The following is a section on politeness that will appear in the chapter on conversation in the revision of Interpersonal Messages.
Conversation is expected (at least in many cases) to follow the principle of politeness. Six maxims of politeness have been identified by linguist Geoffrey Leech (1983) and seem to encompass a great deal of what we commonly think of as conversational politeness. Before reading about these maxims take the following self-test to help you personalize the material that follows.
Test Yourself: How Polite Are You?
Try estimating your own level of politeness. For each of the statements below indicate how closely they describe your typical communication. Avoid giving responses that you feel might be considered “socially acceptable;” instead, give responses that accurately represent your typical communication behavior. Use a 10-point scale with 10 being “very accurate description of my typical conversation” and 1 being “very inaccurate description of my typical conversation.”
_____ 1. I tend not to ask others to do something or to otherwise impose on others.
_____ 2. I tend to put others first, before myself.
_____ 3. I maximize the expression of approval of others and minimize any disapproval.
_____ 4. I seldom praise myself but often praise others.
_____ 5. I maximize the expression of agreement and minimize disagreement.
_____ 6. I maximize my sympathy for another and minimize any feelings of antipathy.
How did you do? All six statements would characterize politeness and so high numbers, say 8-10s, would indicate politeness whereas low numbers, say 4-1s, would indicate impoliteness.
What will you do? As you read this material, personalize it with examples from your own interpersonal interactions and try to identify specific examples and situations in which increased politeness might have been more effective.
The maxim of tact (Statement 1 in the self-test) helps to maintain the other’s autonomy (what we referred to earlier as negative face, pp. 00-00). Tact in your conversation would mean that you do not impose on others or challenge their right to do as they wish. For example, if you wanted to ask someone a favor, using the maxim of tact, you might say something like, “I know you’re very busy but. . .” or “I don’t mean to impose, but. . .” Not using the maxim of tact, you might say something like, “You have to lend me your car this weekend” or “I’m going to use your ATM card.”
The maxim of generosity (Statement 2) helps to confirm the other person’s importance, the importance of the person’s time, insight, or talent, for example. Using the maxim of generosity, you might say, “I’ll walk the dog; I see you’re busy” and violating the maxim, you might say, “I’m really busy, why don’t you walk the dog; you’re not doing anything important.”
The maxim of approbation (Statement 3) refers to praising someone or complimenting the person in some way (for example, “I was really moved by your poem”) and minimizing any expression of criticism or disapproval (for example, “For a first effort, that poem wasn’t half bad”).
The maxim of modesty (Statement 4) minimizes any praise or compliments you might receive. At the same time, you might praise and compliment the other person. For example, using this maxim you might say something like, “Well, thank you, but I couldn’t have done this without your input; that was the crucial element.” Violating this maxim, you might say, “Yes, thank you, it was one of my best efforts, I have to admit.”
The maxim of agreement (Statement 5) refers to your seeking out areas of agreement and expressing them (“That color you selected was just right; it makes the room exciting”) and at the same time to avoid and not express (or at least minimize) disagreements (“It’s an interesting choice, very different”). In violation of this maxim, you might say “That color—how can you stand it?”
The maxim of sympathy (Statement 6) refers to the expression of understanding, sympathy, empathy, supportiveness, and the like for the other person. Using this maxim you might say “I understand your feelings; I’m so sorry.” If you violated this maxim you might say, for example, “You’re making a fuss over nothing” or “You get upset over the least little thing; what is it this time?”