Politeness Theory of Communication

Penelope Brown and Stephen Levinson (1978) extends Grice’s cooperative principle through their politeness theory. According to them, a speaker must choose among the most appropriate politeness strategies in achieving the goals or purposes of communication. These politeness strategies aim to make sure that either the listener or the speaker does not lose his or her ‘face’ or self-image. Brown and Levinson identified two kinds of face that must be maintained during the communication process: the positive face and the negative face. The positive face refers to the individual’s need to be appreciated while the negative face refers to the individual’s desire to be free from any obligation or imposition.

A speech act is considered face-threatening based on the following factors: power, rank, and distance. Power structures are often manifested through conversations. The language one uses reflects and is determined by the power relations between interlocutors. Social distance or the level of familiarity between communicators also affects the way they speak to each other. Finally, rank is determined by whether or not a topic is sensitive or taboo. The level of sensitivity of a topic varies in different cultures. Consider the following example:

Some Americans who had been living in Japan for a year or two were talking about their impressions of Japan. “Japanese ask too many personal questions,” said one young woman. “People that I have barely met say things like ‘Why don’t you stop smoking so you can get a good husband?’ It infuriates me. They are bossy and interfering. These are personal matters that I would discuss only with a close friend. And even a close friend would wait for me to open the subject.”

“I know what you mean,” replied a married woman. “Japanese are always asking me, ‘Why don’t you have children?’ I think they are very rude to ask a personal question like that. It’s none of their business whether we have children or not.”

Source: In N. Sakamoto and S. Sakamoto, Polite Fictions in Collision. Why Japanese and Americans Seem Rude to Each Other, (Tokyo: Kinseido, 2004), p. 2

Brown and Levinson introduced five politeness strategies the speakers may choose from and which will determine whether or not they will be threatening the face of their interlocutors. These include the bald on-record face-threatening act, positive politeness, negative politeness, off-record politeness, and not using the face-threatening act at all. 

Bald On-Record Face-Threatening Act

The bald on-record FTA is a strategy in which the speaker directly states what is needed to be said without any attempts of minimizing any threats. This is used when the interlocutors are close to each other or when the situational context shows that it would more likely benefit the other person rather than hurt his or her feelings. Sample situations include giving urgent commands in times of trouble, calamities, or situations bound by time-constraints. For instance, you may exclaim, “Get out! There’s a fire!”

Positive Politeness

Positive politeness, also called positive face redress, is a strategy used to preserve or enhance the positive face or self-image of both the communicators. These include utterances that establish or strengthen friendly relationships, agreement, and solidarity. The speaker may demonstrate positive politeness by showing extreme interest to the listener, giving compliments, expressing sympathy and understanding, recognizing the listener’s needs and interests, establishing common ground, using in-group markers or language common to a particular culture, and telling jokes or white lies to avoid disagreements. For instance, when you need to ask a favor from someone you are not close to, you may say, “Uy, friend, can I borrow your notes?”

Negative Politeness

Negative politeness or negative face redress is demonstrated by being conventionally indirect, avoiding assumptions or presumptions, using hedges or words such as “might,” “maybe,” “perhaps,” and “could,” avoiding coercion by being pessimistic, indicating hesitations or reluctance, apologizing, and replacing personal pronouns with indefinites. If you are asking someone superior to you such as your professor, you may say, “Would it be possible, Sir, if we have one free day to prepare for the final class performance?”

Off-Record Politeness

Off-record politeness makes use of implicatures such that the listener has to generate inferences about the speaker’s intended meaning. By indirectly hinting at something, the speaker may achieve his or her purpose without imposing on, or embarrassing, the listener. Other examples include the use of irony, metaphors, rhetorical questions, ambiguous language, ellipsis, and understatements. You may say, “It’s a bit dark in here. Can we open the blinds?”

Face-Threatening Act Avoidance

If there is a high likelihood that the communicators may severely cause a loss of face to either of the interlocutors, a speaker may also choose not to say the statement at all.