1. Education
Send to a Friend via Email

politeness strategies


politeness strategies

Politeness: Some Universals in Language Usage by Penelope Brown and Stephen C. Levinson (Cambridge University Press, 1987)


In sociolinguistics, conversation analysis (CA), and politeness theory, speech acts that express concern for others and minimize threats to self-esteem ("face") in particular social contexts.

Positive politeness strategies are intended to avoid giving offense by highlighting friendliness. These strategies include juxtaposing criticism with compliments, establishing common ground, and using jokes, nicknames, honorifics, tag questions, special discourse markers (please), and in-group jargon and slang.

Negative politeness strategies are intended to avoid giving offense by showing deference. These strategies include questioning, hedging, and presenting disagreements as opinions.

The best known and most widely used approach to the study of politeness is the framework introduced by Penelope Brown and Stephen C. Levinson in Questions and Politeness (1978); reissued with corrections as Politeness: Some Universals in Language Usage (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1987). Brown and Levinson's theory of linguistic politeness is sometimes referred to as the "'face-saving' theory of politeness."

See also:

Examples and Observations:

  • "Professor, I was wondering if you could tell us about the Chamber of Secrets."
    (Hermione in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, 2002)

  • "Sitting in your chair, I would probably say the same thing. And 999,999 times out of a million, you would be correct. But in the pages of history, every once in a while, fate reaches out and extends its hand."
    (Col. Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds, 2009)

  • "Would you mind stepping aside? I got a purchase to make."
    (Eric Cartman in Cartmanland. South Park, 2001)

  • A Definition of Politeness
    "What exactly is politeness? In one sense, all politeness can be viewed as deviation from maximally efficient communication; as violations (in some sense) of Grice’s (1975) conversational maxims [see cooperative principle]. To perform an act other than in the most clear and efficient manner possible is to implicate some degree of politeness on the part of the speaker. To request another to open a window by saying “It’s warm in here” is to perform the request politely because one did not use the most efficient means possible for performing this act (i.e., “Open the window”). . . .

    "Politeness allows people to perform many inter-personally sensitive actions in a nonthreatening or less threatening manner.

    "There are an infinite number of ways in which people can be polite by performing an act in a less than optimal manner, and Brown and Levinson’s typology of five superstrategies is an attempt to capture some of these essential differences."
    (Thomas Holtgraves, Language as Social Action: Social Psychology and Language Use. Lawrence Erlbaum, 2002)

  • Orienting to Different Kinds of Politeness
    "People who grow up in communities that are more oriented to negative face wants and negative politeness may find that they are perceived as aloof or cold if they move somewhere where positive politeness is emphasized more. They may also mistake some of the conventionalised positive politeness routines as being expressions of 'genuine' friendship or closeness . . .. Conversely, people accustomed to paying attention to positive face wants and using positive politeness strategies may find that they come across as unsophisticated or vulgar if they find themselves in a community that is more oriented to negative face wants."
    (Miriam Meyerhoff, Introducing Sociolinguistics. Routledge, 2006)

  • Page Conners: [bursting into Jack's bar] I want my purse, jerk-off!
    Jack Withrowe: That's not very friendly. Now, I want you to go back out, and this time, when you kick the door open, say something nice.
    (Jennifer Love Hewitt and Jason Lee in Heartbreakers, 2001)

  • Variables in Degrees of Politeness
    "Brown and Levinson list three 'sociological variables' that speakers employ in choosing the degree of politeness to use and in calculating the amount of threat to their own face:
    (i) the social distance of the speaker and hearer (D);
    (ii) the relative 'power' of the speaker over the hearer (P);
    (iii) the absolute ranking of impositions in the particular culture (R).
    The greater the social distance between the interlocutors (e.g., if they know each other very little), the more politeness is generally expected. The greater the (perceived) relative power of hearer over speaker, the more politeness is recommended. The heavier the imposition made on the hearer (the more of their time required, or the greater the favour requested), the more politeness will generally have to be used."
    (Alan Partington, The Linguistics of Laughter: A Corpus-Assisted Study of Laughter-Talk. Routledge, 2006)

  • Positive and Negative Politeness
    "Brown and Levinson (1978/1987) distinguish between positive and negative politeness. Both types of politeness involve maintaining--or redressing threats to--positive and negative face, where positive face is defined as the addressee's 'perennial desire that his wants . . . should be thought of as desirable' (p. 101), and negative face as the addressee's 'want to have his freedom of action unhindered and his attention unimpeded' (p. 129)."
    (Almut Koester, Investigating Workplace Discourse. Routledge, 2006)

  • Common Ground
    "[C]ommon ground, information perceived to be shared among communicators, is important not only for gauging what information is likely to be already known versus new, but also to carry a message of interpersonal relationships. Brown and Levinson (1987) argued that claiming common ground in communication is a major strategy of positive politeness, which is a series of conversational moves that recognise the partner's needs and wants in a way that shows they represent a commonality, such as a commonality of knowledge, attitudes, interests, goals, and in-group membership."
    (Anthony Lyons et al., "Cultural Dynamics of Stereotypes." Stereotype Dynamics: Language-Based Approaches to the Formation, Maintenance, and Transformation of Stereotypes, ed. by Yoshihisa Kashima, Klaus Fiedler, and Peter Freytag. Psychology Press, 2007)

©2014 About.com. All rights reserved.