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Politeness Strategies Between Native and Non-native Speakers inthe Context of Brown & Levinson Politeness Theory Essay


This essay focuses on Brown and Levinson’s theory of politeness. Brown and Levinson developed this theory in 1987.The theory focuses on politeness strategies between native and non-native speakers in the context of Brown and Levinson politeness theory. In this essay, I will apply this framework to one data one part of the dataset collected.

The data is from two interviews, one with a native speaker and one with a non native speaker. I have chosen this sort of data because it fits within the parameters of my framework and it has not been the subject of extensive research.

Literature Review

Politeness Concepts

There are universal principles that govern human interaction and this awakening makes the politeness phenomenon to be considered in this universality. The aspects of politeness are thus reflected in language. It has been found that however societies may be isolated from each other; they have an array of politeness elements governed by certain principles. But one should take care to imagine that what is considered polite runs through societies.

However, what is considered polite differs from one society to the other. What is universal is the fact that is the fact that nearly all societies exhibit their elements of politeness in their language(brown& Levinson 1987).Thus, although there have been notable confluences between politeness and the field of sociology, there have also been great strides made in the other fields of linguistics such as pragmatics, sociolinguistics etc.

Roberts (1992) conceptualizes politeness from the notion of face saving. He notes that when people put the feelings of other people into consideration, the do it in such a way that they speak or put things across in a manner likely to greatly reduce the potential of threat in the interaction (Roberts 1992). On the other hand, Nordquist (2012) perceives politeness as exhibiting itself through deviation from that communication which is maximally efficient.

In this context, Nordquist (1992) notes that “…to perform an act other than in the most clear and efficient manner possible is to implicate some degree of politeness on the part of the speaker” (p.1). Watts as cited by Abbas (n.d) argue that politeness as one that one that displays the natural attributes of a good character or rather the that capacity to please others through one’s external actions, thereby producing a kind of union between those characters and the individual, giving a more precise definition of politeness.

Anglesa (n.d) states that politeness as a way through which languages express the social distance between speakers and their different role relationships, how face-work, that is, the attempt to establish, maintain and save face during conversation is carried out in a speech community.

Several scholars such as Hickley (1991) and Brown & Levinson (1987) have gone to great lengths to differentiate politeness orientations within the context of different cultures (Anglesa n.d, p.1). In this context, several notions of politeness have emerged that is positive and negative politeness. According to Abbas (n.d), a positive politeness strategy is one that is directed to the addressee’s positive face, their perennial desire that their “wants-or the actions, acquisitions, values resulting from them-should be thought of as desirable” (p.15).

Anglesa (n.d) concurs with Abbas by noting that positive politeness strategies always strive to show intimacy that occurs or arises between the speaker and the hearer. Kitamura (2000), notes that positive politeness is usually expressed by satisfying positive face. This is done through indicating the similarities among interactants, and by expressing an appreciation of the self image of the interlocutor.

On the other hand, negative politeness strategies constitute those strategies which stress on non-imposition upon the hearer and also express deference (Anglesa n.d). In this context, Abbas (n.d) notes that negative politeness attends to a person’s negative face needs and includes indirectness and apologies (p.17).

Kitamura (2000) summarizes the concepts of negative politeness strategies by noting that how negative politeness can be expressed in two ways: 1) by saving the interlocutor’s face (either negative or positive face) by mitigating face threatening acts, such as advice-giving and disapproval; or 2) by satisfying negative face by indicating respect for addressee’s right not to be imposed on.

Overview of the politeness theories and principles

Before discussing the Brown & Levinson politeness theories, it is critical to discuss several approaches to politeness. These approaches either compete or offer building blocks to the Brown & Levinson politeness theory. Such approaches include “…the theory of politeness principle, Grice’s cooperative principle, Leech’s maxims of politeness, and Sperber & Wilson’s relevance theory” (Abbas n.d, p.5).

Davies (2000) views Grice’s cooperative principle is an assumed basic concept in pragmatics. Hughes (n.d) defines Grice’s cooperative principle as the assumption that we make when speaking to one another is that we are trying to cooperate with one another in order to construct worthy and meaningful conversations.

Grice as cited by Davies (2000) formally states the cooperative principle in the following way. “Make your contribution such as required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which you are engaged” (Davies 2000, p.2). Cooperation in the context of Grice’s cooperative principle “…is a term used in linguistic literature to characterise human behaviour in a conversation” (Davies 2000, p.1)

There are four maxims that are postulated by the Grice’s cooperative principles including quantity, quality, relation, and manner maxims. The quantity maxim requires one to be truthful by not uttering what lacks required evidence and whatever that is false (Heron 2010, p.2). The relation maxim is concerned about the relevance of the content. The quantity maxim requires one not to say more or less than what is necessary (Heron 2010, p.2). The manner maxims require one to avoid obscurity and ambiguity (Heron 2010, p.2).

According to the University of Rome (UoR) (2012), Leech “…defines politeness as a type of behaviours that allows the participants to engage in social interaction in an atmosphere of relative harmony” (p.2). Leech proposed several politeness maxims which have varying degrees of importance. According to UoR (2012), the Leech’s maxims include tact maxim, generosity maxim, approbation maxim, modesty maxim, agreement maxim, and sympathy maxim. Universidad de Zaragoza (n.d) summarized Leech’s maxims in the following ways

Tact maxim: minimise cost to other; (maximise benefit to other)

Generosity maxim: minimise benefit to self; (maximise cost to self)

Approbation maxim: minimise dispraise of other

Agreement maxim: minimise disagreement between self and other

Sympathy maxim: minimise antipathy between self and other (Zaragoza n.d, p.1)

The Sperber & Wilson’s relevance theory is based on a definition of relevance and two principles of relevance. These include a cognitive principle (that human cognition is geared to the maximisation of relevance), and a communicative principle that utterances create expectations of optimal relevance (Wilson & Sperber, 2002).

Brown & Levinson politeness theory

In order to understand the theory of politeness and face, it is mandatory to understand the vocabularies associated with the theory. In this context, the introductory part of this essay will concentrate on the definitions of basic terminologies associated with the theory of politeness and face. Some of the terminologies that will be discussed include face, positive face, negative face, politeness, face threatening acts and model persons, among others.

One of the major underlying assumptions of the Brown & Levinson politeness theory is the existence of the model person taking part in a conversation. Brown & Levinson as cited by Kwon & Ha (2009) defined “…Model Persons as agents fulfilling the linguistic politeness” (p.3). Pikor-Niedzialek (2005) perceives a model person as “…a wilful and fluent speaker of a natural language, endowed with two special properties-rationality and face” (p.108).

In this context, the model person is assumed to be inherited with two specific features that include Rationality and Face” (Kwon & Ha, 2009). The model person can be seen as the embodiment of universally valid human social characteristics and principles of social reasoning.

These principles behind social reasoning can be perceived as rational. More specifically, Kwon & Ha (2009) define rationality in the context of model person as the “…ability to choose appropriate means to meet their (social) goals” (p.3). In this sense, model person will always act in a rational way and make appropriate (linguistic) choices when s/he wants to achieve particular goals (Kwon & Ha 2009, p.3).

When individuals try to create certain impressions to their hearers (create face), there are certain acts that impede on the achievement of such impressions. Such acts are generally referred to as Face Threatening Acts (FTAs).

Brown & Levinson as cited by Nall (n.d) defined FTAs as acts and strategies which could harm or threaten the positive or negative face of one’s interlocutors (p.1).According to Wagner (2002), Brown & Levinson utilized FTAs using “…two basic parameters:(1) whose face is being threatened (the speaker’s or the addressee’s), and (2) Which type of face is being threatened (positive- or negative –face).” (p.22).

Wagner (2002) gives several FTAs threatening a positive or negative face. In this context, Wagner (2002) argue that acts that threaten an addressee’s positive face include those acts in which a speaker demonstrates that he/she does not approve or support the addressee’s positive face or self image (p.22).

According to Brown & Levinson as cited by Fukada & Asato (2003), there are five strategies of alleviating FTAs. These strategies include “… (1) Without redressive action (2) by positive politeness (3) by negative politeness (4) by going off record; and (5) by not doing the FTA” (Fukada & Asato 2003, p.2).

In the context of FTA alleviation strategies, Longscope (n.d) groups such strategies under positive or negative politeness as part of alleviation of FTAs with redressive action. In order to enhance the knowledge on FTAs alleviation, Longscope (n.d) defines the concepts of “on record” and “off record” in the context of FTAs. Longscope (n.d) opines that “…the term on record is used when an expression has one unambiguously attributable intention in which witnesses would concur” (p.71).

There are three factors used in the determination of the seriousness of the FTAs that is “(1) the social distance (D) of the speaker (S) and hearer (H); (2) the relative power (P) of (S) and (H); and (3) the absolute ranking (R) of the imposition in the particular culture” (Wagner 2002, p.2).

According to Brown & Levinson as cited by Fukada & Asato (2003), there is a formula for evaluating the serious of a Face Threatening Act (x) based on the three factors. The following formula was proposed by Brown & Levinson for use in the evaluation of the seriousness of FTAs.

“Seriousness X= Distance (S, H) + Power (H, S) + Rank of imposition (x)” (Wagner 2002, p.2).

Power (P) is a factor that Brown &Levinson have greatly used. This means that power differentials play a great role in politeness. That is, individuals with lower relative power are usually predetermined to use larger politeness elements in discourse. There is a great correlation between the superiors and subordinates employ elements of politeness in speech acts.

So subordinates may use far more laborious constructions while addressing their superiors as in the sentence: Excuse me, I was wondering if you could grant me an opportunity for an interview? From the sentence one can see that power as a function of politeness does vary greatly. The same applies to the social distance (D).Negative tactics that do play a greater role in establishing this distance between both the hearer and the speaker.

Brown &Levinson do feel that humans use speech acts do play an important role in politeness strategies. There are on-record speech acts and off-record speech acts as the one in the sentence: Have you got money? One can see that here the speech acts refer to what the action they want performed in a peculiar way.

Requests on the other hand clearly serve as good examples of face threatening acts since they show the speaker’s expectation for an action to be performed. This means that whatever is requested is to be on the speaker’s behalf. Thus, speech acts do constitute several parts such as locutionary act which is a communicative act; illocutionary act, which reflects speaker’s intention and perlocutionary act which shows the effect a speech act has on the world of the participant’s context.

Ranking of imposition equally plays a crucial role in politeness. It can be seen that some impositions have been found to be greater than others. This is why requests have been considered to be of high imposition threats. Since they demand more redress to lower their threat level.

Central to the Brown & Levinson politeness theory are the actions of the Model Person (MP). In this context, the actions of MP are summarized as as threefold: (1) as a reference model for the description of culture –specific styles of verbal interaction; as a means of characterizing, (2) the ‘ethos’ of a culture and subculture, and (3) the affective quality of social relationships (p.109).Brown & Levinson politeness theory is derived from various arguments that Brown & Levinson made in their various works.

In this context, Fukada & Asato (2003) notes that “…Brown & Levinson argue that every member of the society has a face, which is defined as one’s public self-image, and when the speaker decides to commit an act which potentially causes the hearer (or the speaker) to lose face, the speaker will tend to use a politeness strategy in order to minimize risk” (p.1). Pikor-Niedziakel (2005) summarizes the key Brown & Levinson universal politeness theory concepts in the following way.

(1) All MPs have positive face and negative face, and all MPs are rational agents – i.e. choose means that will satisfy their ends.

(2) Given that face consists in sets of wants satisfable (sic) only by the actions of others, it will in general be to the mutual interest of two MP’s not to threaten each other’s face.

(3) Some acts intrinsically threaten face; these ‘face-threatening acts’ are referred to as FTA’ s.

(4) S (speaker) will want to minimize the face threat of the FTA.

(5) The greater the risk of an FTA, the more S will want to choose a higher numbered strategy (from the set of strategies at his disposal to minimize face risk) (Pikor-Niedziakel 2005, p.109).

There are several ways of demonstrating either positive or negative politeness strategies. Brown & Levinson as cited by Pikor-Niedziakel (2005) identified “…15 sub strategies of positive politeness and 10 of negative politeness” (p.109). These 15 subcategories of politeness include:

1. Notice, attended to (H) (his interests, wants, needs, goods), 2.

Exaggerate (interest, approval, sympathy with H), 3. Intensify interest to (H), 4.distinction of identity, 5.Arrive at consensus, 6. Be a team player, 7.Presuppose, raise, and assert common ground, 8. Joke, 9. Assert, presuppose S’s knowledge of, and concern for H’s wants, 10. Offer, promise, 11. Be optimistic, 12. Include both (S) and (H) in the activity, 13. Give (or ask for) reasons, 14.Assume or assert reciprocity, 15. Give gifts to H (goods, sympathy, understanding, cooperation).

The sub strategies of negative politeness Brown and Levinson (1987:131) include the following: 1. Be conventionally indirect, 2. Question, hedge, 3. Be pessimistic, 4. Minimize the imposition FTA, 5. Give deference, 6. Apologize, 7.avoid personalization of (S) and (H), 8. Generalize FTA, 9. Nominalize, 10. Accept liability (Pikor-Niedziakel 2005, p.110).

There are several assumptions made in the context of Brown & Levinson politeness theory. Pikor-Niedziakel (2005) enumerates basic assumptions that support the Brown & Levinson universal politeness theory in the following way.

(i)’face’, consists of

(a) negative face: free from inhibition

(b) positive face: the positive, consistent self-image or ‘personality’

(Crucially including the desire for this self – to be appreciated and approved of) claimed by interactants.

(ii) Certain rational capacities, in particular consistent modes of reasoning

from ends to the means that will achieve those ends.(Pikor-Niedziakel 2005, p.109).

Criticism of the theory

Several scholars have over the years criticized Brown & Levinson theory. Some of these scholars include Liao, Watts et al., and Kasper amongst others (Pikor-Niedziakel 2005). These criticisms have been summarized by Escandell-Vidal and Meier amongst others (Pikor-Niedziakel, 2005).

According to Pikor-Niedziakel (2005), criticism to Brown & Levinson theory are conceptualized along the universality of the politeness principles and the distinction between positive and negative politeness.

On the other hand, Hickey & Orta (n.d) perceive the criticisms of the Brown & Levinson politeness theory from four dimensions. Both situational and and cultural contexts miss in Brown & Levinson theory. There is also the problem emanating from the rigidity of the politeness scale as placed in relation to the various sociological variables.

One can see that Brown and Levinson’s list of strategies of politeness only cover simple goal oriented interactions. These include interactions such as asking to borrow something from the next person. This theory seems to ignore that in real discourse such single utterances only form part of larger exchanges between two or even more interractants.

Issues such as back channelling are totally given a wide berth by the theory. Further, Brown and Levinson seem to ignore the fact that some conversations are usually casual and do not necessarily involve a predetermined goal.

One of the scholars who questioned the universality of the Brown & Levinson politeness theory is Blum-Kulka (Hickey & Orta n.d, p.272).Blum-Kulka based her criticism of the Brown & Levinson theory on her study of the Hebrew language.

In contrast to the Brown & Levinson politeness provisions, Blum-Kulka notes that “…for Israelis a certain adherence to the pragmatic clarity of the message is an essential part of politeness” (Hickey & Orta n.d, p.272). In this context, the lengthening of the inferential path beyond reasonable limits increases the degree of the imposition and hence decreases the level of politeness (Hickey & Orta n.d, p.272).

Blum-Kulka observations contradict Brown & Levinson politeness theory in a fundamental way. Brown & Levinson politeness theory provides that in order to demonstrate linguistic politeness or save face, it might be necessary to length one’s conversational sentences beyond what is necessary to convey the message.

However, Blum-Kulka notes that this lengthening of the sentence or use of FTA alleviating strategy in the context of Hebrew language may actually be considered as impolite. She notes that the language encourages clarity, brevity and a certain straight forwardness that may not be permissible in the English language in order to demonstrate linguistic politeness. This directly contradicts the Brown & Levinson politeness theory.

Brown & Levinson has addressed Blum-Kulka’s observations in one major way. They note that some societies place a higher value on a superior’s time than others. In this context, they note Blum-Kulka’s efficiency factor which only works in societies that place a high value on a superior’s time (Hickey & Orta n.d, p.272). Such efficiency factor is absent in communities that don’t place a premium value on the superiors’ time such as the Arabs.

Both Hickey & Orta (n.d) and Pikor-Niedziakel (2005), note there is a deficiency in the formulation of the positive and negative politeness strategies. In this context, Pikor-Niedziakel (2005) argues that Brown & Levinson categorized many FTA’s as threatening both negative and positive face. In the same light, Pikor-Niedziakel (2005) suggests that positive politeness is relevant to all aspects of a person’s positive face, whereas negative politeness is FTA-specific.

Thus, negative politeness serves to redress the threat of a particular FTA; positive politeness has a more general redressive function (p.273). In this context,Pikor-Niedzialek (2005) note that Brown & Levinson politeness theory is a robust way of looking at linguistic politeness. All in all I find the politeness theory as being as presenting a proper background to insights into politeness strategies across many languages of the world.


The type of data I am analysing is my interviews. This method has got several advantages since through them it is easy for one to gain in-depth insights and context into the topic. Further, since the interviews do target certain specific areas of interest to the study, the respondents therefore only describe what is important to them. Also the interviews are crucial since the data collected involves quotes that directly contain what the discourse markers that the research is greatly interested in.

Though the interviews are used, they have some disadvantages since they are time consuming and expensive compared to other data collection methods. Also to an extent, the interviews do seem intrusive to the respondents, thereby causing some ethical concerns

The data that I have collected is quite useful in the research as it contains the elements that can be handled appropriately by the theoretical framework postulated. For instance the data contains discourse markers for example the uses of “yeah”.

These tends to occur at the very beginning of an utterance and they serve two roles which include signalling a transition as the conversation evolves, while at the same time the discourse markers do reflect an interactive relationship between the speaker and also the person to whom the message is addressed. The data contains the use of sounds which are clearly shown indicated. All these elements could be analysed against the politeness theory as postulated by Brown and Levinson.

Since data collected involves human respondents, ethics is an issue that is crucial to the respondents. Since the respondents will probably be expressing their issues freely, there is need to protect their identity. This research will do so by referring to the respondents as either native speaker (NS) or non-native speaker (NNS). Their real names will not be used in the collected data. Further they will be informed beforehand that they are being interviewed for purposes of research only.

This means that their anonymity will be preserved and also their names and addresses and other information about them that could be used to identify them shall be confidential. But there are cases where the native countries of the respondents may be revealed. In these cases, the results of the research will have limited access. Minors and members of the vulnerable groups will not be used as their participation may cause grave ethical issues.

All in all the participants will not be coerced. The respondents will voluntarily participate and be told of their freedom to withdraw at any time they may deem necessary. This means that a respondent information sheet will be provided to all the respondents, providing them with clear information concerning the research and the need for their consent to be given.

Research objective/question

This essay seeks to evaluate the ways in which S influences H’s behaviour in the context of interviewing native and non native speakers.

Research methodology

The research methodology will be the examination of the two interviews between the native speakers and non native speakers in order to determine the honorifics used in those interviews.


The notion of politeness can be observed in the way the two answer questions set to them.

Interview with non native speaker

  1. Do you like shopping?
  2. Yah: I like it a lot.

Interview with native speaker

  1. First, I would like to ask you what food you like
  2. Ok (.) I like sea food :: AAAAA I like BBQ AAAA there is not really a lot of food I do not like AAAA in terms of style of cooking (.)AAAmm I guess if I try something I don’t like it yap CAPS

The native speaker uses face saving aspects by elaborating on the type of food he likes in the contrast to the non native speaker who is more direct. This can be partially attributed to the challenges in the language.

Interview with non native speaker

A- Do you prefer big or small centres? Why?

B- AAAA probably big centers (.) they have more options, more stores

It can be seen from this excerpt that the non native speaker here hesitates in responding to A by using AAAA.

Interview with native speaker

(A) So, this means you like buying and trying new foods rather than preparing them yourself.

(B)Oh no , I prefer to make it CAPS but because Imm I need to organize everything by myself I thought it is much easier when I was living with people because you could share? you know things or do it together with people you make sure there is time to organize you know grocery shopping which makes things hard to cook.

From this interview the respondent appears more at ease and even hesitates a bit by using Imm before proceeding with speech. Further, the respondent says: You know things….


From the data there are sure elements of politeness. The non native speaker tends to be direct as opposed to the native speaker. Though the non native speaker at times hesitates, this is not for face saving but the hesitation shows that he/she is not sure on what to answer. The native speaker employs avoidance of imposition on the hearer for example he/she starts the sentence with, “You know….” This strategy assumes that the hearer is imposed on. Here the negative face leads to the desire to keep distance.


The non native speaker is more direct in their speech in comparison to the native speaker. It is critical to not that at all times the non native uses little linguistic politeness in contrast to the native users.


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