When you hear the word politeness, you probably think of the rules of etiquette—the rules for dining, for sending and answering invitations, for giving and receiving gifts, for proper dress for an interview or party, and so on. And these certainly are a part of politeness. In fact, Webster’s New World College Dictionary defines polite as “having or showing good manners, esp. courteous, considerate, tactful, etc.”
One of the best ways to look at politeness in communication is from the perspective of Erving Goffman (The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life) and the extension by Penelope Brown and Stephen Levinson (Politeness: Some Universals in Language). These authors identify two types of politeness: negative politeness and positive politeness. Both of these forms of politeness are responsive to two needs that each person has: (1) the desire to be viewed positively by others, to be thought of favorably (this is referred to as maintaining positive face) and (2) the desire to be autonomous, to have the right to do as you wish (this is referred to as maintaining negative face). Politeness, then, refers to behavior that allows others to maintain both positive and negative face.
By “face” is meant the public image that you communicate to others. It’s not simply what you think of yourself (self-image or self-concept) but rather the image of yourself that you want to see validated or confirmed from your interpersonal interactions. “Face” is used here as it is in such expressions as “to save face” (to retain one’s self respect) or “to lose face” (to be embarrassed), or, even “to get in one’s face” (to be confrontational).
Although “face” is probably universal in the sense that everyone wants to maintain some degree of positive and negative face (the assumption being that all people want to be seen positively and yet be free to do as they wish), cultures differ widely in the importance of face. Generally collectivist cultures are thought to be more concerned with face than individualist cultures. And cultures also vary in the types of messages that are likely to attack face and in the responses they see as appropriate to face-threatening acts.
Positive Politeness and the Maintenance of Positive Face
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. You also attack a person’s positive face when you criticize, contradict, disagree, or prove the person wrong. You attack a person’s positive face whenever your messages challenge the image that the person holds of himself or herself and wants to portray to others. Dissing (a message of disrespect) is a good example of positive face attack.
Negative Politeness and the Maintenance of Negative Face
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, “I know this may be a bad time and if it is 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 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.
You attack negative face when you demand a favor rather than request it. You also threaten negative face when you order someone to do something or when you give advice without the person asking (in effect, you’re saying, “you need to do XYZ.” Most negative face attacks are much more subtle, however. For example, your mother’s “Are you going to wear that?”—to use Deborah Tannen’s example (You’re Wearing That? Understanding Mothers and Daughters in Conversation, 2006, Random House) —attacks negative face by criticizing or challenging your autonomy. This comment also attacks positive face by questioning (criticizing) your ability to dress properly.
As you might have guessed, these acts that threaten positive or negative face have been given a special name, Face-Threatening Acts or FTAs.
Your own interpersonal behavior is designed to maintain both your positive and your negative face. And so, you interact with others in ways that are consistent with the positive image you wish others to have of you (you’re friendly, empathic, and supportive; you smile, nod approval, and otherwise follow the rules for polite interaction, for example)—that is, you communicate in ways that enable you to maintain positive face.
At the same time, you want to do what you want to do (you want to sleep late and not make breakfast for your partner, for example)—that is, you want to maintain negative face (your autonomy).
As you can see from just these examples, satisfying your positive and your negative face needs (that is, maintaining both positive and negative face) is not always easy. If you stay in bed instead of making breakfast, you protect your negative face but damage your positive face. If you lend your friend money, you protect positive face but (perhaps) lose negative face (if, let’s say, you wanted to buy new CDs with the money).
Because you want to protect both positive and negative face needs, you’re likely to establish close relationships with those who enable you to maintain face. These are the people who give you space and independence (satisfying your negative face needs) and who also positively reinforce and confirm your positive face behaviors, for example, they appreciate your help, your support, your friendliness. These are the people who do not violate or threaten your positive or your negative face needs.
At the same time, you’d likely avoid those who regularly or are likely to threaten your positive or negative face. The person who is overly-critical or who makes you look bad is likely to be avoided (because this is a threat to your positive face) as is the person who is overly demanding and thus interferes with your independence and autonomy (because this is a threat to your negative face).
Of course not all FTAs are equal. Some are mild threats and some are more severe. If, for example, someone criticizes your new jacket, you may see this as relatively mild and shrug it off. But, if that same person criticizes your personality or your intelligence, you may see this as more severe and may not be able to shrug this off so easily. Naturally, the importance of the FTA will depend on the individual’s self-concept and self-image and on his or her relationship to the person making the face threatening act. So, for example, if the image you want to communicate to others is “the brilliant student” then attacks on this image will be perceived as severe and will likely cause interpersonal problems. But, if your handwriting is criticized or attacked, and this is not an important part of your face, it’s likely to be perceived as mild and quickly dismissed.
FTAs by people in authority—your boss or your instructor, for example, are likely to have greater impact than, say, those same acts from an acquaintance you really don’t care much about. Similarly, FTAs by people who are extremely important to you (parents, children, lovers, best friends, for example) are likely to be perceived as more important than those from people to whom you have no close relationship.
Dealing with Face-Threatening Acts
Problems and interpersonal conflicts often arise when one’s face needs are attacked, when, for example, you’re taken for granted or when others demand rather than request that you do something. And of course problems can arise when you intend to be polite but the other person interprets it as an FTA. This is especially likely in intercultural situations where the nature of politeness and its rules vary widely. For example, the German male entering a restaurant or club before the woman to make sure that the place is respectable and suitable for his date, can easily be interpreted as impolite, perhaps even sexist.
People regularly use communication strategies to prevent FTAs (preventive strategies). So, for example, you might preface your discussion of a newspaper article by “hedging,” where you claim that you may be incorrect but as far as you understand the issue. . . . This hedge—an example of a preventive strategy—allows you an out if you’re proven wrong.
You also try to minimize FTAs when they do occur; that is, you use corrective strategies. If someone attacks your face needs, you may use corrective strategies such as an excuse (“I didn’t mean to imply that you’re overweight”) or an apology (“I’m sorry; that didn’t come out right” or “I was just trying to be funny”). Sometimes, however, a face-threatening act by one person may lead to a face-threatening response by the other person which may then lead to another face-threatening act, and on and on. The result is often a full-blown interpersonal conflict.
Face and Direct and Indirect Language
Often these face needs are discussed in terms of direct and indirect language. Directness is usually less polite and may infringe on a person’s need to maintain negative face—Write me the recommendation, Lend me $100. Indirectness—Do you think you could write a recommendation for me? Would it be possible for you to lend me $100 until next week when I get paid?—allows the person to maintain autonomy (negative face) and provides an acceptable way for the person to refuse your request. Of course, it might be argued that all requests are by their very nature FTAs. The argument is that a request is asking you to do something you would not be doing if the request was not made—hence, all requests attack your autonomy (you negative face needs). On the other hand, you live in an interpersonal world and you likely expect that requests will be made of you from time to time. And so you come to expect requests as part of interpersonal life. It is therefore more likely that a polite request will not be seen as a FTA whereas an impolite request (or a demand) will be perceived as face threatening.
Women, research finds, are more polite in their speech and not surprisingly use more indirect statements when making requests than do men. This difference seems to have both positive and negative implications. Indirect statements, in their being more polite, are generally perceived positively and yet they may also be perceived negatively if they are seen as being weaker and less authoritative than more direct statements. Indirect statements may also be seen as manipulative or underhanded whereas direct statements may be seen as straightforward and honest.
More on Politeness and Face
If you want to learn more about face and politeness you can pick up either the Goffman or the Brown and Levinson books mentioned earlier. For a communication perspective take a look at William Cupach and Sandra Metts, Facework (Sage, 1994) and Daena Goldsmith, “Brown and Levinson’s Politeness Theory,” in B. B. Whaley and W. Samter (eds.), Explaining Communication: Contemporary Theories and Exemplars (Erlbaum, 2007), pp. 219-236.