume that the speaker will be imposing on the listener and there is a higher potential for awkwardness or embarrassment than in bald on record strategies and positive politeness strategies. Negative face is the desire to remain autonomous so the speaker is more apt to include an out for the listener, through distancing styles like apologies.[1] Examples from Brown and Levinson include:[3]

  • Be indirect
Would you know where Oxford Street is?
  • Use hedges or questions
Perhaps, he might have taken it, maybe.
Could you please pass the rice?
  • Be pessimistic
You couldn’t find your way to lending me a thousand dollars, could you?
So I suppose some help is out of the question, then?
  • Minimize the imposition
It’s not too much out of your way, just a couple of blocks.
  • Use obviating structures, like nominalizations, passives, or statements of general rules
I hope offense will not be taken.
Visitors sign the ledger.
Spitting will not be tolerated.
  • Apologize
I’m sorry; it’s a lot to ask, but can you lend me a thousand dollars?
  • Use plural pronouns
We regret to inform you.

Favor seeking, or a speaker asking the hearer for a favor, is a common example of negative politeness strategies in use. Held observes three main stages in favor-seeking: the preparatory phase, the focal phase, and the final phase:[5]

  1. The preparatory phase is when the favor-seeking is preceded by elaborate precautions against loss of face to both sides. It often involves signals of openings and markers to be used to clarify the situation (e.g. ‘You see,’ or ‘so,’). The request is often softened, made less direct, and imposing (e.g. past continuous ‘I was wondering’; informal tag ‘What d’you reckon?). The speaker must also reduce his own self-importance in the matter and exaggerate the hearer’s (down-scaling compliments).
  2. The focal stage is subdivided into elements such as asker’s reasons or constraints (e.g. ‘I’ve tried everywhere but can’t get one’), the other’s face (e.g. ‘You’re the only person I can turn to’), and more.
  3. The third stage is the final stage which consists of anticipatory thanks, promises, and compliments (e.g. ‘I knew you would say yes. You’re an angel.’).

An example that is given by McCarthy and Carter [5] is the following dialogue from the Australian television soap opera, "Neighbours":

Clarrie: So I said to him, forget your books for one night, throw a party next weekend.
Helen: A party at number 30! What will Dorothy say about that?
Clarrie: Well, what she doesn't know won't hurt her. Of course, I'll be keeping my eye on things, and (SIGNAL OF OPENING) that brings me to my next problem. (EXPLAIN PROBLEM) You see, these young people, they don't want an old codger like me poking my nose in, so I'll make myself scarce, but I still need to be closer to hand, you see. So, (ASK FAVOR) I was wondering, would it be all right if I came over here on the night? What d'you reckon?
Helen: Oh, Clarrie, I...
Clarrie: Oh (MINIMIZATION) I'd be no bother. (REINFORCE EXPLANATION) It'd mean a heck of a lot to those kids.
Helen: All right.
Clarrie: (THANK WITH BOOST) I knew you'd say yes. You're an angel, Helen.
Helen: Ha! (laughs)

All of this is done in attempt to avoid a great deal of imposition on the hearer and is concerned with proceeding towards a goal in the smoothest way and with sensitivity to one’s interlocutors. In English, deference (‘Excuse me, sir, could you please close the window’) is associated with the avoidance or downplaying of an imposition; the more we feel we might be imposing, the more deferential we might be.[1] It is clearly a strategy for negative politeness and the redressing of a threat to negative face, through things like favor-seeking.

Off-record (indirect)

The final politeness strategy outlined by Brown and Levinson is the indirect strategy; This strategy uses indirect language and removes the speaker from the potential to be imposing. For example, a speaker using the indirect strategy might merely say “wow, it’s getting cold in here” insinuating that it would be nice if the listener would get up and turn up the thermostat without directly asking the listener to do so.

Choice of strategy

Paul Grice argues that all conversationalists are rational beings who are primarily interested in the efficient conveying of messages.[6] Brown and Levinson use this argument in their politeness theory by saying that rational agents will choose the same politeness strategy as any other would under the same circumstances to try to mitigate face. They show the available range of verbal politeness strategies to redress loss of face. Face-threatening acts have the ability to mutually threaten face, therefore rational agents seek to avoid face-threatening acts or will try to use certain strategies to minimize the threat.

Speaker (S) will weigh:[3]

  1. the want to communicate the content of the face-threatening act in question
  2. the want to be efficient or urgent
  3. the want to maintain H's face to any degree

In most cooperative circumstances where 3. is greater than 2., S will want to minimize the face-threatening act.

The greater potential for loss of face requires greater redressive action. If the potential for loss of face is too great, the speaker may make the decision to abandon the face-threatening acts completely and say nothing.

The number next to each strategy corresponds to the danger-level of the particular face-threatening act. The more dangerous the particular face-threatening act is, the more S will tend to use a higher numbered strategy.[3]

  1. No redressive action
    • Bald On-Record- leaves no way for H to minimize the face-threatening act.
  2. Positive Redressive action
    • S satisfies a wide range of H’s desires not necessarily related to the face-threatening act.
      • Shows interest in H
      • Claims common ground with H
      • Seeks agreement
      • Gives sympathy
  3. Negative Redressive action
    • S satisfies H’s desires to be unimpeded—the want that is directly challenged by the face-threatening act.
      • Be conventionally indirect
      • Minimize imposition on H
      • Beg forgiveness
      • Give deference
    • This implies that the matter is important enough for S to disturb H
  4. Off-Record
    • S has the opportunity to evade responsibility by claiming that H’s interpretation of the utterance as a face-threatening act is wrong
  5. Don't do the face-threatening act.

Payoffs associated with each strategy

In deciding which strategy to use, the speaker runs through the individual payoffs of each strategy.[3]

  • Bald on record
  • enlists public pressure
  • S gets credit for honesty, outspokenness which avoids the danger of seeming manipulative
  • S avoids danger of being misunderstood
  • Positive Politeness
  • minimizes threatening aspect by assuring that S considers to be of the same kind with H
  • criticism may lose much of its sting if done in a way that asserts mutual friendship
  • when S includes himself equally as a participant in the request or offer, it may lessen the potential for face-threatening act debt
  • “Let’s get on with dinner” to a husband in front of the TV
  • Negative Politeness
  • Helps avoid future debt by keeping social distance and not getting too familiar with the addressee
  • pays respect or deference by assuming that you may be intruding on the hearer in return for the face-threatening act.
  • "I don't mean to bother you, but can I ask a quick question?"
  • Off record
  • get credit for being tactful, non-coercive
  • avoid responsibility for the potentially face-damaging interpretation
  • give the addressee an opportunity to seem to care for S because it tests H's feelings towards S
  • If S wants H to close the window, he may say "It's cold in here." If H answers "I'll go close the window" then he is responding to this potentially threatening act by giving a “gift” to the original speaker and therefore S avoids the potential threat of ordering H around and H gets credit for being generous or cooperative
  • Don’t Do the face-threatening act.
  • S avoids offending H at all
  • S also fails to achieve his desired communication
  • no overt examples exist

Shortcomings of Politeness Theory

While the theory does shed light on how individuals communicate to resolve face threat, weaknesses in the theory have been noted:

1. Cross-Cultural Validity: Although everyone has face wants, there are deliberate ways people approach these processes. They seek power, distance, and rank in contrasting manners. Some of this may be due to diverse “knowledge and values” in their society (Goldsmith, 2006, p. 231). 2. The Five Politeness Strategies Are Not Mutually Exclusive: Some claim that a few of these techniques may be used in more than one situation, such as positive and negative face work (Goldsmith, 2006, p. 231). 3. Nonverbal Aspects of Communication: Sometimes nonverbal actions speak louder than verbal communication and might alter how the politeness strategy is interpreted (Goldsmith, 2006, p. 232). 4. Sequence of the Order of Actions: The order of the conversation may dictate whether a face threat is seen more negatively (Goldsmith, 2006, p. 232). Individual Differences: An individual may have a pattern or way of communicating that they have habitually used in the past. Mood may also drive how they choose to respond to a situation (Goldsmith, 2006, p. 232).

While these are a few concerns of scholars, there are other considerations as well: For example, some researchers feel that the ranking order of the politeness strategies could be rearranged or interpreted in varied ways depending on the context. As well, scholars suggest power differences vary between strangers and acquaintances, which in turn, shape the effects of the politeness strategies. Social similarity and intimacy are other aspects to consider, as these connections create an increased awareness of the other person’s request and minimize the outcome of the face-threatening act (Goldsmith, 2006, pp. 231-232).

Strengths of Politeness Theory

Despite some shortcomings in the theory, it cannot be argued that the Politeness Theory is certainly a unique area of study within the communication field; it is very applicable and helpful in guiding individuals in ways to improve their speech and actions (Goldsmith, 2006, p. 232). Two qualities in particular stand out: 1. Good Heuristic Value: This theory has motivated scholars to implement more research into grasping these ideas or finding alternatives to this way of thinking (Goldsmith, 2006, p. 232). 2. Broad Scope: This theory considers factors that play a role in the field of communication such as “language, identity, relational definition . . . social power, distance, and culture” (Goldsmith, 2006, p. 232).

New Research/Future Possibilities

Although the Politeness Theory originated from the curiosity of linguistics and language forming, scholars are beginning to see its other benefits: its ability to not only help with interpersonal relationships, but also workplace environments. One study by Cynthia Dunn (2011) observed a Japanese business that required etiquette training for their new employers. Employers were taught the company’s definition of politeness; they were expected to incorporate these beliefs into their day-to-day behavior, such as “kindness,” “consideration for others,” and “deference and respect” (Dunn, 2011, pp. 227-228, 239). However, self-presentation was also a critical feature employers wanted their employees to improve upon. An attractive self-presentation through various nonverbals and word choice would not only reflect the individual’s politeness but the corporation’s as well (Dunn, 2011, p. 240). This decision had very positive consequences in the workplace environment. Through new studies there is the possibility that the Politeness Theory may penetrate deeper areas. For example, maybe more businesses will begin to take on these concepts and incorporate them into their discussion and conflict-resolution strategies. These could be effective in achieving long-term goals. Whatever the case may be, the Politeness Theory has a solid foundation in the field of communication and will certainly contribute positively to the assimilation of language and civility.

Sociological variables

Take into consideration three sociological factors when deciding whether and how to use the various strategies in real life situations

Depends on three factors:[3][7]

  1. Social distance between parties (symmetric relation)
    • Distinguish kin or friend from a stranger with whom you may be of the same social status, but who is still separated by social distance
    • Different face-threatening acts are used depending on the social distance between interlocutors
    • Example: We may use less elaborate positive strategies or we may choose to use positive rather than negative politeness when speaking with family
  2. Power relations between parties (asymmetric relation)
    • we are inclined to speak to our social equals differently than those whose status is higher or lower than our own in a given situation
    • Example: If a professor is working in her office and people are being very loud and disruptive in the next room, she will go over there and tell them to be quiet but the way she does it will differ depending on who it is
    • If they are students she will use the bald on-record strategy to make sure there is no confusion in what she is asking
    • Example: “Stop talking so loud!”
    • If they are colleagues she will claim common ground with them using the positive politeness strategy or frame an indirect request for them to stop talking
    • Example: “I’m working on a lecture and it’s really hard to concentrate with all this noise.”
    • If they are really high status directors of the department she may end up saying nothing at all or apologize for interrupting them
    • Example: No face-threatening act
  3. The absolute ranking of the threat of the face-threatening act
    • Some impositions are greater than others. Highly imposing acts like requests demand more redress to mitigate their increased threat level.

Further reading

  • Brown, Penelope and Stephen C. Levinson. 1987. Politeness: Some universals in language usage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. [First published 1978 as part of Ester N. Goody (ed.): Questions and Politeness.]
  • Cameron, Deborah. 2001. Working with Spoken Discourse. Sage Productions
  • Coulmas, Florian. 1998. The handbook of sociolinguistics. Wiley-Blackwell.
  • Dunn, C. D. (2011). Formal forms or verbal strategies? politeness theory and japanese

business etiquette training. Journal of Pragmatics, 43(15), 3643-3654. doi:10.1016/j.pragma.2011.06.003

  • Foley, William. 1997. Anthropological Linguistics: An introduction. Blackwell.
  • Goldsmith, D. J. (2006). Brown and Levinson’s politeness theory. In B. Whaley & W. Samter (Eds.) Explaining communication: Contemporary theories and exemplars (pp. 219-236). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
  • Goffman, Erving. 1955. On Face-Work: An analysis of ritual elements in social interaction, Psychiatry: Journal of Interpersonal Relations 18:3, pp. 213–231 [reprinted in Interaction Ritual, pp. 5–46].
  • Lakoff, R. 1973. The logic of Politeness; or minding your p's and q's. Papers from the 9th Regional Meeting, Chicago Linguistics Society. Chicago: Chicago Linguistics Society.
  • Schiffrin, Deborah. 1994. Approaches to Discourse. Wiley-Blackwell.
  • Yule, George. 1996. Pragmatics. Oxford University Press.

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 Foley, William. 1997. Anthropological Linguistics: An introduction. Blackwell. ISBN 978-0-631-15122-7
  2. Mills, Sara. 2003. Gender and Politeness. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  3. 3.00 3.01 3.02 3.03 3.04 3.05 3.06 3.07 3.08 3.09 3.10 3.11 3.12 3.13 3.14 3.15 3.16 3.17 Brown, Penelope and Stephen C. Levinson. 1987. Politeness: Some universals in language usage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-31355-1
  4. Coates, Jennifer. 1998. Language and Gender: A Reader. Wiley-Blackwell. ISBN 978-0-631-19595-5
  5. 5.0 5.1 Carter, Ronald and McCarthy, Michael. 1994. Language as Discourse- Perspectives for Language Teaching. Longman Publishing, New York. ISBN 0-582-084245
  6. 1975. "Logic and conversation". In Cole, P. and Morgan, J. (eds.) Syntax and semantics, vol 3. New York: Academic Press.
  7. Leech, Geoffrey. 1983.Principles of pragmatics. London: Longman