Linguistic Politeness and Impoliteness

Nowadays, when communication enjoys a variety of sophisticated and refined means, it is necessary to find the tools, which make this communication effective. These tools could be a set of linguistic and pragmatic rules related to politeness in general, and although these rules are made to be transgressed, a minimal application will improve both communication and social relations.

Research on politeness is a part of the science of pragma-linguistics. Politeness represents an entire range of strategies and mechanisms meant to establish relationships between interlocutors. It also refers to the attitude of the locutor towards himself.  Moreover, politeness depends on several factors such as the context, which plays a significant role, as well as the type of interaction created, or the type of relationships among participants.

Politeness helps people communicate efficiently, and being polite means being involved in communication and creating an image about the interlocutor as well. Whether it is expressed verbally or nonverbally, respect is shown to people around, and this is the only way someone can be a member of a group.

Kerbrat-Orecchioni laid emphasis upon the contribution to the study of politeness, which was brought by Brown and Levinson. Their politeness theory refers to the fact that any verbal and nonverbal act in communication may attack either the negative face, including the territory or the positive face. For instance, asking questions, giving orders, inviting, agreeing, refusing may become threatening, affecting communication or ruining the relationship among individuals.

Moreover, the opposite of politeness, which is impoliteness represents the communication of conflictive verbal face-threatening acts (FTAs).  Threatening acts appear in the case of a person who cries in front of the others, finds excuses, interrupts the others, or makes confessions. Face-threatening acts can be replaced by some procedures. Thus, an order can be replaced by a question: “Why don’t you stop talking” instead of “Stop talking!”, or an order by a promise: “If you tell the truth, everything will be fine” instead of “Tell the truth!”.

What we take for a simple set of rules of good manners in use for a certain community becomes, an extremely complex system. More precisely, it is the system of politeness, a system which operates with concepts such as: positive face, negative face, “face-work”, face threatening act, negative politeness and positive politeness.

Concerning “face-work”, which represents the basis of the politeness system, we can add that it requires that the interlocutor resorts to various strategies to preserve not only his “faces”, but the “faces” of his partner in interaction. Among these strategies we include: the apology, the compliment, the greetings, the excuses, or the justifications. According to the adopted strategy, we can speak about positive politeness and negative politeness.

When politeness comes into contact with the law and principles which govern conversation, the co-operation principle interweaves with the politeness principle, leading to communicative coherence and social cohesion. We can add that politeness takes place in a certain context, which can be psychological, socio-cultural, or temporal. Politeness can also be considered an important social component of any discourse, directly connected to social relationships.  Politeness rules, culturally determined, help participants in interaction maintain communication effective. Thus, politeness helps people communicate efficiently and refers to the image we have about the interlocutor, who is characterized by uniqueness, respect, and understanding.

Bousfield, D. (2008). “Impoliteness in Interaction”. Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing.
Goffman, E. (1974). “Les rites d’interaction”. Paris : Les Editions de Minuit.
Kerbrat-Orecchioni, C. (1992). “Les interactions verbales”. Paris : Armand Colin.


prof. Laura Maimascu

Colegiul Economic Ion Ghica, Bacău (Bacău) , România
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