What Politeness Says About Our Relationships

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In recent posts, I’ve talked about face and politeness. In this post, I want to talk more about the factors we consider when we decide how polite to be when doing a face-threatening act (FTA). I’ll discuss how the amount of politeness we use reflects back on us and allows others to make inferences about us, about the act we're performing, and about the nature of the relationship between us. This is important because it introduces a major theme: the relationship between communication and identity, between what we say, how others perceive us, and how we understand ourselves.

How Polite Should We Be?

Whenever we do a face-threatening act (like requesting, refusing, advising, etc.) we have a decision to make. How polite should we be? In the last post, I described the four main politeness strategies: (1) do the FTA bald on the record; (2) do the FTA on the record with redress; (3) do the FTA off the record; and (4) don’t do the FTA.

Each of these strategies has advantages and disadvantages. Each represents a choice about how to handle the tension between clarity, honesty, and efficiency on the one hand, and kindness, diplomacy, and tact on the other. 

The question arises then about how we make these decisions. It’s important to acknowledge that in most cases these are not conscious, deliberative decisions. They happen in an instant, and if there is any decision-making it takes place unconsciously and automatically. Occasionally, when the stakes are high, we do consciously deliberate about what to say and how to say it.

Regardless of whether the decision-making is conscious or unconscious, three factors influence our choice about how much politeness should accompany an FTA.

Brown and Levinson (the originators of politeness theory) call these factors power (P), distance (D), and ranking (R). Together these comprise the “weightiness” of an FTA (weighty as in “I have something heavy to talk to you about.”). The weightier the FTA, the greater its potential to threaten face and damage your relationships.

The general rule is this: as the weightiness of the FTA increases, so too should the amount of politeness. We intuitively sense this, but Brown and Levinson give us a vocabulary for thinking and talking about these intuitions.

Weightiness = Power + Distance + Ranking

Every time we need to do an FTA, we quickly (often subconsciously and automatically) assess the situation, compute the weightiness, and try to choose the appropriate amount of politeness. Of course, we often are wrong about our assessments, and as a result we sometimes use too much or too little politeness. Even when we’re right about the assessment, we sometimes can’t implement the strategy we want (e.g., we may not know how to give the advice indirectly, may not be able to think of the right way to redress the FTA, etc.). I will talk about those difficulties in future posts.

For now, let’s define the three factors that go into our assessment of weightiness.

Power

Power refers to the relative power difference between speaker and hearer. The more powerful the hearer is in relation to the speaker, the weightier the FTA and the more politeness will be required to do any FTA.

Let’s use requests as our typical FTA. Imagine you are at work. Your car has broken down, and you need a ride home. Think about how you would make the request to your boss versus how you would make the same request to a coworker or subordinate.

Most of us sense the need to be more polite to our boss than to our coworker, and more polite to our coworker than to our subordinate. The negative face wants of powerful people seem to demand more attention. This is power in action.

To our boss, we might say, “Excuse me. Sorry to bother you, boss. I hate to impose on you, but my car has broken down, and I need to get home to be with my kids. If it’s too much trouble, just forget about it.”

his request uses redress (negative politeness) to manage the threat to the boss’s negative face. It apologizes, gives the boss an easy out, and makes the request indirectly (“I need to get home” rather than “will you give me a ride” or “give me a ride, please”). This is a hybrid of strategies (2) and (3). It is off the record with redress.

Using this much politeness is a response to the perceived power difference between you and your boss. But it not only responds to the power difference, it dramatizes and reproduces the power difference. Every time you are extremely polite to your boss, you are saying, in effect, “you are more powerful than I am.” This politeness is a public display and affirmation, for all the world to see, of your boss’s power over you.

To your coworker, you might say “Hey Stephanie, my car won’t start. Can I get a lift home?” This is less polite than the request to your boss. It uses positive politeness in the form of familiarity (“Hey Stephanie”). But it offers no apology. And it makes the request with conventional indirectness (“Can I get a lift home?”). The request is indirect because, taken literally, it is a question about Stephanie’s ability to give you a ride, not about her willingness to do so. But it is automatically heard as a request. The conventional indirectness makes the request a bit more polite than a direct request.

To your subordinate you might say, “Gimme a ride home, would ya?” or, if you are an imperious boss, “My car won’t start so I’ll be riding home with you.”

The first is familiar and informal. The second is not even phrased as a request but rather as a statement. Neither one pays much attention to the subordinate’s negative face wants. Just as apologies and excessive deference to your boss dramatize and reproduce the status and power difference, so the familiarity and presumptuousness of the message to your subordinate does the same for the status and power difference between you and your underling.

But even to our subordinates, it’s hard to completely ignore face. The phrase “would ya?”  is an informal version of “if you please” and it functions as negative politeness by acknowledging that the other person does not have to give you a ride home and that doing so may be an imposition and a threat to their negative face.

The amount of politeness we show to people who are less powerful than we are is a true measure of our dignity and humanity. To ignore another person’s face wants, even when the status difference might permit it, is to be kind of a jerk.

In addition to illustrating the effect of power on politeness, these examples show that communication not only responds to power differences. It re-creates, reproduces, reinforces and sustains aspects of the social situation such as power relationships. Talk creates social reality. Communication creates meaning and defines relationships. We will return to this observation again and again because it is central to understanding the full power of language.

Distance

Distance is the second factor contributing to the weightiness of an FTA. The distance referred to here is social distance, not physical distance. It captures the intuition that we must be more polite to strangers than we are to intimates. When we bump into a stranger on the street or in a coffee shop and cause them to spill their coffee, we apologize profusely, beg their pardon, and maybe offer to buy them another cup. When we bump into our spouse at home in the morning and cause them to spill their coffee, we say “oops, sorry honey,” and may not look up from our screen.

Politeness is a formal, conventional way of paying respect to face. In intimate relationships, less formality is required. We still have face wants, but we assume that our intimates already know that we like and approve of them, and we also assume we have more rights to interrupt or impede them. As a result, the need to address positive and negative face wants with conventional politeness is decreased. This does not mean that we cannot or should not be polite to our intimates. It just means that there is less social pressure to do so. And, as we will see below, if you use too much politeness, it might send the signal that the social distance between you and your partner is greater than it actually is.

Ranking

The third factor influencing the weightiness of a face-threatening act is what Brown and Levinson call the ranking of the FTA. All FTAs can be ranked in terms of their severity or their potential to threaten face. It is more face-threatening to criticize someone’s child or their religion than it is to criticize their cooking or their car or their tie. It is more face-threatening to ask to borrow $100 than to borrow a quarter. It is more face-threatening to call someone’s house at 2am than to call at 10am.

The higher the rank of the FTA, the more politeness is required.

What Politeness Reveals

So far I’ve talked mostly about the “production” side of politeness, i.e., how power (P), distance (D), and ranking (R) affect our decisions about how polite to be when doing an FTA. But equally interesting is the “reception” side of politeness, i.e., how the hearer examines the amount of politeness in our message and makes inferences about the speaker’s estimates of P, D, and R.

For example, I was walking down the hall once when a young student whom I barely knew shouted out to me, “Hey Bruce, what’s up?” It was a friendly greeting, but it struck me as excessively familiar given my beliefs about the nature of our relationship.

I thought to myself, this student must think we are much more intimate than we are. In my view, he had badly miscalculated social distance and therefore had used too little politeness in addressing me.

Or perhaps he was trying to use language to redefine the social distance between us, addressing me in a more familiar way to build closeness. Either way, his choice of politeness caused me to make many inferences about his plans, goals, intentions, and social perceptions. Not all of these inferences were flattering to him.

Another example would be when an equal status friend prefaces a request with lots of apologies and hedges: “Hey sorry to bother you. I wouldn’t even ask this if I weren’t in a big jam. I hate to impose on you like this. I feel terrible coming to you. Please, before I even ask, feel free to say no.”

Given that this is your friend (low distance) and that you are equal status (low power differential), you know that this much politeness can only mean that the ranking of the act must be very high indeed. You get squeamish because you know you are about to be asked a big, imposing favor.

These examples illustrate how the amount of politeness you use reveals your beliefs about power, distance, and ranking. It also hints at how we can use politeness strategically and intentionally, to change relationships, to alter the values of P, D, and R.

When I used to teach pharmacy students, I did a study that showed how, after discovering a prescribing error, pharmacists would still almost always start their phone conversations with the doctor by apologizing. These apologies reinforced and reproduced the existing power relationship. Each apology said to the doctor, in effect, “you are more powerful than I am.” This was not the message pharmacy as a profession wanted to send, so my recommendation was to use politeness strategically: assert power by not apologizing.

By using more or less politeness than the situation seems to require, you can assert a different set of values for power, distance, and ranking. By being less polite (or demanding less politeness from others), you can assert that there is a smaller power differential, or less social distance, or lower ranking of the act. By being more polite, or demanding more politeness from others, you can increase perceptions of power, distance, and ranking.

Summary

The amount of politeness we choose to use when doing an FTA is influenced by three factors: the power differential between the speaker and hearer, the social distance between speaker and hearer, and the ranking of the face-threateningness of the act. These factors combine to influence the overall weightiness of the FTA, and the general rule is that as weightiness increases so too should politeness.

Not only do power, distance, and ranking affect how much politeness the speaker chooses to use, but hearers know this, and as a result hearers can examine the amount of politeness being used and make inferences about the speaker’s estimates of power, distance, and ranking.

The connection between politeness and power, distance, and ranking also means that we can use politeness strategically, to manipulate perceptions about relationships and social situations. In this way, language choices create meaning and alter the definitions of identities and situations. And with this insight, we begin to get a glimpse of the true power of language and communication.

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