Brown & Levinson

People use politeness as a way of known deception, in order to help preserve each other's face needs (avoid face threatening acts)


Will you have anything to eat?    (less polite)

Won't you have something to eat?    (more polite)


Will (negative polarity) -> Won't (positive polarity)  
    Why is this more polite?

Will sounds imminent, I'll do it if I have to (negative face)
Won't sounds like it's up to you, not a problem for me to get you food (positive face)

Anything (negative polarity) -> Something (positive polarity)
    Why is this more polite?

Anything sounds vague, forces you to name what you would like to eat (direct)
Something requires only 'yes' or 'no' answer- suggests that I will give you a list of things I am willing to make for you (indirect)


(very simple definition of politeness)


Politeness- something the speaker does to mitigate (make less severe) potential face-threatening acts (FTAs) of the receiver

Politeness involves our efforts to save face of one another (both of us).

A great summary of Politeness:  Holtgraves Language as Social Action, Ch. 2 (p.37-64)

From:  http://www.universalteacher.org.uk/lang/pragmatics.htm#16:

  1. I want some beer. (bald on record:  direct)

  2. Is it OK for me to have a beer?  (positive politeness:  somewhat direct)

  3. I hope it's not too forward, but would it be possible for me to have a beer?  (negative politeness:  somewhat indirect)

  4. It's so hot. It makes you really thirsty.  (off record:  indirect)

Brown and Levinson sum up human politeness behavior in four strategies, which correspond to these examples: bald on record, negative politeness, positive politeness, and off-record-indirect strategy.

  1. The bald on-record strategy does nothing to minimize threats to the hearer's “face”
  2. The positive politeness strategy shows you recognize that your hearer has a desire to be respected. It also confirms that the relationship is friendly and expresses group reciprocity.
  3. The negative politeness strategy also recognizes the hearer's face. But it also recognizes that you are in some way imposing on them. Some other examples would be to say, “I don't want to bother you but...” or “I was wondering if...”
  4. Off-record indirect strategies take some of the pressure off of you. You are trying to avoid the direct FTA of asking for a beer. Instead you would rather it be offered to you once your hearer sees that you want one.  (favored by many Eastern cultures more)

Another example here: http://logos.uoregon.edu/explore/socioling/politeness.html


My ideas, with respect to modern technology and culture:

Modern technology:  People might be less likely to be polite.  In an online gaming community, it seems more likely that people will use a direct approach when communicating in a virtual environment.  Example:  Telling teammates "I need health" would probably be more effective than "Gee, my health seems low"

Also, less politeness when messenging, due to lack of skill with technology- it might be possible that people are more direct because it is easier to communicate this way when text messaging, emailing, etc because of keyboard use.  It seems that people accept less polite communication over email and chat because it is acceptable to be poorly skilled at typing.

Are face needs less important when we are not face to face?

Culture:  Is politeness less important when using CMC?  When not F2F?