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Brown and Levinson Theory of Politeness Essay


An analysis of the Theory of Politeness

According to Brown and Levinson, politeness is an important aspect in the day to today interactions and socialization of people in different situations. In communication, there are certain variables, which people consider either consciously or unconsciously. Therefore, for clear understanding of the theory, it is important to note that these two theorists borrowed an idea of “face” from Goffman.

Goffman (1967, p.44) held that the variables which people either consciously or subconsciously adapt in their interactions are meant to positively influence them in their contact with their colleagues. There are two categories of faces: negative and positive face.

Positive face aims at enhancing or achieving appreciation and approval by other people while a negative face is concerned with the individual‘s efforts or desire to avoid any impediment and be liberated from imposition (Mohammed 2010, p.2).

Levinson and Brown points out circumstances, which contradict with the notion of the face through the verbal and the non-verbal communication styles of the speakers, a situation is referred to as ‘face threatening act’ (Brown & Levinson 1987, p.70). For instance, an example of a speech that poses a threat to the hearer’s negative face is a request, seen as an impediment by the speaker on what the hearer ought to or ought not to do.

As a means to overcome these threats, the theorists have suggested four politeness strategies which individuals will fall for in order to avoid being vulnerable to the negative faces. Among them is the best politeness strategy or policy will be adopted by a person before performing a face threatening act strategies. These strategies include; negative politeness, bald on record, off record/indirect and positive politeness.

These politeness strategies according to the two theorists serve a multiplicity of functions. However, as the paper unveils, the theory plays a very vital role both in communication and in the day-to-day interaction of people.

Importance of the Politeness Theory

The aforementioned strategies according to Brown and Levinson enhance or promote positive face or image of those who are listening. Bold on record is one of the strategies used by speakers to give directions and give instructions with authority. It is however important to state that this strategy can best meet its functions when used with people in close relationships.

Positive politeness strategy also plays a positive function on minimizing the threat to the hearer’s positive face (Brown and Levinson 1987, p.60). This kind of verbal communication is intended to make the listeners feel good about themselves, their possessions, interests and especially in the context where the speaker and the listeners know each other to a given extend.

Negative politeness strategy is also a function of politeness theory, which involves trying to be a part from the listeners by avoiding imposition. Therefore, to avoid embarrassment and looking awkward, the speaker employs certain strategy like apologies in order to ensure that he or she meets his or her communication goals.

This theory is also important when a person does not want to cause animosity and aggressive to the party he or she intends to address. Therefore, the speaker may adopt a strategy known as ‘off record’ to air out his/her views, ideas and opinions to the listener. To achieve this, the use of colloquial and synonyms amongst other strategies find their way in.

This indirect address is important especially when speaking on a sensitive or rather on an issue that may cause chaos and disagreements. Furthermore, the use of off record indirect strategy assists in taking off some of the pressure that piles up in the speaker. For example, many people are fond of finding a way to defend their actions.

For instance, if one did not return a phone call, he/she is likely to say that he/she tried calling for a number of times but it was not going through. Such indirect answers are important in alleviating or reducing the pressure subjected to people thereby leading to positive coexistence and easy understanding among various people.

Therefore, it seems imperative that people ought to adopt these politeness strategies gearing them towards counteracting these face threatening acts, which tend to lower people’s self esteem and respect (Janney and Arndt 1993, p.20).

Communication is different from one culture to another and therefore it is important to consider language choice in order to achieve politeness in ones communication since it is a culture sensitive phenomenon (Alymursy and Wilson 2001, p.140).

Studying of politeness therefore enhances understanding of these multi-diversities in cultures and at the same time increasing flexibility and better word choice to curtail frictions and conflicts (Watts 2003, p.40). These strategies further seem much applied in people’s day-to-day activities and in particular communications.

Applicability in day-to-day communication

Apart from their importance in the day-to-day operations, people employ these strategies on a daily basis especially during communication. However, many a times they apply them without their awareness.

For instance, the bald on record strategies seem often used mostly during people’s interactions especially when interacting with their close relations since there are some instances where the hearers may feel embarrassed and shocked.

For example, some of the situations where people realize the applicability of the theory are in matters pertaining to desperation or urgency like ‘watch out’, where greater efficiency is necessary like ‘hear me out…’ Other example is in the task oriented areas where a speaker can for instance say, ‘pass me the hammer” among many others. People nowadays use the positive politeness strategy in communication.

In fact, using such a strategy curbs any chances of conflicts during a dialogue process as the strategy only majors on the positive side of the parties holding the conversation. As a result, people have used the strategy in counteracting or cooling down conflicts, encouraging friendships, offering support, compliments, showing solidarity among other positive attributes in life.

A good illustration of this claim appears in Brown and Levison (1978, p. 106) words like, “You seem to be offended, can I be of help to you? Goodness! Who told you to dig this garden without my permission?” People further use the strategy in exaggerating approval, interest, showing sympathy to their colleagues.

For example, “You have bought a nice car… Where did you buy it from?” (Brown and Levinson 1978, p. 109) Negative politeness strategy is widely applicable in the day-to-day interactions around the world in different situations and circumstances.

For instance, one needs to be conventionally indirect in his/her communication for example when seeking to know the location of something that he/she needs or rather when begging for something like a cup for instance.

Another strategy to employ is use of questions and hedge mostly used when a person wants another one to accompany him/her to a certain place or maybe when he/she needs a certain favor from the person.

Apologizing is also another strategy that is employed to achieve these negative politeness strategies by using words like, “I am sorry; I did mean to …, I beg for forgiveness among many others” (Ide 1989, p.230). Other strategies that people can use include being pessimistic, minimizing the use of imposition, providing deference, impersonalizing the hearer and the speaker among many others.

Furthermore, people have employed and adopted the off-record strategy in the current communications among people. In this strategy, the speaker uses indirect languages in his speaking and therefore people may not see him/her as imposing. For instance, a speaker may use synonyms and colloquial language to pass across his message.

This helps him/her to avoid people perceiving him/her in a negative way. Example of this may include use of statements like, “Eehh, wow get him and many others” (Ide 1989, p.212). Politeness is also raising a heated debate when it comes to email communication.

Email communication

This theory also applies greatly to communication over the internets through emails. Many people usually translate what they speak and think in their writing, a situation that greatly affects the way messages are constructed and the general communications across this channel of communication (Crystal 2001, p.32).

With the rapid advancement in technology people have come to a world where they communicate to one another without physically coming in touch with each other; a technology otherwise known as “computer-mediated communication” (Bunz 2005, p.1).

This advancement in technology has come with intercultural email communications whereby different people from different cultural background share information through email. For instance, in the study carried out in Australia and Korea about politeness, scholars arrived at various conclusions.

According to Brown and Levinson (1987, p.130), politeness was found to be a major area of concern when it came to communication across cultural backgrounds. The linguistic expressions used by the people on the email should promote solidarity, “reverence between the recipient and the dispatcher of the message and it should further show contemplation and concern in the other party” (Margare 2006, p.32).

This research for instance, provides a guideline and a limelight on what communication through internet should entail. For instance, when communicating through email, “full titles, addresses, and use of formal language are some of the core considerations the correspondent should put in mind” (Murphy 2006, p.12).

Although people from different regions and locations have different expectations in their email communications for instance concerning how they should be addressed or greeted, incidences of not putting in mind what they deem necessary may be termed as impolite.

Hence, they may feel uncomfortable especially when other people do not abide by what they deem right way of their communication through the email. There is also a possibility of experiencing a level of discomfort in different cultural setting especially if the style of presenting these emails is direct.

This is because some of the cultures may prefer indirect communication styles especially if the messages are coming from unknown destinations.

It is therefore important that the current email correspondents in “an intercultural community employ prudent when it comes to the level of formality, brevity and directness” (Crystal 200, p.43). Therefore, based on the expositions made on the paper, the theory of politeness seems to play a very central role in the field of communication both verbal and written.

Reference List

Alymursy, A. and Wilson, J., 2001. Towards a Definition of Egyptian Complimenting. Oxford: Oxford UP.

Brown, P. and Levinson, S., 1987. Politeness: Some Universals in Language Usage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bunz, W., 2005.Campbell Rutgers Politeness Accommodation in Electronic Mail. Hawaii: Hawaii Pacific University.

Crystal, D., 2001. Language and the Internet. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Goffman, E., 1967. Interaction ritual: Essays on face-to-face Behavior. Garden City, NY: Anchor Books.

Ide, S., 1989. Formal Forms and Discernment: Two Neglected Aspects of Universals of Linguistic Politeness. Multilingua, 8(2), pp. 223-248.

Janney, R. and Arndt, H., 1993. Universality and Relativity in Cross-Cultural Politeness Research: A Historical Perspective. Multilingua, 12(3), pp. 13-50.

Margare, M., 2006. Politeness in Intercultural Email Communication: Australia and Korean perspectives. Australia: Griffith University Press.

Mohammed, H., 2010. Language in India: Strength for Today and Bright Hope for Tomorrow. Pragmatic Analysis of Politeness Theory. Available at: <> .

Murphy, M., 2006. Towards a Practical Approach for Assessing Politeness in Intercultural Email Communication. Australia: Griffith University Press.

Watts, R., 2003. Politeness. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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IvyPanda. 2019. "Brown and Levinson Theory of Politeness." December 15, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/brown-and-levinson-theory-of-politeness-essay/.

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