Politeness, Part 1

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Politeness Is a Window into the Inner Workings of the Social World

Politeness is a core communication skill. As soon as we begin to learn language, our parents teach us to say 'please' and 'thank you' and 'excuse me' and 'I'm sorry.' It's no mistake that we learn politeness so early. Our parents intuitively sense that politeness skills are central to our being seen as decent people.

Being polite allows us to show basic human decency to others, even strangers. Receiving politeness acknowledges and reaffirms our humanity. Politeness makes a risky and sometimes frightening social world just a little bit safer.

Politeness is more than etiquette. Understanding politeness provides insight into fundamental truths about the social world and what it means to be a person—someone with a self and an identity. Politeness also illustrates how the social world is at times rule-governed.

Like many concepts in communication, politeness is familiar yet difficult to define. Luckily, we do not have to start from scratch. We can stand on the shoulders of giants: in this case, the sociologist Erving Goffman, and the linguists Penelope Brown and Stephen Levinson

What is Politeness?

Politeness is a set of strategies for doing everyday communication tasks (e.g., requesting, advising, complimenting, criticizing, reminding) while at the same time protecting face. When I talk about politeness, I will sometimes refer to a hypothetical interaction between a speaker and a hearer. Politeness strategies are designed to protect both the speaker's and the hearer's face during the course of ordinary interaction. 

What is Face?

Face is one of the most important concepts in communication theory. It is my favorite concept, and the one I think has the most explanatory power. It is impossible to understand politeness without understanding face. Once you understand face and face work (i.e., all the work we do in conversations to save face), your experience of the social world will never be the same. You will see face and face work everywhere.

Most of us are familiar with the expression "to save face" or "to lose face." But what is it exactly that is saved or lost? Goffman, who introduced the concept to modern audiences, defines face as the positive social value we claim for ourselves when we act in a particular way in a social situation.

Synonyms for face include pride, self-esteem, dignity, sense of self-worth or self-respect, identity, integrity, or sense of being a person with intrinsic value. Face is all of these things.

Face = "I am somebody!"

When I try to define face for a new audience, I am often reminded of a call-and-response chant that the Reverend Jesse Jackson uses when he speaks to young people in an effort to bolster their sense of self-worth. He starts "I am!" And the audience responds "Somebody!"

I am somebody!

The essence of face is the claim that each of us is somebody, a person with intrinsic worth, someone deserving of basic human decency and respect in recognition of our personhood.

And notice that face is not something we have in a passive way. It is something we actively claim

Remember, Goffman says face is the positive social value we claim for ourselves by acting in a particular way in a social situation. By our actions on the stage of the social world, by walking, talking, standing, dressing, speaking, etc. in a particular way, we engage in a social performance that makes the claim: I am somebody!

Even in being polite to others, we are signaling that we are the sort of person who has poise and social grace, the sort of person who cares about saving face, and the sort of person whose face is worth saving.

When people fail to adhere to certain norms of conduct in dress, speech, or action, one of the things we say about them is that they lack self-respect, pride, self-esteem, or even personhood. We may say they "have no shame." We could just as easily say they have no face. We may refer to the person as an animal.

In the ultimate gesture of contempt, we may withhold politeness (e.g., we may not say please, thank you, excuse me, or I'm sorry) because they make no effective claim to personhood, and hence we don't acknowledge their personhood. It sounds harsh, but it's real. Think of the way homeless or other stigmatized people are sometimes treated, as if they are not people, as if they do not exist, as if they have no face.

Face is ubiquitous. It is at risk of being lost or saved in every interaction. No matter what the interaction is about, it is also about face. In a way, every interaction is first and foremost about face. Unless we feel safe that we will not lose face in a situation, we will not be able to focus on much else. Social anxiety is a pathologically intense fear of losing face.

In developing our social skill it is critical to understand how to deal effectively with people's face wants.

Face Wants: Leave Me Alone and Like Me

In their landmark book, Politeness: Some Universals in Language UsageBrown and Levinson extend Goffman's concept of face. They describe face as a persistent set of wants, which they refer to, not surprisingly, as face wants. 

What they mean is that in any social interaction, we possess two enduring desires. The first one, referred to as our positive face want, is the desire to be liked and approved of, to have our wants wanted by other people. The second, referred to as our negative face want, is our desire to go about our business in an uninterrupted and unimpeded way.

I often summarize these as leave me alone and like me.

If you're paying close attention, you will realize that these are contradictory wants. And you wondered why communication was tricky, why it was so easy to say the wrong thing, to offend people. The answer: people are impossible! At our core, we have two persistent desires that are almost impossible to satisfy simultaneously.

In future posts I will describe how difficult communication situations are defined by the presence of multiple, competing goals. For now it's enough to recognize that these competing face wants—leave me alone and like me—make almost every interaction difficult.

Let's take stock of what we've learned. Building on Goffman's idea of face as the positive social value we claim for ourselves, we now have Brown and Levinson's refined concept of face as consisting of two aspects: positive ("like me") and negative ("leave me alone"). In talking about face and politeness, I will often drop the word wants and just talk about positive and negative face. But you should not forget that these are best thought of as persistent desires of every person in every situation: the desire to be liked and approved of and the desire to be left alone. 

In part two of this discussion of politeness, I'll talk about face-threatening acts and about four politeness strategies.

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