Example Research: Politeness Theory


Politeness is described as a social norm, or a set of prescriptive social 'rules'. Many linguists have aimed to research politeness, including Brown and Levinson (1987), who developed their 'face theory' based on the principles of our desire to be liked and to not be imposed upon.


It is first important that you understand the concept of 'face'.

Face is defined as the public self-image every adult portrays, which must be attended to in interaction.[1]

There are two aspects of this face: positive and negative.
  • Positive face is the desire to be appreciated and liked.
  • Negative face is the desire to have freedom and not to be imposed upon.
  • A Face Threatening Act (FTA) is an act which deliberately threatens the face needs of others.[1]

We can then see how this relates to politeness.

Politeness is defined as using communicative strategies to create and maintain social harmony.[2] This can be done in various ways:

  • being contextually appropriate
  • following social and cultural norms
  • being socially positive by addressing face needs 

In order to save face, people have the option to use politeness superstrategies [1] with FTAs:

  1. Bald on record is not attempting to minimise the face threat.
  2. Positive politeness is showing you value someone so minimising the threat to the positive face.
  3. Negative politeness is not impeding on someone so minimising the threat to the negative face.
  4. Off record is avoiding responsibility for the FTA often by being indirect.
  5. Withhold is not performing the FTA
Politeness superstrategies are determined by contextual factors:
  • Power relations between speaker and listener
  • Social distance between speaker and listener
  • How great the threat of the face threatening act is

Our aim in conversation is generally cooperative, so the more 'dangerous' we percieve our FTA to be, the higher number strategy we use.

Considering the theory from another perspective, we will now introduce you to impoliteness.

Impoliteness is defined as engaging in aggressive facework in particular contexts to cause social disruption.[4] This can be done in various ways:

  • the speaker intentionally attacks face
  • the listener perceives a face attack
  • both of the above

There are also impoliteness superstrategies [4] which can be used with FTAs:

  1. Bald on record is an unmitigated intentional face attack.
  2. Positive impoliteness is attacking the positive face need by not showing you value someone.
      • examples incude criticism, insults, disagreements etc
  3. Negative impoliteness is attacking the negative face need by imposing on someone.
      • examples include orders, threats, requests
  4. Off record is using indirect offence such as sarcasm or banter.
  5. Withhold is failing to be polite when it is expected.