From book concise encyclopedia of pragmatics
Jacob L mey
Despite several decades of sustained scholarly interest in the field of politeness studies, a consensual definition of the meaning of the term ‘politeness,’ as well as a consensus on the very nature of the phenomenon, are still top issues in the current research agenda. In ordinary, daily contexts of use, members of speech communities possess clear metalinguistic beliefs about, and are capable of, immediate and intuitive assessments of what constitutes polite versus rude, tactful versus offensive behavior. Politeness in this sense is equivalent to a normative notion of appropriateness. Such commonsense notions of politeness are traceable as products of historical developments and hence are socioculturally specific. Scholarly definitions of the term, by contrast, have been predicated for several decades on a more or less tacit attempt to extrapolate a theoretical, abstract notion of politeness, capable of transcending lay conceptualizations and being cross-culturally valid. The theoretical constructs proposed, however, have proven unsatisfactory as heuristic instruments for the analysis of empirical data. Much of the current scholarly debate is focused on taking stock of recent critiques of past dominating paradigms and epistemological premises, and on formulating new philosophical and methodological practices based on a radical reconceptualization of the notion of politeness. The point of contention is the very possibility of survival of any useful notion of politeness, when the construct is removed from a historically determined, socioculturally specific, and interactionally negotiated conceptualization of the term.
Constructs of Politeness
The ‘Social Norm View’ Politeness has been an object of intellectual inquiry quite early on in both Eastern (Lewin, 1967; Coulmas, 1992, for Japanese; Gu, 1990, for Chinese) and Western contexts (Held, 1992). In both traditions, which loosely can be defined as pre-pragmatic, observers tend to draw direct, deterministic links between linguistic realizations of politeness and the essential character of an individual, a nation, a people, or its language. Thus, the use of polite language is taken as the hallmark of the good mannered or civil courtier in the Italian conduct writers of the 16th century (Watts, 2003: 34), or as a symbol of the qualities of modesty and respect enshrined in the Japanese language in pre-World War II nationalistic Japan. Linguistic realizations of politeness are inextricably linked to the respective culture-bound ideologies of use; accounts, which often are codified in etiquette manuals providing exegeses of the relevant social norms, display a great deal of historical relativity.
Pragmatic approaches to the study of politeness begin to appear in the mid-1970s. Robin Lakoff (1973) provided pioneering work by linking Politeness (with its three rules: ‘don’t impose’; ‘give options’; ‘make the other person feel good, be friendly’) to Grice’s Cooperative Principle to explain why speakers do not always conform to maxims such as Clarity (1973: 297) (see Grice, Herbert Paul; Cooperative Principle; Maxims and Flouting). In a similar vein, but wider scope, Leech’s (1983) model postulates that deviations from the Gricean conversational maxims are motivated by interactional goals, and posits a parallel Politeness Principle, articulated in a number 706 Politeness
of maxims such as Tact, Generosity, Approbation, Modesty, Agreement, and Sympathy. He also envisages a number of scales: cost-benefit, authority and social distance, optionality, and indirectness, along which degrees of politeness can be measured. Different situations demand different levels of politeness because certain immediate illocutionary goals can compete with (e.g., in ordering), coincide with (e.g., in offering), conflict with (e.g., in threatening), or be indifferent to (e.g., in asserting), the long-term social goals of maintaining comity and avoiding friction. This so-called conversational maxim view of politeness (Fraser, 1990) is concerned uniquely with scientific analyses of politeness as a general linguistic and pragmatic principle of communication, aimed at the maintenance of smooth social relations and the avoidance of conflict, but not as a locally determined system of social values (Eelen, 2001: 49, 53) (see Communicative Principle and Communication). Another model, proposed by Brown and Levinson in 1978, de facto set the research agenda for the following quarter of a century (the study was republished in its entirety as a monograph with the addition of a critical introduction in 1987). Like Lakoff and Leech, Brown and Levinson (1987) accept the Gricean framework, but they note a qualitative distinction between the Cooperative Principle and the politeness principles: while the former is presumed by speakers to be at work all the time, politeness needs to be ostensibly communicated (ibid.: 5). Brown and Levinson see politeness as a rational and rule-governed aspect of communication, a principled reason for deviation from efficiency (ibid.: 5) and aimed predominantly at maintaining social cohesion via the maintenance of individuals’ public face (a construct inspired by Erving Goffman’s notion of ‘face,’ but with crucial, and for some, fatal differences: see Bargiela-Chiappini, 2003, Watts, 2003) (see Face; Goffman, Erving). Brown and Levinson’s ‘face’ is construed as a double want: a want of freedom of action and freedom from impositions (this is called ‘negative’ face), and a want of approval and appreciation (a ‘positive’ face). Social interaction is seen as involving an inherent degree of threat to one’s
own and others’ face (for example, an order may impinge on the addressee’s freedom of action; an apology, by virtue of its subsuming an admission of guilt, may impinge on the speaker’s want to be appreciated). However, such face threatening acts (FTA) can be avoided, or redressed by means of polite (verbal) strategies, pitched at the level needed to match the seriousness of an FTA x, calculated according to a simple formula: Wx . PdH; ST t DdS;HT t Rx where the Weight of a threat x is a function of the Power of Hearers over Speakers, as well as of the social Distance between Speakers and Hearers, combined with an estimation of the Ranking (of the seriousness) of a specific act x in a specific culture (see Face). Brown and Levinson compared data from three unrelated languages (English, Tamil, and Tzeltal) to show that very similar principles, in fact universal principles, are at work in superficially dissimilar realizations. The means-end reasoning that governs the choice of polite strategies, and the need to redress face threats, are supposed to be universal. The abstract notion of positive and negative aspects of face (although the content of face is held to be subject to cultural variation) is also considered to be a universal want. The comprehensiveness of the model – in addition to being the only production model of politeness to date – captured the interest of researchers in very disparate fields and working on very different languages and cultures. One could even say that the Brown and Levinsonian discourse on politeness practically ‘colonized’ the field (domains covered include cross-cultural comparison of speech acts, social psychology, discourse and conversation analysis, gender studies, family, courtroom, business and classroom discourse, and so on: see Dufon et al., 1994, for an extensive bibliography; Eelen, 2001: 23 ff.; Watts, 2003). Interestingly, a paper by Janney and Arndt made the point, in 1993, that despite considerable criticism of the then still dominant paradigm, the very fundamental issue of whether the universality assumption could be of use in comparative cross-cultural research went by and large unquestioned (1993: 15). The most conspicuous criticism – paradoxically, for a model aspiring to pancultural validity – was perhaps the charge of ethnocentrism: the individualistic and agentivistic conception of Brown and Levinson’s ‘model person’ did not seem to fit ‘collectivistic’ patterns of social organization, whereas their notion of ‘face’ seemed to serve an atomistic rather than interrelated notion of self (Wierzbicka, 1985; Gu, 1990; Nyowe, 1992; Werkhofer, 1992; de Kadt, 1992; Sifianou, 1992; Mao, 1994). Going one step further, some criticized Brown and Levinson’s emphasis on the ‘calculable’ aspects of expressive choice (and the idea that individuals can manipulate these ‘volitionally’), to the expense of the socially constrained or conventionalized indexing of politeness in some linguacultures (especially, though not exclusively, those with rich honorific repertoires; Hill et al., 1986; Matsumoto, 1988, 1989; Ide, 1989; Janney and Arndt, 1993) (see Intercultural Pragmatics and Communication). The Gricean framework implicitly or explicitly adopted in many politeness studies has been criticized for arbitrarily presupposing the universal validity of the maxims, and for a relatively static account of inferential processes. In particular, Sperber and Wilson’s (1995) Relevance Theory recently has been adopted by politeness theorists as a way to compensate for this lack of interpretative dynamism (Jary, 1998a, 1998b; Escandell-Vidal, 1998; Watts, 2003: 201) (see Relevance Theory) and the conversational maxims have been reinterpreted as ‘sociopragmatic interactional principles’ (Spencer-Oatey, 2003) (see Maxims and Flouting). Others have lamented Brown and Levinson’s exclusive focus on the speaker, as well as their reliance on decontextualized utterances and speech acts (Hymes, 1986: 78), choices that similarly detract from a discursive and interactional understanding of communicative processes (see Speech Acts).
Social Constructivist Approaches
Hymes (1986) pointed out quite early on that although Brown and Levinson’s model was impressive as an illustration of the universality of politeness devices, any useful and accurate account of politeness norms would need to ‘‘place more importance on historically derived social institutions and cultural orientations’’ (p. 78). The scientific extrapolation of an abstract, universal concept of politeness was similarly questioned by Watts et al. (1992), who drew attention to the serious epistemological consequences of a terminological problem. According to these authors, the field had been too casual in overlooking the difference between mutually incommensurable constructs of politeness: a first-order politeness (politeness1) derived from folk and commonsense notions, and a second-order politeness (politeness2), a technical notion for use in scientific discourse. Although the latter (echoing the Vygotskyan characterization of spontaneous versus scientific concepts; see Vygotskij, Lev Semenovich) can be thought to emerge from an initial verbal definition, the former emerges from action and social practice (Eelen, 2001: 33). As social practice, politeness1 is rooted in everyday interaction and socialization processes: it is expressed in instances of speech (expressive politeness), it is invoked in judgments of interactional behavior as polite or impolite behavior (classificatory politeness), and is talked about (metapragmatic politeness) (ibid.: 35) (see Metapragmatics). Eelen (2001)’s watershed critique of politeness theories articulates this point in great detail and thus opens up promising new avenues of thought for researchers. The lack of distinction between politeness1 and politeness2 represents a serious ontological and epistemological fallacy of all previous politeness research, as it has determined the more or less implicit ‘reification’ of participants’ viewpoint to a scientific viewpoint (the ‘emic’ account is seamlessly transformed into an ‘etic’ account). This conceptual leap fails to question the very evaluative nature of politeness1 (ibid.: 242) and thereby conceals this ‘evaluative moment’ from analysis. Empirical studies into commonsense ideas of politeness1 (Blum-Kulka, 1992; Ide et al., 1992) indicate that notions of politeness or impoliteness are used to characterize people’s behavior judgmentally. This evaluative practice has a psychosocial dimension: individuals position themselves in moral terms vis-a` -vis others and categorize the world into the ‘well-mannered,’ the ‘uncouth,’ etc., and a more concrete everyday dimension: it enables indexing of social identities and thus group-formation: in other words, it positively creates social realities (Eelen, 2001: 237). Politeness is said to be inherently argumentative:
evaluative acts are not neutral taxonomic enterprises; they exist because there is something at stake socially. Moreover, carrying out an evaluative act immediately generates social effects. (ibid.: 37–38). A particularly problematic aspect of much of the theorizing about politeness is that in spite of the fact that norms are held by users to be immutable and objective (recourse to a higher, socially sanctioned reality grants moral force), and by theorists to be unanimously shared by communities, one still has to admit that the very acts of evaluation may exhibit a huge variability, and that this is hardly the exception. Capturing the qualities of evaluativity, argumentativity, and variability of polite behavior requires a paradigmatic shift in our underlying philosophical assumptions. Eelen proposes to replace what he sees as a Parsonian apparatus (exemplified by ‘‘priority of the social over the individual, normative action, social consensus, functional integration and resistance to change,’’ p. 203) with Bourdieu’s (1990, 1991) theory of social practice (a proposal followed and developed by
Watts, 2003). The following are some of the important consequences of this proposal. The first is a reconceptualization of politeness as situated social action – its historicity is duly restored. Politeness is no longer an abstract concept or set of norms from which all individuals draw uniformly, but is recognized as the very object of a social dispute. Variability, resulting from the properties of evaluativity and argumentativity of politeness1, ceases to be a problem for the researcher, and instead provides evidence of the nature of the phenomenon. As a consequence, even statistically marginal behaviour (problematic for traditional approaches: Eelen, 2001: 141) can be accounted for within the same framework. Second, the relation between the cultural/social and the individual is seen as less deterministic. On the one hand, the cultural is part of an individual’s repertoire: it is internalized and accumulated through all past interactions experienced by an individual, thus determining the nature of that individual’s habitus (or set of learned dispositions; Bourdieu, 1991). On the other hand, the cultural can be acted on – be maintained or challenged – to various extents by individuals, depending on those individuals’ resources, or symbolic capital; the cultural is never an immutable entity. This discursive understanding of politeness enables us to capture the functional orientation of politeness to actions of social inclusion or exclusion, alignment or distancing (and incidentally uncovers the fundamentally ideological nature of scientific metapragmatic talk on politeness, as one type of goal oriented social practice; see Glick, 1996: 170) (see Discourse Markers). Politeness ceases to be deterministically associated with specific linguistic forms or functions (another problem for past approaches): it depends on the subjective perception of the meanings of such forms and functions.Moreover, inWatts’s (2003) view, behaviour that abides by an individual’s expectations based on ‘habitus’ (i.e., unmarked appropriate behavior) is not necessarily considered politeness: it is instead simply politic behavior. Politeness may thus be defined as behavior in excess of what can be expected (which can be received positively or negatively but is always argumentative), whereas impoliteness similarly is characterized as nonpolitic behavior (on the important issue of the theoretical status of impoliteness, see Eelen, 2001: 87 and Watts, 2003: 5). As sketched here, the path followed by the discourse on politeness illustrates how the struggle over the meaning and the social function of politeness is at the very centre of current theorizing. Watts adopts a rather radical position and rejects the possibility of a theory of politeness2 altogether: scientific notions of politeness (which should be nonnormative) cannot be part of a study of social interaction (normative by definition) ( Watts, 2003: 11). Others, like House (2003, 2005), or O’Driscoll (1996) before her, maintain that a descriptive and explanatory framework must include universal (the first two below) and culture/language-specific levels (the last two below):
1. a fundamental biological, psychosocial level based on animal drives (coming together vs. nolime- tangere)
2. a philosophical level to capture biological drives in terms of a finite number of principles, maxims, or parameters
3. an empirical descriptive level concerned with the particular (open-ended) set of norms, tendencies, or preferences
4. a linguistic level at which sociocultural phenomena have become ‘crystallized’ in specific language forms (either honorifics or other systemic distinctions) (adapted from House, 2003, 2005).
Although the legacy of the ‘mainstream’ pragmatic approaches described above is clearly still very strong (see, for instance,
, 2000; Bayraktarogˇlu and Sifianou, 2001; Hickey and Stewart, 2005; Christie, 2004), the critical thoughts introduced in the current debate on linguistic politeness promise to deliver a body of work radically different from the previous one. The future program of politeness research begins from the task of elaborating a full-fledged theoretical framework from the seminal ideas recently proposed. It must acknowledge the disputed nature of notions of politeness and explore the interactional purposes of evaluations (see, for example, Mills’s 2003 study on gender, orWatts’s 2003 ‘emergent networks’; compare also Locher’s 2004 study on the uses of politeness in the exercise of power). It must articulate how norms come to be shared and how they come to be transformed; it must explore the scope and significance of variability. Relevance theory, Critical Discourse Analysis, and Bourdieuian sociology have all been proposed as promising frameworks for investigation. Empirical research that can provide methodologically reliable data for these questions must also be devised: the new paradigm would dictate that the situatedness of the very experimental context, the argumentativity of the specific practice observed are recognized as integral part of the relevant data. Politeness consistently features in international symposia, and has, since 1998, had a meeting point on the Internet; the year 2005 will see the birth of a dedicated publication, the Journal of Politeness Research. Fukushima