Politeness is best expressed as the practical application of good manners or etiquette. It is a culturally defined phenomenon, and what is considered polite in one culture can often be quite rude or simply strange in another.
While the goal of politeness is to make all of the parties relaxed and comfortable with one another, these culturally defined standards at times may be manipulated to inflict shame on a designated party.
Sociolinguists Penelope Brown and Stephen Levinson identified two kinds of politeness, deriving from Erving Goffman's concept of face:
- Negative politeness: Making a request less infringing, such as "If you don't mind..." or "If it isn't too much trouble..."; respects a person's right to act freely. In other words, deference. There is a greater use of indirect speech acts.
- Positive politeness: Seeks to establish a positive relationship between parties; respects a person's need to be liked and understood. Direct speech acts, swearing and flouting Grice's maxims can be considered aspects of positive politeness because:
- they show an awareness that the relationship is strong enough to cope with what would normally be considered impolite (in the popular understanding of the term);
- they articulate an awareness of the other person's values, which fulfils the person's desire to be accepted.
Some cultures seem to prefer one of these kinds of politeness over the other. In this way politeness is culturally-bound.
Techniques to show politeness
- Expressing uncertainty and ambiguity through hedging and indirectness.
- Polite lying
- Use of euphemism (which make use of ambiguity as well as connotation)
- Preferring tag questions to direct statements, such as "You were at the store, weren't you?
- modal tags request information of which the speaker is uncertain. "You didn't go to the store yet, did you?"
- affective tags indicate concern for the listener. "You haven't been here long, have you?"
- softeners reduce the force of what would be a brusque demand. "Hand me that thing, could you?"
- facilitative tags invite the addressee to comment on the request being made. "You can do that, can't you?"
Some studies (Lakoff, 1976; Beeching, 2002) have shown that women are more likely to use politeness formulas than men, though the exact differences are not clear.
Besides and additionally to the above, many languages have specific means to show politeness, deference, respect, or a recognition of the social status of the speaker and the hearer. There are two main ways in which a given language shows politeness: in its lexicon
(for example, employing certain words in formal occasions, and colloquial forms in informal contexts), and in its morphology
(for example, using special verb forms for polite discourse).
Criticism of the theory
Brown and Levinson's theory of politeness has been criticized as not being universally valid, by linguists working with East-Asian languages, including Japanese. Matsumoto (1988) and Ide (1989) claim that Brown and Levinson assume the speaker's volitional use of language, which allows the speaker's creative use of face-maintaining strategies toward the addressee. In East Asian cultures like Japan, politeness is achieved not so much on the basis of volition as on discernment (wakimae, finding one's place), or prescribed social norms. Wakimae is oriented towards the need for acknowledgment of the positions or roles of all the participants as well as adherence to formality norms appropriate to the particular situation.
Japanese is perhaps the most widely known example of a language that encodes politeness at its very core. Japanese has two main levels of politeness, one for intimate acquaintances, family and friends, and one for other groups, and verb morphology reflects these levels. Besides that, some verbs have special hyper-polite suppletive forms. This happens also with some nouns and interrogative pronouns. Japanese also employs different personal pronouns for each person according to gender, age, rank, degree of acquaintance, and other cultural factors. See Honorific speech in Japanese, for further information.
- Beeching, K. (2002) Gender, Politeness and Pragmatic Particles in French. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company.
- Brown, P. and Levinson, S. (1987) Politeness: Some Universals in Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Ide, S. (1989) "Formal forms and discernment: two neglected aspects of universals of linguistic politeness". Multilingua 8(2/3): 223-248.
- Lakoff, R. (1975) Language and Woman’s Place. New York: Harper & Row.
- Matsumoto, Y. (1988) "Reexamination of the universality of Face: Politeness phenomena in Japanese". Journal of Pragmatics 12: 403-426.
- Watts, R. J. (2003) Politeness. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Jemmy, H. (2007) What is politeness? I've never heard of it before, can I put it in my mouth? Wigan: Pieperback Books.