Polite Messages: An Exercise in Interpersonal Communication

This exercise is designed to help explain the concept of politeness in terms of positive and negative face (Brown & Levinson, 1987; Cupach & Metts, 1994; Goffman, 1967; Goldsmith, 2007; Holmes 1995; Metts & Cupach, 2008).

To Know
In Brown and Levinson’s (1987) theory of politeness, based in part on Goffman’s (1967) concept of face, we all have basically two needs: (1) the need to maintain positive face and (2) the need to maintain negative face. Positive face refers to the desire to be viewed positively by others, to be thought of favorably, to be held in high esteem. Negative face refers to the desire to be autonomous, to have the right to do as you wish, to not be imposed upon.
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.” It is attacks on positive face—sometimes called FTAs for Face Threatening Acts—that the term dissing is meant to capture. Made popular in the 1980s in rap music, the term refers to a form of impoliteness in which you criticize, act rudely, insult, put down, offend, or disrespect another person, verbally and/or nonverbally. It attacks a person’s positive face needs, the need to be approved of, to be respected.
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!” 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 “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.

To Do
Indicate how each of the following examples is impolite in terms of attacking positive and/or negative face by filling in as many boxes as you can in no more than 10 minutes.

Violation of Positive Face Needs
Violation of Negative Face Needs
1.      Failure to return the eye brow flash.

2.      Not indicating liking or +1 for a friend’s post.

3.      Criticizing another’s religious beliefs.

4.      Texting during dinner with a romantic partner.

5.      Cat calls.

6.      Asking for a favor.

7.      Interruptions which take over the speaker’s turn.

8.      Walking into another’s office without knocking.

9.      Not using normally expected honorifics such as Dr., Professor, General, or Officer.

10.  Accusing someone of some misdeed.

To Discuss
After all have completed this exercise, discussion might center on such issues as these:
1.      Under what circumstances can each of these behaviors become less impolite?
2.      Do you notice a gender difference in the use of these behaviors? If so, in what specific ways?
3.      What are some other examples of behaviors that violate our face needs?

To Read [References]
1.       Brown, P., & Levinson, S. C. (1987). Politeness: Some universals of language usage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
2.       Cupach, W. R., & Metts, S. (1994). Facework. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
3.       Goffman, E. (1967). Interaction ritual: Essays on face-to-face behavior. New York, NY: Pantheon.
4.       Goldsmith, D. J. (2007). Brown and Levinson’s politeness theory. In Explaining communication: Contemporary theories and exemplars (pp. 219–236), B. B. Whaley & W. Samter (eds.). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
5.       Holmes, J. (1995). Women, men and politeness. New York, NY: Longman.

6.       Metts, S., & Cupach, W. R. (2008). Face theory. In Engaging theories in interpersonal communication: Multiple perspectives (pp. 203–214), L. A. Baxter & D. O. Braithwaite (eds.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.


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Unknown said...

Hello! I am a Communication Ethics student at Drury University and was intrigued by your blog and the information provided.

I like how you identify we have the need for positive and negative face, but it is important how we chose to convey that face. I was also intrigued with how you identified politeness - both negative and positive face. We can chose to maintain positive face and speak respectfully (and how we want to be treated!) or we can attack their own positive face and disrespect them.

Kant's Categorical Imperative that a uniquely human attribute is the sense of conscious, moral will and moral reason (Johannsen, 2008). Kant also believes every human has the ability to reason rationally and know the difference between right and wrong. That being said, all individuals have the ability to to know when they are portraying positive and negative face. Furthermore, they know (or can closely know) how the receiving individual will feel. If they are positive and respectful, the other party will recognize it (whether they admit to recognizing it or not!) and the same can be applied to negative face.

Johannesen, Richard L., Kathleen S. Valde, and Karen E. Whedbee. Ethics in Human Communication. 6th ed. Long Grove, IL: Waveband Press, Inc., 2008. Print.

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