Conversational Interaction: Politeness and
Face Management

Conversational implicature: Speakers convey, and hearers interpret, nonliteral meanings. Raises two issues:

1. Why do people convey nonliteral meanings?

2. How do hearers determine which specific indirect meaning is intended?

One answer = politeness

Politeness and Language Production

Politeness = theoretical construct to explain link between language use and social context (not lay conception of politeness);

- how remarks are formulated as a result of the speaker's cognitive assessment of the social context

- politeness exists at interface of linguistic, social, cognitive processes

Most popular approach developed by Penelope Brown and Stephen Levinson (1978; 1987); links the major dimensions of social interaction with the ways in which people talk with one other.

Goffman, Face, and Face-work

Goffman (1967), face = "the positive social value a person effectively claims for himself by the line others assume he has taken during a particular contact"; not a specific identity but successful presentation of any identity.

Have face, save face, lost face, etc.

Face is on display (when with others) and must be maintained via

Face-work: communications designed to create, support, challenge a line.

    avoidance rituals - (Durkheim's negative rites); autonomy;
    presentation rituals (Durkheim's positive rites) connection

Face and face-work provides mechanism for emergence of interaction order out of self-serving individuals

Face-work is cooperative; face can only be given by others, it's in everyone's best interest to maintain face (insults?)

Brown and Levinson's Politeness Theory

Extends Goffman: more precise specification of face and face-work

Face comprised of two universal wants:

    Negative face: autonomy; freedom from imposition
    Positive face: connection with others

Matches up with Goffman, Durkheim, Bakan, McAdams, everyone

Positive and negative face continually threatened (for S and H)

Certain acts inherently threatening (cultural variability)

Type of Face-Threat

                                        Negative Face         Positive Face

Threat focus:

Hearer                             Requests                 Disagreements

                                        Offers                       Criticisms

                                        Compliments            Complaints

Speaker                                 Promises                    Apologies

                                         Acceptance of offer Emotional leakage

                                        Thanks                         Compliment acceptance

Multiple threats possible:

Compliment (support H's positive face; threatens H's negative face)

Request (threaten H's negative face; threaten (potentially) H's positive face; why haven't you done this)

Politeness Strategies

Fundamental conflict:

interactants motivated to cooperatively manage each others' positive and negative face


interactants want/need to perform social acts inherently threatening to positive and negative face

Fundamental conflict motivates politeness (face-work)

Politeness = deviation from maximally efficient communication (Gricean maxim violations)

To perform an act other than in the most clear and efficient manner is to implicate some degree of politeness on part of speaker

Politeness typology (continuum; extent to which face concerns are encoded)

Least polite

    Bald on record                             Shut the door
        No politeness (maximally
       efficient communication)

    On-record: Positive politeness     How about shutting the door
        Address positive face wants
        (slang, inclusiveness)

    On-record: Negative politeness     Could you shut the door?
        Address negative face wants

    Off-record politeness                     It's warm in here
        Ambiguous (multiple interp-
        retations possible; that's not
        what I meant)

    Don't perform act

Most polite

Some important distinctions:

Off-record (speaker meaning ambiguous, deniable)
vs. On-record (speaker's intended meaning relatively clear; but not maximally efficient)

Positive politeness (presumptuousness) is less polite than negative politeness (derived from Goffman/Durkhiem ordering of negative rites as more deferential and hence polite than positive rites)

More detail on strategies:

Off-record Politeness. Based on violating Grice's maxims:

1. quality maxim (say what is true) - sarcastic irony (e.g., "That's brilliant", when it is not), metaphor (e.g., "My job is a jail"), rhetorical questions (e.g., "Did someone leave the light on?"),

2. manner maxim (be clear) result in the use of euphanisms and vagueness regarding the face-threatening act (e.g., "I wonder who forgot to do the dishes?").

3. quantity maxim (be as informative as required) can result in understatement (e.g., "It's OK" as a less than positive response to another's new haircut) and overstatement ("The line in the grocery store was a mile long" as an excuse).

Also, denying believed propositions(e.g., Ronald Reagan is not an alcoholic) increases belief in proposition.

4. relation maxim (be relevant) raising an issue can trigger a directive interpretation (e.g., "I'm thirsty" as a request for something to drink).
Responses to face-threatening questions (see below)

Problem: inferential processing required?

Negative Politeness. No inference required; oriented to the recipient's negative face (desire for autonomy). Address negative face in some way, primarily by lessening the imposition and/or providing options.

Conventional indirect forms (most common) question or assert felicity conditions underlying the act "Will you shut the door?", "Can you shut the door?", "Are you able to shut the door?", "Did you shut the door?", "I want you to shut the door", and so on. It appears that all languages allow for the performance of conventional indirect requests..

Avoid presumptions - use hedges; e.g., "if" clauses suspending the relevant felicity conditions -> "Close the window, if you can", and "Turn up the heat, if you want". Hedge Grice's maxims; e.g., quality maxim (and hence the sincerity felicity condition) yield assertions such as "I think abortion is wrong" (vs. the direct "Abortion is wrong")

minimize the imposition (e.g., "I just stopped by to get that manuscript"; i.e., my imposition is limited to just this one act, and "Could I borrow a cigarette?" vs. "Could I have a cigarette?")

communicate explicitly that one does not want to impinge on the other(e.g., "I don't want to bother you, but could you give me a hand?"), admitting the impingement ("I know you're busy but could you take a look at this?"),

Positive Politeness. No inference required. Approach-based. Stake of a claim for some degree of familiarity with one's interlocutor. Language of intimacy (exaggerated serves to mark the positive politeness that is being conveyed) Positive politeness is also free-ranging and need not (necessarily) address the threat associated with the specific act being performed; it can be used with acts threatening either positive or negative face.

claim common ground

- ingroup markers such as familiar address terms (honey, luv, mate, pal, bud, etc.) and/or slang ("Lend me a couple of bucks, OK?"),

-similarity of interests by commenting on the other's appearance, belongings and so on ("Oh, I see you got a new haircut").

-emphasis on approach rather than avoidance (e.g., don't ignore anothers runny nose (a negative politeness strategy), attend to it (e.g., by presenting the runny nose with a tissue).

-find agreement with one another at some level: noncontroversial topics (e.g., the weather, sports, etc.), small talk and gossip, token agreement (e.g., "Yes, but....."), hedging their opinions (e.g., "I kinda think that abortion is wrong" vs. "Abortion is wrong") .


-indicate awareness and concern for the hearer's positive face wants (e.g., "I hope you don't think me rude, but your tie is hideous") and/or convey a promise that addresses the hearer's positive face ("I'll stop by next week").

- optimism (vs. Negatively polite pessimism) ("I'm sure you won't if I help myself to a beer").

-use inclusive terms (e.g., "Let's have a beer"; vs. "Give me a beer")

fulfil the other person's wants (directly and substantially, rather then symbolically (as is accomplished with the above strategies)) : Gift- giving.


Some support for ordering of superstrategies (in terms of perceived politeness) and for ordering of negative politeness strategies (e.g., Would you x? less polite than Could you x?; former presumes ability). Some cross-cultural evidence

Major exception: Off-record not most polite

Processing effort?

Issues: politeness = indirectness?

Nonverbal politeness?

Positive politeness less polite than negative politeness? (Specificity principle)

Interpersonal Determinants of Politeness

Which politeness strategy will an interactant choose?

Choice depends on weighting of motivation to communicate efficiently (e.g., emergency situations) and motivation to manage face

Greater perceived face-threat (act weightiness) -> greater likelihood for use of more polite strategy

Weightiness =

Wx = D(S,H) + P(H,S) + Rx

D = distance

P = power

Rx = imposition

Variables defined in terms of speaker's perceptions (individual and cultural variability possible)

Power and distance match up well with other views of basic interactional dimensions.


general strategy manipulate one or more of these variables and examine their impact on politeness (ask Ss what they would say or examine what they actually say)

- consistent effects for power variable; increasing levels of politeness associated with increasing levels of hearer power (many speech acts and methods) (e.g., Goguen & Linde)

-fairly consistent support for imposition variable; greater politeness occurring for acts representing a greater imposition (for many speech acts)

-inconsistent findings for relationship; positive, negative, and null relationships reported. Logic is that in unfamiliar relationships (high distance) the potential for aggression is unknown and so interactants must use politeness to signal the lack of an aggressive intent. So, familiarity or liking?

-effects of three variables not additive; as estimates of any one of the three variables become quite large, the effects of the other two variables on politeness become much smaller.

-effects of politeness variability on person perception. Direct perceived more powerful, etc. (Occurs in Korea and U.S.; subtle wording effects)

Status of the Face Concept

Aggressive face-work ; different from lack of politeness (bald on record). How to explain (include aggressive face-work category?)

Overemphasis on hearer's face (at expense of speaker's face); but by supporting the other's face, one is supporting one's own face.

However, sometimes a tradeoff between self-other face (e.g., apologies)

Face as a cultural universal

Politeness continuum not valid cross-culturally (Katriel; Sabra prefer direct)

Relevance of negative politeness only in cultures emphasizing individual autonomy (Western); Rosaldo (1982) Llongot, directives not threatening because they reference group membership and responsibility not individual responsibility

But, cultural variability assumed; politeness theory can be used as framework for examining cultural differences

E.g., cultural differences in weighting interpersonal variables can predict politeness variability; differences in assumptions (e.g., distance) can predict differential levels of politeness.

Major weakness:

Emphasizes (along with speech act theory) single turn or utterance as primary unit of meaning and face-work.

But much face-work and meaning is negotiated and coordinated over a series of moves. Face-work/meaning can be missed if focus on single turn.

Conversation Analysis - (Schegloff, Sacks, Jefferson). Rigorous, atheoretical, inductive, empirical examination of conversational structure.

Some results demonstrate sequential patterning of face-work (authors would disagree with face management interpretation)

For example, pre-sequences (specifically, pre-requests)

(1) A: Doing anything?

(2) B: Nah,

(3) A: Want to look at my computer now?

(4) B: Sure

Analysis (following Levinson): (1) check on potential obstacles; will request succeed? Can avoid making request if likely to not succeed. B can offer following (1), request is avoided altogether

Many other examples: moves to avoid/lessen disagreement; self-disclosure, etc.

Politeness and Language Comprehension

Little research; but if politeness plays a role in production it should also play a role in comprehension

The problem: Given the occurrence of a maxim violation, how do hearers decide the intended, indirect meaning? An infinite number of implicatures are possible.

Interpersonal underpinnings of comprehension:

- hearers attempt to explain why maxim violation occurred (Hastie,
    Graesser); attempt to explain unexpected.

-if face management (politeness) motivates indirectness, hearers should consider face management as a reason for the violation;

assume speaker is engaging in face management and interpret remark as conveying face threatening information.

Andy: What did you think of my presentation?

Bob: It's hard to give a good presentation.

Some supportive evidence:

Ss interpret replies as conveying face-threatening information

Difficult to comprehend when situation is altered so that not face- threatening

Note: Positive evidence can be threatening in some situations.



High level, comprehensive account of interpersonal implications of language; possible cross-cultural framework


Emphasis on single utterance/turn as unit