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Face and politeness strategies

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Face (as in lose face) refers to a speaker’s sense of linguistic and social identity. Any speech act may

impose on this sense, and is therefore face threatening. And 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 ways of mitigating the


• 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 put you out, but could you close the window?

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

A good illustration of a breach of these strategies comes from Alan Bleasdale’s 1982 TV drama, The Boys

from the Black Stuff, where the unemployed Yosser Hughes greets potential employers with the curt

demand: “Gizza job!”

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 facethreatening

acts (FTAs). In their theory, communication is seen as potentially dangerous and antagonistic. A

strength of their approach over that of Geoff Leech is that they explain politeness by deriving it from more

fundamental notions of what it is to be a human being. The basic notion of their model is ‘face’. This is

defined as ‘the public self-image that every member 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 want 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 conversation to different situations. Among friends we take liberties

or say things that would seem discourteous among strangers. And we avoid over-formality with friends. 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?

• I hope it’s not too forward, but would it be possible for me to have a beer?

• I could really do with a beer in this heat.


© Copyright: Andrew Moore, 2001


Brown and Levinson sum up human "politeness" behaviour in four strategies, which correspond to these

examples: 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”

• 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.

• 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..."

• 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.

These strategies are not universal – they are used more or less frequently in other cultures. For example, in

some eastern societies the off-record-indirect strategy will place on your hearer a social obligation to give

you anything you admire. So speakers learn not to express admiration for expensive and valuable things in

homes that they visit.

Examples from Brown and Levinson's politeness strategies

Bald on-record

• An Emergency: HELP!!

• Task oriented: Give me that!

• Request: Put your coat away.

• Alerting: Turn your headlights on! (When alerting someone to something they should be doing)

Positive Politeness

• 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 comb."

• Forgiveness: "You must forgive me but...."

• Minimize imposition: "I just want to ask you if I could use your computer?"

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


Off-Record (indirect)

• Give hints: “It’s cold in here."

• Be vague: "Perhaps someone should have been more responsible."

• Be sarcastic, or joking: "Yeah, he's a real rocket scientist!"


© Copyright: Andrew Moore, 2001


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