The linguistic definition of politeness differs from the expected definition. It addresses aspects that are not related to the correct ways of accepting or rejecting an object. According to Johnstone (2008), the linguistic definition of politeness refers to how people with the same social needs adjust or fail to adjust when they interact with one another. She goes on to say politeness is one of the main reasons people use indirect methods of communication to state what they mean (Johnstone, 2008).


Politeness is an important part of social interaction. Leech suggests politeness is how participants maintain harmony while socially interacting with one another (as cited in Gricean Maxims and Politeness, 2006).


The harmony expected in social interactions is dictated by the social beliefs of the people interacting. Robin Lakoff (as cited in Johnstone, 2008), states that humans have very basic beliefs about how they should act towards each other.

·      People taking part in a conversation should cooperate.

·      They should make their meaning as clear as possible.

·      To ensure smooth social interactions, unnecessary tension should be avoided.

Lakoff’s Rules of Politeness (as cited in Johnstone, 2008)

The rules of formality, equality and hesitancy should be balanced.

·      Too much formality or distance causes inequality, while the consequence of too much equality is less hesitancy.

This imbalance results in people being rude or inappropriate by the speaker’s or the addressee’s standards.



Face (Gricean Maxims and Politeness, 2006) is defined as how a person distinguishes him/herself:

·      Through their linguistic (language) choices

·      Social identity


Face must be taken into consideration when a person is addressing another person. Coates (2004) believes to respect a person’s face is to show one is considering the other’s feelings.

Brown and Levinson

Adding to Coates’ theory, face is also important for determining how to interact. Brown and Levinson’s term “face,” (as cited in Johnstone, 2008), describes two specific kinds of wants. These wants are recognized by people who are interacting with one another.

·      Positive face is the desire to be liked and admired.

·      Negative face is the desire for a person not to be intruded on.



Face Threatening Act (FTA)

Inappropriate choices of words can cause difficulties in conversations. There are methods of speaking that are perceived as a threat to the addressee’s positive or negative face (Johnstone, 2008). These threats are called face threatening acts (FTA). An FTA is any way of speaking that imposes on a person’s linguistic or social identity (Gricean Maxims and Politeness, 2006).



Threats to a person’s positive and negative face can come in the form of compliments. Coates (2004) explains compliments may be considered to be face threatening, as they ignore the negative face needs of the person being addressed.

They include:

·      Cross sex compliment- From a male to a female at their place of employment- “That dress makes you look hot!”

·      Male to male complement- “Those jeans sure look nice on you!”


FTA prevention

To prevent FTA, the person speaking must use the correct method. Johnstone (2008) suggests, to prevent FTA, the person speaking must use positive politeness or negative politeness when talking to the listener.


Positive Politeness

Asking to borrow something or for a favour, could cause discomfort amongst the people involved in the communication. To prevent FTA, the addresser must enquire in such a way that neither their or the addressee’s positive face is threatened (Johnstone, 2008). There are techniques one can use to prevent FTA.

Holmes (2001) explains:

·      Sharing- can be demonstrated by the addressor showing he/she is experiencing the same situation as the addressee.

·      Reciprocity- is demonstrated by the person doing the asking, he/she may promise to pay back the request.

·      Harmony- is created by placing an emphasis on their shared attitudes and values.

This harmony can be achieved by expressing approval and/or sympathy (Johnstone, 2008).


Lexical Devices

These devices can demonstrate the status of the people interacting. He/she may use terms that show they belong to the same group. This can be done by using an informal form of vocabulary such as slang and swear words (Holmes, 2001). She explains positive politeness can also be demonstrated when an individual of higher status suggests to subordinates that they should use his/her first name when addressing him/her (Holmes, 2001).


Morphological devices for politeness

Specific morphological devices are required to indicate the relationship between the addresser and the addressee. In some cultures, there is a distinction between second person formal and informal pronouns.

·      in the French language there is the T/V distinction. The English word “you”- in French is translated as the word “tu” as the informal pronoun and “vous” as the formal pronoun (Pronoun, 2011).


Brown and Levinson’s (B & L) Methods to Demonstrate Positive Politeness (as cited in Gricean Maxims and Politeness, 2006).

·      -Pessimism- “I don’t suppose you could lend me a pencil?”

·      -Indicating defence- “Excuse me, ma’am, would you mind if I used your extra pencil?”

·      Apologizing- “I hate to bother you, but can you lend me a pencil?”

·      -Impersonalizing- “The university administration says all exams must be written in pencil.”

·      -Hedging when asking for something- “um, could I borrow a pencil?”

·      -Attending to the hearer- “You must be tired, please sit down and rest.”

·      Avoiding disagreement- “Oh yes, you’re correct, she is smaller than me.”

·      Assume agreement- “So, when are you going to rest?”

Positive Politeness continued

Tag questions (Holmes, 2001)

·      “That cat is lovely, isn’t she?”

·      “That meal was really bad, wasn’t it?”


Negative Politeness

A person’s negative face can be threatened when they are being asked for something. As there is the need not to be dictated to, controlled or obstructed, the person doing the requesting must use forms indicative of negative politeness (Johnstone, 2008). To demonstrate this, one must use terms that show the person doing the requesting does not have any preconceived beliefs about the addressee (Johnstone, 2008).

·      Indirect (Johnstone, 2008) - Being indirect, apologizing, minimizing the imposition or asking instead of making a statement makes the request more polite.

·      Apologizing (Coates, 2004) -By asking for something and apologizing at the same time, the person being addressed has the opportunity to say no without sounding rude

Social Distance

Social distance is a factor to consider when people communicate. According to Holmes (2001), negative politeness is a method used to express oneself appropriately in regards to their social distance and at the same time respecting differences in social status.

·      Using one’s title and last name with an unfamiliar person who is older or superior - “Good morning, Ms. Turtle. Here are the files you requested.”


Brown and Levinson’s Methods used to demonstrate negative politeness (as cited in Gricean Maxims and Politeness, 2006).

·      Indirect- I need to find a pencil.

·      -Request forgiveness- I’m sorry but…

·      -Minimize imposition- Excuse me, I would like to ask you if I borrow your pencil.

·      Pluralize the person responsible- We are sorry to tell you that you need to use a pencil.


Off record indirect strategy (as cited in Gricean Maxims and Politeness, 2006).

This takes the pressure off the person who wants something. To prevent FTA the person waits for something to be offered once the addressee sees he/she wants it.

·      -Give hints- I sure could use a pencil

·      -Be vague- Maybe someone should have done it.

·      -Be sarcastic or joking- Oh yeah, those pants aren’t tight at all (when they really are).


The bald on-record strategy (as cited in Gricean Maxims and Politeness, 2006).

This does nothing to minimize face threats to the addressee.

·      -An emergency- “Help me!”

·      -Task orientated- “Hand me that pencil!”

·      Request- “Close the door.”

·      Alerting- “Drive slowly you are in a playground zone.”


Leech’s Maxims for Politeness (as cited in Gricean Maxims and Politeness, 2006).

·      -Tact maxim- A person minimises the cost to the other person while maximizing their benefits- “Could I bother you for just a moment?”

·      -Generosity maxim- a person minimises their own benefits while maximising their cost- “Just sit back, relax and let me drive.”

·      -Approbation maxim- a person minimises negative praise to the other person, while maximizing praise- “You are so good at writing papers, could you help me with mine.”

·      -Modesty maxim- minimises self praise and maximises dispraise of self- “Boy I am so forgetful, do you remember the dead line?”

·      Agreement maxim- there is a disagreement between one’s self and the other person, while maximising their agreement-

-       A-“I never wanted her to do that, I wanted her to do this.”

-       B- “Okay, I thought we had agreed she should do this before.”

·      Sympathy maxim- a person minimises antipathy between one’s self and the other person, while maximising sympathy between one’s self and the other person- “I am sorry to hear about your illness.”


FTA Strategy Payoffs

Brown and Levinson (as cited in Wikipedia, 2011) believe there are strategy payoffs.

The payoffs expected determine which strategy one chooses.

·      Bald on Record

-       public pressure is recruited to demonstrate FTA was not intended

-       the speaker is perceived as being honest and outspoken rather than manipulating

-       this action ensures the hearer does not misinterpret the speaker

·       Positive Politeness

-       this action lessens the threat by demonstrating the people involved have the same interests

-       the negative feelings of criticism are lessened when it is done between people who are friends

-       inclusiveness shows the speaker is a participant; consequently the FTA cost is lessened

·      Negative Politeness

-       social distance and the lack of familiarity prevents the expectation of pay back

-       this shows respect by acknowledging a person may be intruding

·      Off Record

-       this action shines a positive light on a person as he/she is thought to be discreet and not pushy

-       does not place the misinterpretation on the speaker

-       testing the hearer’s feelings towards the speaker allows the hearer to demonstrate he/she cares for the speaker

·      Don’t Do the FTA

-       this action prevents the speaker from offending the addressee

-       this prevents the speaker from communicating


Questioning of Brown and Levinson’s Model

Not all cultures fit in B/L’s politeness model. According to Holmes (2001), negative politeness is characteristic in cultures that do not encourage interference in each other’s lives. While positive politeness is thought to be a characteristic found in solidarity orientated cultures that do not consider autonomy to be valuable (Holmes 2001).

Johnstone (2008) believes B & L’s model better demonstrates Euro American social beliefs rather than other social cultures. Their model of negative face is more relevant in individualistic societies rather than collective societies (Johnstone, 2008)

Cultures Not Fitting into B & L Politeness Model

Investigations of interactions in Asian societies demonstrate negative face is not relevant as it is a collective culture (Johnstone, 2008).

According to the negative politeness definition, aboriginal societies fit in this category, however, their communities are highly interactive with on-going serial, open-ended conversations (Holmes, 2001). Additionally, they believe group activities used to create solidarity are very valuable (Holmes, 2001). This demonstrates the negative/positive format is not always adequate (Holmes, 2001).



Coates, J. (2006).Women, men and language, A sociolinguistic Account of Gender Differences       in Languages (3rd ed.). Harlow England: Pearson Longman.

Gricean Maxims and Politeness (2006). Retrieved from                   www.ingilish.com/gricean_maxims_and_politeness.htm.

Holmes, J. (2001). An introduction to sociolinguistics (2nd ed.). Essex England: Pearson      Education Limited.

Johnstone, B. (2008). Discourse Analysis (2nd ed.). Malden MA: Blackwell Publishing.

Politeness Theory. (2011). Retrieved on Oct 17, 2011 from Politeness Theory Wiki:.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Politeness.

Pronoun. (2011). Retrieved on Oct 20, 2011 from Pronoun Wiki: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pronoun.