Politeness theory

Politeness theory

Politeness is the expression of the speakers’ intention to mitigate face threats carried by certain face threatening acts toward another (Mills, 2003, p. 6). Being polite therefore consists of attempting to save face for another. Politeness theory states that some speech acts threaten others’ face needs. First formulated in 1987 by Penelope Brown and Stephen Levinson, politeness theory has since expanded academia’s perception of politeness (Mills, 2003). This text has influenced almost all of the theoretical and analytical work in this field (Mills, 2003, p. 57).

Text that influenced creation of politeness theory

In 1963, Erving Goffman published the article "On Face Work." He discusses face in reference to how people present themselves in social situations and that our entire reality is constructed through our social interactions.

In any society, whenever the physical possibility of spoken interaction arises, it seems that a system of practices, conventions, and procedural rules comes into play which functions as a means of guiding and organizing the flow of messages. An understanding will prevail as to when and where it will be permissible to initiate talk among whom, and by means of what topics of conversation (Goffman, 1967).

This leads into Goffman: "Face is a mask that changes depending on the audience and the social interaction" (Goffman, 1967). Face is maintained by the audience, not by the speaker. We strive to maintain the face we have created in social situations. Face is broken down by Goffman into two different categories. Positive face is the desire of being seen as a good human being and negative face is the desire to remain autonomous. Goffman argues that there is a limited amount of strategies to maintain face. A threat to a person’s face has been termed a face threatening act (FTA). Brown and Levinson argue that an FTA often requires a mitigating statement or some sort of politeness, or the line of communication will break (Brown & Levinson, 1987). With this understanding of face, a definition of politeness can be understood in relation to face.

Original text on politeness

The most important tenet of Brown and Levinson’s original text on politeness theory is that we change our language based on the hearer and thus our strategies for compliance gaining change depending on the audience. In everyday life, we design messages that protect face and achieve other goals as well. Politeness is the expression of the speaker’s intention to mitigate face threats carried by certain face threatening acts toward another.

Politeness consists of attempting to save face for another. Brown and Levinson begin with the idea of ‘model persons’, rational agents who think strategically and are conscious of their language choices. This influenced Brown and Levinson when examining Goffman’s version of face, where they agreed that rational agents have both positive and negative face. Simply put, they believe that model persons want to maintain others’ face, but nevertheless are often forced to commit face threatening acts. Thus, politeness strategies are developed in order to formulate messages in order to save the hearer’s face when face threatening acts are inevitable or desired. This means that the speaker avoids embarrassing the listener or making him feel uncomfortable.

Face needs are thought of as the desire to be appreciated and protected. Face is further broken down into two different categories: positive face and negative face. Positive face is the desire to be liked and appreciated. Positive politeness is designed to meet the face needs by performing an action like complimenting or showing concern for another person. Negative face is the desire to be autonomous and not to infringe on the other person. Negative politeness is designed to protect the other person when negative face needs are threatened. Thus there are different strategies to handle face threatening acts and these strategies are put into a hierarchy of effectiveness.

Politeness strategies

Brown and Levinson outline four main types of politeness strategies: bald on record, negative politeness, positive politeness, and off-record or indirect strategy.

First, bald on record strategies do not attempt to minimize the threat to the hearer’s face. This strategy is most often utilized by speakers who closely know their audience. With the bald on record strategies there is a direct possibility that the audience will be shocked or embarrassed by the strategy. For example, a bald on record strategy might be to tell your sister to “do the dishes. It’s your turn.”

The second strategy is positive politeness and this strategy attempts to minimize the threat to the hearer's positive face. This strategy is most commonly used in situations where the audience knows each other fairly well. Quite often hedging and attempts to avoid conflict are used. For example, a positive politeness strategy might be the request “It would be great if you could do the dishes for me.”

The third strategy is negative politeness which presumes that the speaker will be imposing on the listener. The potential for awkwardness or embarrassment is greater than in bald on record strategies and positive politeness strategies. Negative face is the desire to remain autonomous. Thus, a request without consideration of the listener’s negative face might be uncomfortable: “I need $5” is awkward if five dollars is outside the listener’s financial capabilities. But if the speaker, knowing that the listener wants to maintain their autonomy, adds an out for the listener like “I know you’ve been kinda strapped for cash, but could I borrow $5?”, the listener is more likely to give them that money because the request showed a respect for their ability to maintain autonomy.

The final politeness strategy outlined by Brown and Levinson is the indirect strategy; This strategy uses indirect language and removes the speaker from the potential to being imposing. For example, a speaker using the indirect strategy might merely say “wow, it’s getting cold in here” insinuating that it would be nice if the listener would get up and turn up the thermostat without directly asking the listener to do so.

Future research and criticism

Much of the work on politeness assumes that the listeners and the speakers are all homogenous. However, gender needs play more prominently in the field of politeness. Although it is well-established that women and men communicate differently, politeness theory has ignored the fact that based on gender, women and men will also perform politeness differently. Along the same lines, politeness is also stereotypically linked with class.

Brown and Levinson’s text is most certainly the foremost scholarly work on politeness. However, since it was published there have been numerous attacks on the completeness of the work. This stems even from the connotations of politeness. Brown and Levinson presume that each culture performs and judges politeness in the exact way that those in America perform politeness and can be judged by the same criterion. For example, Greek notions of politeness stress warmth and notions of intimacy, whereas the American use of politeness quite often means consideration for the individual and many Russians believe that politeness can be summed up with not using coarse or vulgar language (Sifanou, 1992, p. 88). Thus it is dangerous and also ethnocentric to presume that politeness is enacted similarly in all cultures. While it has been long well-known that cultures communicate differently, the original text was willing to generalize among cultures.


Brown, P. & Levinson, S. (1987). Politeness: Some universals in language usage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Goffman, E. (1967). ‘On facework: an analysis of ritual elements in social interaction’, in Jaworski, A.,and Coupland, N. (eds.) The Discourse Reader, London, Routledge, pp. 306-321.

Mills, S. (2003). Gender and politeness. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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