Politeness and Verbal Messages

Here is a little piece that will appear in the chapter on verbal messages in the next edition of Interpersonal Messages.

Message Meanings Vary in Politeness

It will come as no surprise that messages vary greatly in politeness. Polite messages reflect positively on the other person (for example, compliments or pats on the back) and respect the other person’s right to be independent and autonomous (for example, asking permission or acknowledging the person’s right to refuse). Impolite messages attack our needs to be seen positively (for example, criticism or negative facial expressions) and to be autonomous (making demands or forcing another to do something).

Politeness and Directness
Directness is usually less polite and may infringe on a person’s need to maintain negative face—Write me a recommendation, Lend me $100. Indirectness—Do you think you could write a recommendation for me? Would it be possible to lend me $100?—is often more polite because it allows the person to maintain autonomy and provides an acceptable way for the person to refuse your request (thus helping to maintain the person’s negative face needs).
Indirect messages allow you to express a desire without insulting or offending anyone; they allow you to observe the rules of polite interaction. So instead of saying, “I’m bored with this group,” you say, “It’s getting late and I have to get up early tomorrow,” or you look at your watch and pretend to be surprised by the time. Instead of saying, “This food tastes like cardboard,” you say, “I just started my diet”. In each instance you’re stating a preference but are saying it indirectly so as to avoid offending someone.
The differences between direct and indirect messages may easily create misunderstandings. For example, a person who uses an indirect style of speech may be doing so to be polite and may have been taught this style by his or her culture. If you assume, instead, that the person is using indirectness to be manipulative, because your culture regards it so, then miscommunication is inevitable.
Photo 5.3

Politeness and Gender
There are considerable gender differences in politeness (Tannen, 1994b, Holmes, 1995; Kapoor, Hughes, Baldwin, & Blue, 2003; Dindia & Canary, 2006). Among the research findings are, for example, that women are more polite and more indirect in giving orders than are men; they are more likely to say, for example, “it would be great if these letters could go out today” than “Have these letters out by three.” Men are more likely to be indirect when they express weakness, reveal a problem, or admit an error. Generally, men will speak indirectly when expressing meanings that violate the masculine stereotype (for example, messages of weakness or doubt or incompetence). Women’s greater politeness is also seen in the finding that women express empathy, sympathy, and supportiveness more than men. Women also apologize more than men and women make more apologies to other women whereas men make more apologies to women.

Politeness Online
Internet communication has very specific rules for politeness, called netiquette (Kallos, 2005). Much as the rules of etiquette provide guidance in communicating in social situations, the rules of netiquette provide guidance in communicating over the Net and are of major concern to just about everyone using computer-mediated communication (Berry, 2004; Fuller, 2004). These rules are helpful for making Internet communication more pleasant and easier and also for achieving greater personal efficiency. Here are several netiquette guidelines:
• Familiarize yourself with the site before contributing. Before asking questions about the system, read the Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs). Lurk before speaking; read posted notices and conversations before you contribute anything yourself. Lurking (which, in CMC, is good) will help you learn the rules of the particular group and will help you avoid saying things you’d like to take back.
• Be brief. Communicate only the information that is needed; communicate clearly, briefly, and in an organized way.
• Don’t shout. WRITING IN CAPS IS PERCEIVED AS SHOUTING. It’s okay to use caps occasionally to achieve emphasis. If you wish to give emphasis, highlight _like this_ or *like this*.
• Don’t spam or flame. Don’t send unsolicited mail, repeatedly send the same mail, or post the same message (or irrelevant messages) to lots of newsgroups. As in face-to-face conflicts, don’t make personal attacks on other users.
• Avoid offensive language. Refrain from expressions that would be considered offensive to others, such as sexist or racist terms. As you may know, software is now available that will scan your e-mail, alert you if you may have broken an organizational rule, and give you a chance to revise your potentially offensive e-mail (Schwartz, 2005).
A special case of online politeness concerns the ever popular social networking sites, a topic noted in Table 5.1.

Table 5.1 Social Networking Politeness
The social networking sites such as Facebook and Myspace have developed their own rules of politeness. Here are several:
1. Refuse a request for friendship gently or ignore it. There’s no need to go into great detail about why you don’t want to be friends with this person. And if you’re refused, don’t ask for reasons. Social networkers consider it impolite to ask for reasons why your request is refused.
2. Engage in social networking foreplay before asking someone to be your friend. For example, send a personal message to the person complimenting the person’s post.
3. Avoid writing anything negative on a person’s wall or posting unflattering photos of another person or messages that will embarrass another person or generate conflict.
4. Don’t use social networking information outside the network. It’s considered inappropriate and impolite to relay information on Facebook, for example, to those who are not themselves friends.
5. Avoid asking to be friends with someone who you suspect may have reason for not wanting to admit you. For example, your work associate may not want you to see her or his profile; if you ask, you put your colleague in an awkward position. You might use indirect messages; for example, you might say that you want to expand your networking to work colleagues and see how your colleague responds.


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