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What Is the Politeness Theory?

By Pablo Garcia
Updated May 23, 2024
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Politeness theory is based on the concept that people have a social self-image that they consciously project and try to protect. This sense of self-image is referred to as “face.” The theory was developed in 1978 by researchers Penelope Brown and Stephen C. Levinson. It holds that people use various politeness strategies to protect the face of others when addressing them. Under politeness theory, there is a positive and a negative face. Positive face reflects the desire to have one’s self-image approved of by others. Negative face is a part of personality that desires not to be imposed upon. Politeness strategies will differ depending on whether a person is dealing with another’s positive or negative face.

In situations where a face-threatening act (FTA) could arise, the politeness strategy used will depend largely on the relationship between the speaker and the listener. FTAs are sometimes unavoidable in conversation. A face-threatening act can damage the face of the person spoken to because it opposes her wants or needs. An FTA can be either a positive or negative one and can damage the speaker or the hearer.

Positive face-threatening acts are a direct challenge to the face of the listener. They contain an indifference to the listener’s self-image and include things such as threats, insults, and belittling the listener. Positive FTA includes speech that involves socially unacceptable topics, such as sexual innuendo and racial slurs. A speaker might also embarrass a listener by inappropriate references to gender, age, or status. A speaker’s own face may be damaged in these situations by the necessity of an apology or an admission of personal weakness.

In politeness theory, negative face-threatening acts occur when the speaker impinges on the listener’s negative face. The speaker requires a verbal response or an action from the person she is addressing. Negative FTAs can include advices, warnings, or requests of the listener to perform a certain action. It is confrontational in the sense that either the listener of the speaker must acquiesce in the desires of the other.

Politeness theory identifies four politeness strategies a speaker uses when dealing with face-threatening acts to the listener. They are bald on- record, positive politeness, negative politeness, and off-record. The strategy used will depend on the relationship between the speaker and hearer.

Bald on-record politeness is used among intimates, family and friends. It allows for plain speaking not available in other situations, and the concern for the other’s face is less complex. Positive politeness is a strategy used when the speaker is at least familiar with the listener. It recognizes the person’s status while also acknowledging the familiarity. For example a speaker who has forgotten his wallet might ask a coworker to borrow some money for coffee.

Negative politeness is used when speakers know they are impinging on a person’s time and want to show respect. Stopping a person on the street for instance to ask for directions requires negative politeness. Indirect politeness strategy involves the speaker requesting something without directly asking the listener to do it. The approach is more deferential and places the burden on the speaker. For example, a speaker might comment on something that needs to be done rather than asking the listener to do it.

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Discussion Comments

By anon350039 — On Oct 01, 2013

An easy while quite comprehensive and readable article.

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