Politeness theory is a sociolinguistic theory in the pragmatic tradition that was developed by Brown and Levinson, who extended Goffman’s dramaturgical approach. Using Durkheim’s work on social rituals, Goffman examined how people manage their public identities, which he labeled face. When in the presence of others, one’s face is always on display and others will form impressions and respond to these impressions. Face, then, becomes a situated social identity that is not owned, but rather resides in the flow of human interaction. To have one’s face invalidated by others means to lose face; to have it sanctioned is to have face. Face must therefore be maintained and is subject to constant threats. The process by which people maintain face is called facework. Because people are mutually concerned with maintaining each other’s face, facework becomes a necessary social ritual that provides the cooperative mechanism for interaction order as opposed to interaction chaos. Considerable research in interpersonal communication has used politeness theory and face-work to examine the communicative strategies people use to enact, support, or challenge face.
Brown and Levinson extended Goffman’s analysis by refining the concept of face, and by proposing a heuristic of politeness strategies people use to manage face-threatening acts (FTAs). Face was defined in terms of two opposing human needs: negative face (the need for autonomy) and positive face (the need for validation). The struggle to balance positive and negative face points to a fundamental conflict involved in human interaction: on the one hand, people strive to cooperatively manage each other’s face, and on the other hand, they tend to unintentionally commit acts that are inherently face threatening. It is this presumably universal conflict that permeates all social interaction and that subsequently motivates the use of politeness strategies. The severity of an FTA is determined by (1) the social distance of the speaker to the hearer (e.g., status, closeness), (2) the power of the speaker relative to the hearer, and (3) the rank of the FTA (i.e., a cultural and personal assessment of the threat magnitude).
Drawing from Grice’s conversational maxims, Brown and Levinson proposed a hierarchy of five mutually exclusive politeness strategies that balance two opposing goals: the goal to communicate the content of the message in an efficient way, and the goal to preserve one’s own and the other’s positive/negative face. The most polite strategy is to entirely avoid the FTA, which maximizes face saving at the expense of communicating content. The least polite strategy is to relinquish all efforts at face saving and to go bald-on-record without redress, a strategy that prioritizes the content of the message at the expense of face. In between are three strategies that vary in degree of politeness. People might choose to do an FTA off record through innuendos. When speakers use positive politeness FTAs, they show regard for the recipient’s positive attributes (e.g., claiming common ground), whereas negative politeness FTAs minimize imposition on the listener’s autonomy (e.g., incurring a debt). According to Brown and Levinson (1987), negative politeness strategies are more polite than positive politeness strategies, because they mark the speaker’s self-effacement.
Politeness theory and facework have been tested not only cross-culturally (Holtgraves 2001) and nonverbally, but also in face-threatening social contexts, such as the provision of advice and requests, sexual resistance, social influence, phone calls to a 911 emergency center, and doctor–patient conversations (MacMartin et al. 2001; Metts & Grohskopf 2003). Empirical research on politeness theory has used two different methodologies to examine politeness and facework. First, the extent to which certain strategies are more or less face threatening has been examined most frequently with a message perception method, which requires participants to read hypothetical scenarios or dialogues that vary in face threat. Participants then evaluate strategies that vary in politeness on the basis of their perceived attention to positive or negative face. Second, by far the greatest amount of research has tested how politeness is enacted in everyday conversations by using discourse analysis, an interpretive method that attempts to bridge the gap between sentence meaning and speaker meaning by examining the functions of specific speech acts. So far, results are mixed, which might partially be a function of the different methodologies that have been used to examine politeness and facework. For example, scholars in the message perception tradition argue that speakers view positive politeness as more positive than negativepoliteness strategies, and use various politeness strategies within the same utterance, even though these strategies were conceived initially as linearly arrayed and mutually exclusive (Metts & Grohskopf 2003). Brown and Levinson (1987), however, contend that politeness theory needs to be examined with interpretive, rather than deterministic, methodologies in order to capture subtle speaker–hearer relationships in speech acts in everyday interactions.
Face, faceloss and facework, have entered the common vernacular in a relatively short period of time, indicating their immense relevance and heuristic value. Future research will focus on several issues. For instance, initial work has begun to uncover individual differences in face needs and facework competence. In addition, the relative importance of positive face compared to negative face appears to be an important distinction between personal and social relationships. Yet, we know little about how people avoid threats to positive face in close relationships. Scenario studies might not reveal the conversational nuances relational partners use to manage positive face. Rather, a detailed analysis of couples’ conversation is necessary.
- Brown, P., & Levinson, S. C. (1987). Politeness: Some universals of language usage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Cupach, W. R., & Metts, S. (2004). Facework. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Holtgraves, T. M. (2001). Language as social action: Social psychology and language use. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
- MacMartin, C., Wood, L. A., & Kroger, R. O. (2001). Facework. In W. P. Robinson & H. Giles (eds.), The new handbook of language and social psychology. Chichester: John Wiley, pp. 221– 237.
- Metts, S., & Grohskopf, E. (2003). Impression management: Goals, strategies, and skills. In J. O. Greene & B. R. Burleson (eds.), Handbook of communication and social interaction skills. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 357–399.