Politeness maxims

Politeness maxims

According to Geoffrey Leech, there is a politeness principle with conversational maxims similar to those formulated by Paul Grice. He lists six maxims: tact, generosity, approbation, modesty, agreement, and sympathy. The first and second form a pair, as do the third and the fourth. Note that these maxims vary from culture-to-culture, meaning, what may be considered as polite in one culture, may be strange or downright rude in another.

The Tact maxim

The tact maxim states: 'Minimize the expression of beliefs which imply cost to other; maximize the expression of beliefs which imply benefit to other.' The first part of this maxim fits in with Brown and Levinson's negative politeness strategy of minimising the imposition, and the second part reflects the positive politeness strategy of attending to the hearer's interests, wants, and needs:

"Could I interrupt you for a second?" "If I could just clarify this then."

The Generosity maxim

Leech's Generosity maxim states: 'Minimize the expression of benefit to self; maximize the expression of cost to self.' Unlike the tact maxim, the maxim of generosity focuses on the speaker, and says that others should be put first instead of the self. "You relax and let me do the dishes." "You must come and have dinner with us."

The Approbation maxim

The Approbation maxim states: 'Minimize the expression of beliefs which express dispraise of other; maximize the expression of beliefs which express approval of other.'The operation of this maxim is fairly obvious: all things being equal, we prefer to praise others and if we cannot do so, to sidestep the issue, to give some sort of minimal response (possibly through the use of euphemisms or to remain silent. The first part of the maxim avoids disagreement; the second part intends to make other people feel good by showing solidarity. "I heard you singing at the karaoke last night. It was, um... different." "John, I know you're a genius - would you know how to solve this math problem here?"

The Modesty maxim

The Modesty maxim states: 'Minimize the expression of praise of self; maximize the expression of dispraise of self.'

"Oh, I'm so stupid - I didn't make a note of our lecture! Did you?"

The Agreement maxim

The Agreement maxim runs as follows: 'Minimize the expression of disagreement between self and other; maximize the expression of agreement between self and other.' It is in line with Brown and Levinson's positive politeness strategies of 'seek agreement' and 'avoid disagreement,' to which they attach great importance. However, it is not being claimed that people totally avoid disagreement. It is simply observed that they are much more direct in expressing agreement, rather than disagreement. "A: I don't want my daughter to do this, I want her to do that. "B: Yes, but ma'am, I thought we resolved this already on your last visit."

The Sympathy maxim

The sympathy maxim states: 'minimize antipathy between self and other; maximize sympathy between self and other.' This includes a small group of speech acts such as congratulation, commiseration, and expressing condolences - all of which is in accordance with Brown and Levinson's positive politeness strategy of attending to the hearer's interests, wants, and needs.

"I was sorry to hear about your father."


* Brown, P. and Levinson, S. (1987) "Politeness: Some Universals in Language". Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
* Cutting, J. (2002) "Pragmatics and Discourse." London: Routledge.
*Thomas, J. (1995) "Meaning in Interaction: An Introduction to Pragmatics." New York: Longman Group Ltd.

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