Politeness Strategies

This brief section on politeness strategies is scheduled to appear in the next edition of Interpersonal Messages in the chapter on the self and perception and is presented as one of a series of strategies for impression management, specifically strategies to be liked.

We can view politeness strategies, which are often used to make ourselves appear likeable, in terms of negative and positive types (Goffman, 1967; Brown & Levinson, 1987; Holmes 1995; Goldsmith, 2007). Both of these types of politeness are responsive to two needs that we each have:
(1) positive face--the desire to be viewed positively by others, to be thought of favorably, and
(2) negative face--the desire to be autonomous, to have the right to do as we wish.
Politeness in interpersonal communication, then, refers to behavior that allows others to maintain both positive and negative face and impoliteness refers to behaviors that attack either positive face (for example, you criticize someone) or negative face (for example, you make demands on someone).
To help another person maintain positive face, you speak respectfully to and about the person, you give the person your full attention, you say “excuse me” when appropriate. In short you treat the person as you would want to be treated. In this way you allow the person to maintain positive face through what is called positive politeness. You attack the person’s positive face when you speak disrespectfully about the person, ignore the person or the person’s comments, and fail to use the appropriate expressions of politeness such as thank you and please.
To help another person maintain negative face, you respect the person’s right to be autonomous and so you request rather than demand that they do something; you say, “Would you mind opening a window” rather than “Open that window, damn it!” You might also give the person an “out” when making a request, allowing the person to reject your request if that is what the person wants. And so you say, “If this is a bad time, please tell me, but I’m really strapped and could use a loan of $100” rather than “Loan me a $100” or “You have to lend me $100.” If you want a recommendation, you might say, “Would it be possible for you to write me a recommendation for graduate school” rather than “You have to write me a recommendation for graduate school.” In this way you enable the person to maintain negative face through what is called negative politeness.
Of course, we do this almost automatically and asking for a favor without any consideration for the person’s negative face needs would seems totally insensitive. In most situations, however, this type of attack on negative face often appears in more subtle forms. For example, your mother saying “Are you going to wear that?”—to use Deborah Tannen’s (2006) example—attacks negative face by criticizing or challenging your autonomy. This comment also attacks positive face by questioning your ability to dress properly.
As with all the strategies discussed here, politeness too may have negative consequences. Overpoliteness, for example, is likely to be seen as phony and is likely to be resented. Overpoliteness will also be resented if it’s seen as a persuasive strategy.


devita said...

nice idea. thank you very much, joe;).

ash said...

Would love to know more about, where do you draw the line between politeness and overpoliteness? Which behaviours would indicate overpoliteness, as opposed to politeness.

Thanks for the great work.