Politeness Strategies in English Grammar

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

politeness strategies
As most children learn at a young age (and as this unusual sign in South Africa demonstrates), please is one of the most significant politeness markers used in imperatives. (Steve Stringer Photography/Getty Images)

In sociolinguistics and conversation analysis (CA), politeness strategies are speech acts that express concern for others and minimize threats to self-esteem ("face") in particular social contexts.

Positive Politeness Strategies

Positive politeness strategies are intended to avoid giving offense by highlighting friendliness. These strategies include juxtaposing criticism with compliments, establishing common ground, and using jokes, nicknames, honorifics, tag questions, special discourse markers (please), and in-group jargon and slang.

For instance, a popular (if sometimes controversial) feedback strategy is the feedback sandwich: a positive comment before and after a criticism. The reason this strategy is often criticized in management circles is because it is, in fact, more of a politeness strategy than a useful feedback strategy.

Negative Politeness Strategies

Negative political strategies are intended to avoid giving offense by showing deference. These strategies include questioning, hedging, and presenting disagreements as opinions.

A high-stakes historical example of negative politeness strategies occurred in 1546, when Catherine Parr, the sixth and final wife of Henry VIII, was nearly arrested for her outspoken religious views. She managed to deflect the king's anger through deference and presenting her disagreements as mere opinions that she had offered up so that he could be distracted from his painful health problems.

The Face Saving Theory of Politeness

The best known and most widely used approach to the study of politeness is the framework introduced by Penelope Brown and Stephen C. Levinson in Questions and Politeness (1978); reissued with corrections as Politeness: Some Universals in Language Usage (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1987). Brown and Levinson's theory of linguistic politeness is sometimes referred to as the "'face-saving' theory of politeness."

The theory has several segments and corollaries, but it all revolves around the concept of "face," or social value, both to one's self and to others. Social interactions require all participants to cooperate in order to maintain everyone's face - that is, to maintain everyone's simultaneous wants of being liked and being autonomous (and being seen as such). Thus, politeness strategies develop to negotiate these interactions and achieve the most favorable outcomes.

Examples and Observations

  • "'Shut up!' is rude, even ruder than 'Keep quiet!' In the polite version, 'Do you think you would mind keeping quiet: this is, after all, a library, and other people are trying to concentrate,' everything in italics is extra. It is there to soften the demand, giving an impersonal reason for the request, and avoiding the brutally direct by the taking of trouble. Conventional grammar takes little account of such strategies, even though we are all masters of both making and understanding the signs that point to what is going on beneath the surface."
    (Margaret Visser, The Way We Are. HarperCollins, 1994)
  • "Professor, I was wondering if you could tell us about the Chamber of Secrets."
    (Hermione in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, 2002)
  • "Would you mind stepping aside? I got a purchase to make."
    (Eric Cartman in "Cartmanland." South Park, 2001)
  • "'Sir,' the gentleman asked with a twang in his voice that was unmistakably Southern, 'would it bother you terribly if I joined you?'"
    (Harold Coyle, Look Away. Simon & Schuster, 1995)
  •  "'Laurence,' said Caroline, 'I don't think I'm going to be much help to you at Ladylees. I've had enough holiday-making. I'll stay for a couple of days but I want to get back to London and do some work, actually. Sorry to change my mind but--'
    "'Go to hell,' Laurence said. 'Kindly go to hell.'"
    (Muriel Spark, The Comforters. Macmillan, 1957) 

A Definition of Politeness

"What exactly is politeness? In one sense, all politeness can be viewed as deviation from maximally efficient communication; as violations (in some sense) of Grice’s (1975) conversational maxims [see cooperative principle]. To perform an act other than in the most clear and efficient manner possible is to implicate some degree of politeness on the part of the speaker. To request another to open a window by saying “It’s warm in here” is to perform the request politely because one did not use the most efficient means possible for performing this act (i.e., “Open the window”). . . .
"Politeness allows people to perform many inter-personally sensitive actions in a nonthreatening or less threatening manner.
"There are an infinite number of ways in which people can be polite by performing an act in a less than optimal manner, and Brown and Levinson’s typology of five superstrategies is an attempt to capture some of these essential differences."
(Thomas Holtgraves, Language as Social Action: Social Psychology and Language Use. Lawrence Erlbaum, 2002)

Orienting to Different Kinds of Politeness

"People who grow up in communities that are more oriented to negative face wants and negative politeness may find that they are perceived as aloof or cold if they move somewhere where positive politeness is emphasized more. They may also mistake some of the conventionalised positive politeness routines as being expressions of 'genuine' friendship or closeness . . .. Conversely, people accustomed to paying attention to positive face wants and using positive politeness strategies may find that they come across as unsophisticated or vulgar if they find themselves in a community that is more oriented to negative face wants."
(Miriam Meyerhoff, Introducing Sociolinguistics. Routledge, 2006)

Variables in Degrees of Politeness

"Brown and Levinson list three 'sociological variables' that speakers employ in choosing the degree of politeness to use and in calculating the amount of threat to their own face:

(i) the social distance of the speaker and hearer (D);
(ii) the relative 'power' of the speaker over the hearer (P);
(iii) the absolute ranking of impositions in the particular culture (R).

The greater the social distance between the interlocutors (e.g., if they know each other very little), the more politeness is generally expected. The greater the (perceived) relative power of hearer over speaker, the more politeness is recommended. The heavier the imposition made on the hearer (the more of their time required, or the greater the favour requested), the more politeness will generally have to be used."
(Alan Partington, The Linguistics of Laughter: A Corpus-Assisted Study of Laughter-Talk. Routledge, 2006)

Positive and Negative Politeness

"Brown and Levinson (1978/1987) distinguish between positive and negative politeness. Both types of politeness involve maintaining--or redressing threats to--positive and negative face, where positive face is defined as the addressee's 'perennial desire that his wants . . . should be thought of as desirable' (p. 101), and negative face as the addressee's 'want to have his freedom of action unhindered and his attention unimpeded' (p. 129)."
(Almut Koester, Investigating Workplace Discourse. Routledge, 2006)

Common Ground

"[C]ommon ground, information perceived to be shared among communicators, is important not only for gauging what information is likely to be already known versus new, but also to carry a message of interpersonal relationships. Brown and Levinson (1987) argued that claiming common ground in communication is a major strategy of positive politeness, which is a series of conversational moves that recognise the partner's needs and wants in a way that shows they represent a commonality, such as a commonality of knowledge, attitudes, interests, goals, and in-group membership."
(Anthony Lyons et al., "Cultural Dynamics of Stereotypes." Stereotype Dynamics: Language-Based Approaches to the Formation, Maintenance, and Transformation of Stereotypes, ed. by Yoshihisa Kashima, Klaus Fiedler, and Peter Freytag. Psychology Press, 2007)

The Lighter Side of Politeness Strategies

Page Conners: [bursting into Jack's bar] I want my purse, jerk-off!
Jack Withrowe: That's not very friendly. Now, I want you to go back out, and this time, when you kick the door open, say something nice.
(Jennifer Love Hewitt and Jason Lee in Heartbreakers, 2001)

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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Politeness Strategies in English Grammar." ThoughtCo, Aug. 25, 2020, thoughtco.com/politeness-strategies-conversation-1691516. Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 25). Politeness Strategies in English Grammar. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/politeness-strategies-conversation-1691516 Nordquist, Richard. "Politeness Strategies in English Grammar." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/politeness-strategies-conversation-1691516 (accessed January 31, 2023).