If you please.Politeness theory is an integral part of learning to communicate in a foreign language. It is a bedrock. When making a gaffe in vocabulary or grammatically for example, it is relatively easy for a native speaker to correct your error. If you are rude however, correcting your social skills may not be so easy. For reasons we'll discuss below, we all have a stake in each other's self-esteem and when we choose to brush up against how someone sees him or herself, we are treading on dangerous ground.

Being polite or respectful of others goes a long way towards communicating regardless of your grammatical competency. Communicative competence is more valuable in today's global environment than being able to speak with technical "perfection".

The first thing to recognize when placing any language study within a framework of politeness is that the urge to be polite stems from a sense of mutual responsibility to protect each other's 'face' ('face', in this meaning is always singular) or self esteem.

When discussing inter-cultural communication, Morand (1995) distinguishes the emic (culturally-specific) from the etic (universalistic) approach towards understanding. If one is traveling to a specific country or region of the world and wishes to become familiar with the cultural idiosyncrasies of that specific land, an emic approach to a study of the customs would be undertaken. This introduces the traveler to a narrower view of the target culture. "Here, a culture is approached and explored as an entirely distinctive, idiosyncratic entity." (Morand, p. 54) In contrast, an etic approach tries to understand cultures in generalized terms, which are valid universally across all cultures.

Within all cultures, humans project a 'face' publicly for all to see. This 'face' is also maintained privately. As we communicate with each other, we are continually re-enforcing that public 'face' or 'front' for others as they do the same for us. This may be seen as a social agreement that we reach with each other. In order to be accepted in society. We agree to re-enforce the 'faces' of those others with whom we interact. They, in turn, tacitly agree to do the same for us.

Penelope Brown and Stephen Levinson (1978) also see politeness in a universal context. Briefly, they see politeness as both positive, emphasizing closeness between interlocutors, and negative,which emphasizes distance between the two. Brown has also characterized positive face as a desire to be liked, admired, ratified, and related to positively, noting that one would threaten positive face by ignoring someone. Positive politeness strategies show the closeness, intimacy and rapport between speaker and hearer. At the same time, she characterized negative face by the desire not to be imposed upon. Negative politeness strategies indicate the social distance between speaker and hearer. Positive Face refers to one's self-esteem, while negative face refers to one's freedom to act (Brown & Levinson, 1987). Brown and Levinson also recognize what are known as Face-threatening Acts (FTAs) and theorize that avoiding them is the universal goal of polite behavior.

An example of Positive Politeness is when attention is paid to a celebrity by photographers.

An example of Negative Politeness is when that same celebrity is given the freedom to go about his or her own business without being pestered by those same photographers.

Just as there is positive and negative politeness, Face-Threatening Acts are also positively and negatively charged.

An example of a Positive FTA is when our well-known celebrity is ignored by those photographers. An example of a Negative FTA is when that same celebrity of ours is the focus of such attention that he or she is unable to do even the simplest daily chores without being hounded by the paparazzi.

If the presence and maintenance of a 'face' is a universal human trait then it may be useful to adopt a single universal approach to politeness. An understanding of the underlying goal of politeness might improve our communicative competency. Different cultures have adopted various linguistic methods for avoiding or at least, softening FTAs. Regardless of the culturally specific means to deal with FTAs, there is a universal goal to polite behavior.

The universal goal of politeness is to avoid or mitigate Face-Threatening Acts.

 

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Last Updated: January 10, 2016