The politeness principle

Дата канвертавання22.04.2016
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Besides cooperation, most interactions are governed by politeness, that is to say by what is considered a “polite social behaviour” within a certain culture.

The Politeness Principle is a series of maxims, which Geoffrey Leech has proposed as a way of explaining how politeness operates in conversational exchanges.


  • Leech defines politeness as a type of behaviour that allows the participants to engage in a social interaction in an atmosphere of relative harmony. In stating his maxims Leech uses his own terms for two kinds of illocutionary acts. He calls representatives “assertives”, and calls directives “impositives”.

  • Each maxim is accompanied by a sub-maxim, which is of less importance. They all support the idea that negative politeness (avoidance of discord) is more important than positive politeness (seeking concord).

  • Not all of the maxims are equally important. For instance, tact influences what we say more powerfully than does generosity, while approbation is more important than modesty.

  • Speakers may adhere to more than one maxim of politeness at the same time. Often one maxim is on the forefront of the utterance, while a second maxim is implied.


  • Face” (as in “lose face”) refers to a speaker's sense of social identity. Any speech act may impose on this sense, and be therefore face threatening.

  • Speakers have strategies for lessening the threat.

  • Positive politeness means being complimentary and gracious to the addressee (but if this is overdone, the speaker may alienate the other party). Negative politeness is found in the various ways of mitigating an imposition.

  • Negative politeness can take the form of:

  • Hedging: Er, could you, er, perhaps, close the, um , window?

  • Pessimism: I don't suppose you could close the window, could you?

  • Indicating deference: Excuse me, sir, would you mind if I asked you to close the window?

  • Apologizing: I'm terribly sorry to disturb you, but could you close the window?

  • Impersonalizing: The management requires all windows to be closed.


  • Tact maxim (in directives [or impositives] and commissives): minimize cost to other; [maximize benefit to other]

  • Generosity maxim (in directives and commissives): minimize benefit to self; [maximize cost to self]

  • Approbation maxim (in expressives and representatives [assertives]): minimize dispraise of other; [maximize praise of other]

  • Agreement maxim (in representatives): minimize disagreement between self and other; [maximize agreement between self and other]

  • Sympathy maxim (in representatives): minimize antipathy between self and other; [maximize sympathy between self and other]


  • Perhaps the most thorough treatment of the concept of politeness is that of Penelope Brown and Stephen Levinson, which was first published in 1978 and then reissued, with a long introduction, in 1987. In their model, politeness is defined as redressive action taken to counter-balance the disruptive effect of face-threatening acts (FTAs).

  • In their theory, communication is seen as potentially dangerous and antagonistic.

  • The basic notion of their model is “face”. This is defined as “the public self-image that every member of society wants to claim for himself”. In their framework, face consists of two related aspects.

  • One is negative face, or the rights to territories, freedom of action and freedom from imposition - wanting your actions not to be constrained or inhibited by others.

  • The other is positive face, the positive consistent self-image that people have and their desire to be appreciated and approved of by at least some other people.

  • The rational actions people take to preserve both kinds of face, for themselves and the people they interact with, add up to politeness. Brown and Levinson also argue that in human communication, either spoken or written, people tend to maintain one another's face continuously.

  • In everyday conversation, we adapt our utterances to different situations. Among friends we take liberties or say things that would seem discourteous among strangers.

  • In both situations we try to avoid making the hearer embarrassed or uncomfortable.

  • Face-threatening acts (FTAs) are acts that infringe on the hearers' need to maintain his/her self-esteem, and be respected.

  • Politeness strategies are developed for the main purpose of dealing with these FTAs.

  • Suppose I see a crate of beer in my neighbour's house. Being thirsty, I might say:

  • I want some beer.

  • Is it OK for me to have a beer?

  • Would it be possible for me to have a beer?

  • It's so hot. It makes you really thirsty.

  • Brown and Levinson sum up human politeness behaviour in four strategies: bald on record, negative politeness, positive politeness, and off-record-indirect strategy.

  • The bald on-record strategy does nothing to minimize threats to the hearer's “face” (I want some beer)

  • The positive politeness strategy shows you recognize that your hearer has a face to be respected. It also confirms that the relationship is friendly and expresses group reciprocity. (Is it ok for me to have a beer?)

  • The negative politeness strategy recognizes the hearer's face. but it also admits that you are in some way imposing on him/her. (I don't want to bother you but, would it be possible for me to have a beer?)

  • Off-record indirect strategies take some of the pressure off. You are trying to avoid the direct FTA of asking for a beer. You would rather it be offered to you once your hearer sees that you want one. (I’t so hot, it makes you really thirsty)

  • Other examples from Brown and Levinson's politeness strategies

  • Emergency: Help!

  • Task oriented: Give me those!

  • Request: Put your jacket away.

  • Alerting: Turn your lights on! (while driving)

  • Attend to the hearer: You must be hungry, it's a long time since breakfast. How about some lunch?

  • Avoid disagreement: A: What is she, small? B: Yes, yes, she's small, smallish, um, not really small but certainly not very big.

  • Assume agreement: So when are you coming to see us?

  • Hedge opinion: You really should sort of try harder.

  • Negative Politeness

  • Be indirect: I'm looking for a pen.

  • Request forgiveness: You must forgive me but.... Could I borrow your pen?

  • Minimize imposition: I just wanted to ask you if I could use your pen.

  • Pluralize the person responsible: We forgot to tell you that you needed to buy your plane ticket by yesterday.

  • Off-record (indirect)

  • Give hints: It's a bit cold in here.

  • Be vague: Perhaps someone should open the window.

  • Be sarcastic, or joking: Yeah, it’s really hot here.

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