Politeness, Part 2

Face-Threatening Acts

Now that you have a basic grasp of positive and negative face, you can begin to understand what politeness is really about. Politeness is a set of strategies for managing threats to face, for doing face-threatening acts (FTAs).

Face-threatening acts are those routine, everyday communicative actions (e.g., requesting, apologizing, advising, criticizing, inviting, complimenting, etc.) that, by their very nature, pose a threat to the speaker's or hearer's positive or negative face wants.

Consider requests. When we make a request, we tend to use some form of politeness, often the simplest and most conventional form, the word "please." Why do we do this?

A request asks another person to do something they would not ordinarily have done. In doing so, it threatens negative face, the desire to be left alone. The speaker knows this, and being a person with tact and social skill, acknowledges the threat to face by saying please. Please is a shortened form of "if you please." So "pass the salt, please," is really "pass the salt, if you please." 

Face-threatening acts (FTAs) are unavoidable. As we go about our daily business, we must do dozens if not hundreds of them every day. Politeness does not protect us from having to do these FTAs. Instead it gives us a way to threaten face while also acknowledging to other people that we respect their face wants, even though, at the moment, we are forced to threaten them.

In saying please, what we are saying is, "I know you are somebody, a person with face wants, a human being with dignity and self-esteem, deserving of deference. I recognize that you would rather be left alone to go about your life uninterrupted, but I need the salt, and I can't reach it. So I am forced to threaten your negative face wants. I feel bad about that, and to dramatize that I still respect your face wants, even though I have to violate them in this instance, I say (if you) please."

That's a mouthful. No one wants to say all that every time they need the salt. But maintaining the safety of the social world requires that we acknowledge and respect each other's face wants. That's where politeness comes in. Politeness offers us routine, conventional ways to pay our respects to people's face wants even when we must threaten or violate them.

Politeness Strategies

Brown and Levinson's best known contribution is their list of four politeness strategies. They are, in order from least to most polite, as follows (remember FTA is a face-threatening act, something that threatens the speaker's or hearer's negative or positive face):

  1. Do the FTA baldly on the record (i.e., directly).
  2. Do the FTA on the record with redress.
    • With positive politeness
    • With negative politeness
  3. Do the FTA off the record (i.e., indirectly)
  4. Don't do the FTA.

To illustrate these strategies, take the example of needing to say something critical about a friend's appearance. Your friend has just gotten a new haircut, and she walks up to you and asks what you think. In truth, you do not like it.

What do you say?

If we unpack the situation, we realize that if we tell the truth we would be criticizing our friend. Criticism threatens the hearer's positive face (their desire to be liked and approved of). Being asked to comment on your friend's haircut actually threatens your negative face (i.e., it imposes on you to make a comment when you'd rather remain silent), so it was actually somewhat impolite of them to ask. We will put that aside for the moment. 

The face threatening act in this case is criticism. It threatens the hearer's positive face. According to Brown and Levinson, you have four choices.

1. Bald on the Record

The least polite option is to do the act "baldly on the record." This means doing the act directly without any hedging or apology or sweetener. They use the term "bald" as in "bald-faced lie," meaning something unadorned and blatant. (And no, the expression is not "bold-faced lie", it's "bald-faced.") So a bald on the record criticism of the haircut would be something like "you look ridiculous" or "that's a terrible haircut" or "I hate it." These have the virtue of clarity and directness, but they are savagely impolite and do nothing to save face.

2. On the Record With Redress

Your next choice is to do the FTA "on the record with redress" with either positive or negative politeness. As before, on the record means we do the FTA directly. We do not rely on indirectness, inference, and implication.

Redress is a kind of remedy or compensation. Imagine that in each of our heads we have a face 'bank account.' The balance of the account corresponds to how healthy our sense of face or self worth is at the moment. When we threaten someone's face, or cause them to lose face, it's like making a withdrawal from this account. When we use redress in doing an FTA, we are offering compensation for the face threat. We are making a deposit into that account. We are taking face with one hand and paying it back with the other.

Positive politeness refers to any attempt to redress the threat to positive face, to reassure the other person that they are liked and approved of despite the FTA. Negative politeness refers to any attempt to minimize the threat to negative face, to reassure the other person that we are aware of and respect their desire to be left alone and regret the imposition.

An on the record with redress strategy for the haircut situation might be something like "I don't like the haircut, but I love you." Or "The haircut does not look that good, but your smile is divine." Each does the FTA directly, and in doing so causes loss of face. The loss is then remedied, or redressed, by the compliment or statement of affection, which explicitly affirms your friend's positive face, their desire to be liked and approved of. Think of this as 'sweet and sour' politeness. The FTA is sour. The redress is sweet. This strategy has two virtues: it is honest and direct while still minimizing damage to face. Its disadvantage is that is does the FTA directly and on the record, and as such could cause a loss of face in spite of your attempt to redress the FTA.

Going on the record with redress is more polite than going bald on the record because the redress remedies, compensates, and pays the hearer back for the damage we do to face by directly performing an FTA. Whether the compensation is enough to prevent hurt feelings and damage to the relationship depends on a variety of factors, including the severity of the FTA.

3. Off the Record

The next option is to do the FTA 'off the record.' This means you will not say explicitly and directly that you do not like the haircut, but you will do so indirectly, relying on your friend to make the inference that you don't like it.

The advantage of an off the record strategy is plausible deniability. If the hearer accuses you of saying something hurtful, you can deny it and claim that wasn't your intention. You can insist they made an incorrect inference. The disadvantage of indirectness is that it is unclear and inefficient.

You might say. "ooh, that's different" or "I've never seen you wear your hair quite like that."  It's not that any of these statements genuinely hides our dislike. Any competent communicator is likely to infer correctly that you don't like their haircut. But in making the criticism indirectly, we are saying, in effect, "I don't like your haircut, but I like you and respect your positive face too much to criticize you directly."

The indirectness itself dramatizes our discomfort and unwillingness to directly threaten our friend's positive face. This reluctance is a measure of how much we like our friend and do not want to hurt her. Being indirect is more polite than being direct because it pays more respect to face. It acknowledges that the FTA is too threatening even to put on the record directly.

4. Do not do the FTA

The last and most polite strategy is not to do the FTA at all.

Your friend asks you what you think of her new haircut. You think it looks ridiculous, but you say, "It looks fabulous!" You have done absolutely no damage to your friend's positive face. You have not done an FTA at all. You sized up the challenge and decided discretion was the better part of valor. The advantage of this strategy is that it does not threaten face. The disadvantage is that it is, at some level, dishonest or disingenuous. You did not say what you really felt.

But the more we learn about communication, the more we realize that the unfiltered expression of our own thoughts and feelings is not helpful or effective. Honesty, if interpreted as saying everything we think or feel without regard to the consequences, is not a virtue. Much of what it means to develop communication skill is learning to constrain free expression, to learn to use language strategically to achieve our goals, and even to define and reshape social situations. Doing that means having a filter, learning that some things are better left unsaid.

There is always a trade-off between clarity and tact, between unfettered expression and concern for other people's feelings. We will see this tension in every difficult communication situation we examine. It never goes away. Much of what we mean by communication skill refers to our ability (or inability) to find just the right balance between these two forces: task and relationship, clarity and tact, efficiency and diplomacy.

What makes politeness so fascinating and so illuminating is that it shows how even the most familiar elements of our talk, things like please and thank you and excuse me, are attempts to resolve this basic tension. It also shows how language is used strategically and rationally, in a rule-governed way, to guide our linguistic choices.

There's much more to say about politeness, such as how we decide how polite to be in a given situation, but this post has gone on long enough already (violating your negative face by imposing on you for so long...I'm sorry), and so I'll end here and try to summarize what we've learned.


Politeness is a set of strategies for doing face-threatening acts while minimizing the chance that we or others will lose face.

Face is the positive social value we claim for ourselves by acting in a particular way. It has two aspects: negative face (the desire to be left alone) and positive face (the desire to be liked and approved of). Remember these as "leave me alone and like me." A face threatening act is any action that threatens either the speaker's or the hearer's positive or negative face.

Most routine communicative actions have the potential to threaten either the speaker's or the hearer's face or both. FTAs are commonplace.

There are four basic politeness strategies, ranging from doing the FTA on the record with no apologies, to not doing the FTA at all. The decision about what strategy to use is made in an instant, almost subconsciously, and reflects our moment-to-moment judgment about how best to balance the tension between our desire to be clear, direct and efficient, and our desire to be tactful, kind, and diplomatic.

In the next post, I will give more examples of face-threatening acts and how to do them politely, and I will explain in more detail about how we decide which politeness strategy to use in a given situation.

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