A Strong Strategy – Politeness

In yesterday’s entry, I wrote about an article by William Saletan in the NY Times called The Double Thinker. Another part of that article really hit me. It is the notion of Politeness Theory. I looked it up on Wikipedia and discovered another side to it.

Penelope Brown and Stephen Levinson first come up with the theory in 1987. But Erving Goffman defined the term “face” in 1963. It is the idea that our realities are shaped by our interactions in social contexts. Certain procedures and practices define how communication flow in social settings. So as the speaker talks the audience maintains a face for this person depending on what it is the speaker wants to convey and uphold. There is a positive face and negative face. Positive face is the desire to be seen as a good human being. Negative face is the desire to remain autonomous. Goffman believes there are many strategies to remain in either position.

If you read yesterday’s post then you know that I love the following paragraph in a business setting:

The most important tenet of Brown and Levinson’s original text on
politeness theory is that we change our language based on the hearer
and thus our strategies for compliance gaining change depending on the
audience. In everyday life, we design messages that protect face and
achieve other goals as well. Politeness is the expression of the
speaker’s intention to mitigate face threats carried by certain face
threatening acts toward another.

The idea that we change the language used based on the hearer is subtle but important. I think that is why certain business terms exist i.e. decisioning. More:

Politeness consists of attempting to save face for another. Brown and
Levinson begin with the idea of ‘model persons’, rational agents who
think strategically and are conscious of their language choices. This
influenced Brown and Levinson when examining Goffman’s version of face,
where they agreed that rational agents have both positive and negative
face. Simply put, they believe that model persons want to maintain
others’ face, but nevertheless are often forced to commit face
threatening acts. Thus, politeness strategies are developed in order to
formulate messages in order to save the hearer’s face when face
threatening acts are inevitable or desired. This means that the speaker
avoids embarrassing the listener or making him feel uncomfortable.

So Brown and Levinson came up with four Strategies for Politeness. They are:

  • bald on record
  • negative politeness
  • positive politeness
  • off-the-cord or indirect strategy

Bald on record is when the speaker and audience are well established and pleasantries are unneeded. It also assumes there are some sort of understanding of position in the relationship. For example, if the rule is to switch turns on taking out the garbage, the person who has already performed their part can instruct the other person that it is their turn.

Negative politeness is with the assumption that the speaker is imposing on the listener. So to avoid awkwardness, the request is qualified. So the speaker might say something like “I know you haven’t slept much recently, but if you aren’t too tired, can you be at work early to help me with my project?” This allows the listener to say no in a reasonable manner.

Positive politeness is the similar to negative politeness, but more aimed at avoiding conflict. Here is what might be said in this case “You haven’t slept much recently, but could you meet early tomorrow to help with the project?” This acknowledges the issue but still gets to the aim.

Finally, indirect strategy is the speaker not actually putting a real request out. Only using clues for the listener to interpret as direction. For example, the speaker might say “The road is really curvy and blind” when the listener is driving too fast for the speakers comfort.

So next time you are in a group setting, try to pick up on the style used by the different speakers. You will get an idea how close they feel to th audience.


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