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Negative Politeness


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Negative politeness can be called "politeness as a strategy for self-protection". There are many advantages of  practicing this form of sustained negative politeness – keeping a safe distance from others. Even when being critical. It is related to understanding that sustained courtesy provide an opportunity of keeping as safe distance from others while minimizing negative feeling about such detachment. Cold detached respect for others were once  a trait cultivated among  aristocratic families. Probably not without reason, as this is a powerful tool for minimizing conflict. The key idea here can be formulated as "familiarity breeds contempt".

Brown and Levinson (1978) define the following two notions, corresponding to two types of politeness:

The terms are quite misleading. A better term for negative face might be "emotional distance and respect of the other rights and privileges". The term positive face does seem appropriate, as a way to delimit those aspects of one’s persona that are desirable to others.

Nonetheless, it is useful to distinguish two types of politeness:

One of the cultural differences between USA and Great Britain

One of the cultural differences between USA and Great Britain is the English preference for "negative politeness" (showing respect). This is opposite to the typical (and often fake) American style "positive politeness" (showing solidarity, claiming common ground, demonstrating "we are in the same team" attitude).

As Kate Fox’s Watching the English noted:

“[Negative politeness] is concerned with other people’s need not to be intruded or imposed upon (as opposed to 'positive politeness’, which is concerned with their need for inclusion and social approval)”

Positive politeness usually begins with a personal question or compliment and assumes that subordinate and boss share common interests, are part of the same team and can operate on familiar terms ("bridging the gap" strategies).

A good description in context of various cultures can be found at Sheffield Hallam Working Papers Linguistic Politeness and Context

Brown and Levinson’s characterisation of politeness strategies as either positive (paying attention to the others’ face needs) or negative (ensuring that the other is not imposed on) has been modified by Scollon and Scollon (1995).

The Scollons assert that it is preferable to refer to such strategies as ‘involvement’ or ‘distancing' strategies as this terminology avoids the implicit evaluation contained in Brown and Levinson’s terms. They also suggest that ‘the concept of face has built into it both aspects: involvement and independence must be projected simultaneously in any communication’, but they go on to argue that ‘the reason involvement and independence are in conflict is that emphasizing one of them risks a threat to the other’ (Scollon and Scollon, 1995: 38).

Indeed, the ‘involvement’ strategies which British and American speakers generally use when they first meet a stranger can create great unease and difficulty on the part of the foreign language speaker. Most British and American people of a particular age range (i.e. under around 40-50 years of age) in initial encounters insist on first names being used as quickly as possible, whether the interaction is between relative equals or those in a hierarchical relation. Reciprocal first name use seems often to be taken by British and Americans to indicate that the encounter with a stranger is proceeding well and that a certain equality and ease of interaction has been established. However, for many foreign speakers of English, this strategy of first name use produces embarrassment caused by seeming over-familiarity.

Involvement strategies and seeming egalitarianism in general are viewed by Americans and British as self-evidently better than the hierarchical and deferent alternatives which are often preferred by certain other language groups in such encounters (which include the use of formal titles, such as Doctor, Professor, Mr. or Mrs.).

Therefore, these involvement strategies are insisted on, so that very often the foreign language user is corrected by the native speaker if she or he uses a more ‘distancing’ [ naming] strategy. This is a misapprehension caused by misunderstanding pragmatic interactional rules employed in countries where ‘participants are considered to be equal but treat each other at a distance’, through using the analogy of the way that formality and distancing generally functions within British or American societies (Scollon and Scollon, 1995:44).

Although it is fairly easy to demarcate the stereotypical linguistic attributes of national groups or cultures, (for example, the Finns are silent, the Dutch are very direct, the British are reserved, Americans are brash, and so on), a reliance on stereotypical features blinds us to the way in which the notion of a homogeneous culture is intensely problematic. As Foley argues: ‘If culture is the domain of cultural practices, those meaning-creating practices by which humans sustain viable trajectories of social structural coupling, it is obvious that culture should not be understood as a unified domain whose contents are shared by all’ (Foley, 1997: 21). One’s national identity is cross-cut by other variables such as class, ethnicity, gender, age, education, income, profession and so on, and these variables determine to a large extent the degree to which you will have access to these stereotypes of national linguistic behavior, or whether you feel affiliated to them - simply put, not everyone feels that they are a stereotypical British person, and therefore they may not feel that they can, or want to, adopt the stereotypical linguistic features of Britishness easily. Thus, a young white working class female shop-assistant may not necessarily feel that she is included in the national characteristics associated with Britishness to the same extent that a white middle class middle-aged businessman might, and therefore their linguistic performance may differ markedly...

... ... ...

If we can provide strategies for intercultural linguistic encounters we can go some way to narrowing down the opportunity for misunderstandings which may lead to utterances being considered to be impolite. At least by considering the various strategies which are available in naming, it forces us to consider the Anglocentric option of first name only use as only one option among many.

Three key components of threatening aspects of conversation

Negative politeness is often used to make a request seem less infringing as people assess threatening aspects of communication using three components:

  1. Social distance,
  2. Relative power
  3. Absolute ranking

From this point of view it is really important to avoid or minimize "face threatening acts" (FTA) in communication.

Minimization of face threatening acts (FTA)

This minimization includes two components:

Here are a table that might clarify (or not :-) some concepts involved:

Focus Preserving Threatening


Concentration on self-image preservation, avoiding direct references on disagreements proposing actions Concentration on disagreements and criticism of other actions

Concrete offers, suggestions, etc without delving into generic issues

Attempt to discuss or address generic issues while proposing actions. Criticisms, sarcasm, humor

Compliments, Thanks, Apologetic language


Autonomy, Deference and regard for territory Concentration on distancing (desire for autonomy) and respect for differences Concentration on involvement , teamwork and common ground

Absence of reaction on emotional outbursts and "emotions leakage"

Empathy and/or overreaction on emotional outbursts

Providing options

providing plans

Ambiguous, deniable, "off record"

Direct, "in your face", "on record"

Negative politeness is often preferable to positive politeness

The main focus in adopting negative politeness is to assume that you may be imposing some restriction on the other, intruding into their social space. Which implicitly increases the awkwardness in the situation and provokes hostility. The methods that allow the opponent to "save face" and at the same time preserve "emotional distance" aka "personal autonomy" include but are not limited to:

Here are variants of the same simple verbal request, varying from "positive, direct" to "negative, indirect":

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How to Be Polite — The Message — Medium

Here’s a polite person’s trick, one that has never failed me. I will share it with you because I like and respect you, and it is clear to me that you’ll know how to apply it wisely: When you are at a party and are thrust into conversation with someone, see how long you can hold off before talking about what they do for a living.

...Politeness buys you time. It leaves doors open.

...People silently struggle from all kinds of terrible things. They suffer from depression, ambition, substance abuse, and pretension. They suffer from family tragedy, Ivy-League educations, and self-loathing. They suffer from failing marriages, physical pain, and publishing.

The good thing about politeness is that you can treat these people exactly the same. And then wait to see what happens. You don’t have to have an opinion. You don’t need to make a judgment. I know that doesn’t sound like liberation, because we live and work in an opinion-based economy. But it is.

Not having an opinion means not having an obligation. And not being obligated is one of the sweetest of life’s riches.

Using Indirectness at Work by Rick Brenner

Although many of us value directness, indirectness does have its place. At times, conveying information indirectly can be a safe way — sometimes the only safe way — to preserve or restore wellbeing and comity within the organization.

We were always direct in all our communications, the world would be a boring place — when it wasn't busy being dangerous and explosive. Many cultures (including my own) value directness, but indirectness has its uses, and we'd all benefit if everyone understood better when to use it.

Uses of indirectness abound. For example, consider the question, "How do you like my new haircut?" Even if we customarily lie, we all recognize the evasive reply, "Interesting..."

Here are just some of the uses of indirectness at work.

Deference to authority
Sometimes deference to authority is essential to survival within the organization, especially when conveying criticism. Indirectness can provide a means to surface important information. Yet, in extreme situations, even indirectness can be risky.
Mitigating the risk of offense
Conveying information to someone directly can risk offense, especially in the absence of a request for it. We can mitigate this risk by asking permission to make the offer, as in, "I have something on that, would you like to hear it?" Even then, some risk does remain. An indirect approach can be a less risky way to offer it. For instance, "If you want some background on that, let me know." We'd all benefit if
everyone understood better
when to use indirectness
Deferring to those in pain
When emotions are raw, and people are hurting, direct approaches are often rejected — if they don't make things even worse. Sometimes it's best to wait for healing, but indirectness can provide a channel for urgent communications.
Maintaining deniability
Sometimes it's necessary to convey information covertly, especially when you work in a politically unsafe environment. Hinting, suggesting, and speaking to be overheard are sometimes used this way. Of course, the lack of safety is fundamental, and it must be addressed, but short-term needs sometimes intervene before you find the long-term solution. Using indirectness for this purpose can be a signal that it's time to either resolve the safety issue or move on.
Preserving or transferring of ownership
When the message recipient must take ownership of the information, delivering the message directly can be problematic. Directness can result in a loss of ownership, or it can interfere with transfer of ownership. Using an indirect approach, such as hinting or speaking to be overheard, leaves the way clear for the recipient to assume ownership.
Leaving space for creativity
Conveying a direct message to problem solvers can bias their process. It can limit their creativity and it can cause them not to examine possibilities that they otherwise would. Indirect suggestions can give them necessary guidance with significantly less risk of biasing or limiting their creative process.

To whatever degree your own culture values indirectness, be assured that in this age of global teams you'll someday encounter someone who considers you overly direct. Prepare for these situations, if you want to be considered polite.

Are you fed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you or a colleague the target of a bully? Destructive conflict can ruin organizations. But if we believe that all conflict is destructive, and that we can somehow eliminate conflict, or that conflict is an enemy of productivity, then we're in conflict with Conflict itself. Read 101 Tips for Managing Conflict to learn how to make peace with conflict and make it an organizational asset.

Politeness Learning to speak 'merican

There are two contrasting aspects to politeness. On the one hand we want to gain the respect of others, and on the other hand, we want the ability to do whatever we want without other people impeding us. So politeness involves both awarding esteem (positive politeness) and not getting in anyone’s way (negative politeness)

AmE employs more positive politeness. Being considerate and courteous involves including people and showing approval with warmth and friendliness. The stereotype of the garrulous American who gives you a run-down of their entire life history within five minutes of meeting them is rooted in this. It’s just not polite to hold back. You’ve got to show solidarity, share and be open.

Meanwhile BrE employs more negative politeness. Being considerate and courteous involves not imposing or intruding on people. The stereotype of the aloof, standoffish and reserved Brit is rooted in this. It’s polite to leave people alone so they can go about their business without your getting in their way.

I’m using the terms ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ here in a technical sense. It’s not that American politeness is good and British politeness is bad. They’re just different, like electric currents can be termed positive or negative without being better or worse than one another. Both aspects of politeness are important in both cultures (and indeed all cultures). But we’re looking at a difference in weighting here.

I maintain that this difference is core to understanding how the UK and US came to be separated by a common language.


In everyday conversation, there are ways to go about getting the things we want. When we are with a group of friends, we can say to them, "Go get me that plate!", or "Shut-up!" However, when we are surrounded by a group of adults at a formal function, in which our parents are attending, we must say, "Could you please pass me that plate, if you don't mind?" and "I'm sorry, I don't mean to interrupt, but I am not able to hear the speaker in the front of the room." I different social situations, we are obligated to adjust our use of words to fit the occasion. It would seem socially unacceptable if the phrases above were reversed.

According to Brown and Levinson, politeness strategies are developed in order to save the hearers' "face." Face refers to the respect that an individual has for him or herself, and maintaining that "self-esteem" in public or in private situations. Usually you try to avoid embarrassing the other person, or making them feel uncomfortable. Face Threatening Acts (FTA's) are acts that infringe on the hearers' need to maintain his/her self esteem, and be respected. Politeness strategies are developed for the main purpose of dealing with these FTA's. What would you do if you saw a cup of pens on your teacher's desk, and you wanted to use one, would you

  1. say, "Ooh, I want to use one of those!"
  2. say, "So, is it O.K. if I use one of those pens?"
  3. say, "I'm sorry to bother you but, I just wanted to ask you if I could use one of those pens?"
  4. Indirectly say, "Hmm, I sure could use a blue pen right now."

There are four types of politeness strategies, described by Brown and Levinson, that sum up human "politeness" behavior: Bald On Record, Negative Politeness, Positive Politeness, and Off-Record-indirect strategy.

Polar Politeness

Psychology Today

Negative politeness is often used to make a request seem less infringing, says David A. Morand, Ph.D., a Pennsylvania State University associate management professor. It can include apologetic language ("Sorry to bother you, but..."), verbal hedges ("I wonder if you could...") and honorific terms like "Dr.". Morand's research, published recently in the Journal of Organizational Behavior, shows that negative politeness is often preferable to positive politeness, which usually begins with a personal question or compliment and assumes that subordinate and boss share common interests, are part of the same team and can operate on familiar terms.

This approach can appear pushy or presumptuous, and "in the workplace, it's important to show deference and regard for territory," Morand says.

While any type of excessive politeness can imply subservience and cause ambiguity, Morand warns, in general, negative politeness verbally disarms a superior. "The communicator isn't just being obsequious," he explains. "It shows that he knows their time is important."


Conversational Interaction: Politeness and Face Management

Conversational implicature: Speakers convey, and hearers interpret, nonliteral meanings. Raises two issues:

  1. Why do people convey nonliteral meanings?
  2. How do hearers determine which specific indirect meaning is intended?

One answer = politeness

Politeness and Language Production

Politeness = theoretical construct to explain link between language use and social context (not lay conception of politeness);

Most popular approach developed by Penelope Brown and Stephen Levinson (1978; 1987); links the major dimensions of social interaction with the ways in which people talk with one other.

Goffman, Face, and Face-work

Goffman (1967), face = "the positive social value a person effectively claims for himself by the line others assume he has taken during a particular contact"; not a specific identity but successful presentation of any identity.

Have face, save face, lost face, etc.

Face is on display (when with others) and must be maintained via Face-work: communications designed to create, support, challenge a line.

Face and face-work provides mechanism for emergence of interaction order out of self-serving individuals. Face-work is cooperative; face can only be given by others, it's in everyone's best interest to maintain face (insults?)

Brown and Levinson's Politeness Theory

Extends Goffman: more precise specification of face and face-work. Face comprised of two universal wants:

Negative face: autonomy; freedom from imposition
Positive face: connection with others

Matches up with Goffman, Durkheim, Bakan, McAdams. Positive and negative face continually threatened (for S and H). Certain acts inherently threatening (cultural variability)

Type of Face-Threat

Negative Face Positive Face

Threat focus:

Hearer Requests Disagreements

Offers Criticisms

Compliments Complaints

Speaker Promises Apologies

Acceptance of offer Emotional leakage

Thanks Compliment acceptance
Multiple threats possible:

Politeness Strategies

Fundamental conflict: interactants motivated to cooperatively manage each others' positive and negative face


interactants want/need to perform social acts inherently threatening to positive and negative face

Fundamental conflict motivates politeness (face-work).

Politeness = deviation from maximally efficient communication (Gricean maxim violations)

To perform an act other than in the most clear and efficient manner is to implicate some degree of politeness on part of speaker

Politeness typology (continuum; extent to which face concerns are encoded)

Least polite

Bald on record Shut the door
No politeness (maximally
efficient communication)

On-record: Positive politeness How about shutting the door
Address positive face wants
(slang, inclusiveness)

On-record: Negative politeness Could you be so kind to shut the door?
Address negative face wants

Off-record politeness It's warm in here
Ambiguous (multiple interp-
retations possible; that's not
what I meant)

Don't perform act

Most polite

Some important distinctions:

Off-record (speaker meaning ambiguous, deniable)
vs. On-record (speaker's intended meaning relatively clear; but not maximally efficient)

Positive politeness (presumptuousness) is less polite than negative politeness (derived from Goffman/Durkhiem ordering of negative rites as more deferential and hence polite than positive rites)

More detail on strategies:

Off-record Politeness. Based on violating Grice's maxims:

  1. quality maxim (say what is true) - sarcastic irony (e.g., "That's brilliant", when it is not), metaphor (e.g., "My job is a jail"), rhetorical questions (e.g., "Did someone leave the light on?"),
  2. manner maxim (be clear) result in the use of euphanisms and vagueness regarding the face-threatening act (e.g., "I wonder who forgot to do the dishes?").
  3. quantity maxim (be as informative as required) can result in understatement (e.g., "It's OK" as a less than positive response to another's new haircut) and overstatement ("The line in the grocery store was a mile long" as an excuse). Also, denying believed propositions (e.g., Ronald Reagan is not an alcoholic) increases belief in proposition.
  4. relation maxim (be relevant) raising an issue can trigger a directive interpretation (e.g., "I'm thirsty" as a request for something to drink). Responses to face-threatening questions (see below)

Problem: inferential processing required?

Negative Politeness. No inference required; oriented to the recipient's negative face (desire for autonomy). Address negative face in some way, primarily by lessening the imposition and/or providing options.

Positive Politeness. No inference required. Approach-based. Stake of a claim for some degree of familiarity with one's interlocutor. Language of intimacy (exaggerated serves to mark the positive politeness that is being conveyed) Positive politeness is also free-ranging and need not (necessarily) address the threat associated with the specific act being performed; it can be used with acts threatening either positive or negative face.

claim common ground



Some support for ordering of superstrategies (in terms of perceived politeness) and for ordering of negative politeness strategies (e.g., Would you x? less polite than Could you x?; former presumes ability). Some cross-cultural evidence

Major exception: Off-record not most polite

Processing effort?

Issues: politeness = indirectness?

Nonverbal politeness?

Positive politeness less polite than negative politeness? (Specificity principle)

Interpersonal Determinants of Politeness

Which politeness strategy will an interactant choose?

Choice depends on weighting of motivation to communicate efficiently (e.g., emergency situations) and motivation to manage face

Greater perceived face-threat (act weightiness) -> greater likelihood for use of more polite strategy

Weightiness =

Wx = D(S,H) + P(H,S) + Rx

D = distance

P = power

Rx = imposition

Variables defined in terms of speaker's perceptions (individual and cultural variability possible)

Power and distance match up well with other views of basic interactional dimensions.


general strategy manipulate one or more of these variables and examine their impact on politeness (ask Ss what they would say or examine what they actually say)

- consistent effects for power variable; increasing levels of politeness associated with increasing levels of hearer power (many speech acts and methods) (e.g., Goguen & Linde)

-fairly consistent support for imposition variable; greater politeness occurring for acts representing a greater imposition (for many speech acts)

-inconsistent findings for relationship; positive, negative, and null relationships reported. Logic is that in unfamiliar relationships (high distance) the potential for aggression is unknown and so interactants must use politeness to signal the lack of an aggressive intent. So, familiarity or liking?

-effects of three variables not additive; as estimates of any one of the three variables become quite large, the effects of the other two variables on politeness become much smaller.

-effects of politeness variability on person perception. Direct perceived more powerful, etc. (Occurs in Korea and U.S.; subtle wording effects)

Status of the Face Concept

Aggressive face-work ; different from lack of politeness (bald on record). How to explain (include aggressive face-work category?)

Overemphasis on hearer's face (at expense of speaker's face); but by supporting the other's face, one is supporting one's own face.

However, sometimes a tradeoff between self-other face (e.g., apologies)

Face as a cultural universal

Politeness continuum not valid cross-culturally (Katriel; Sabra prefer direct)

Relevance of negative politeness only in cultures emphasizing individual autonomy (Western); Rosaldo (1982) Llongot, directives not threatening because they reference group membership and responsibility not individual responsibility

But, cultural variability assumed; politeness theory can be used as framework for examining cultural differences

E.g., cultural differences in weighting interpersonal variables can predict politeness variability; differences in assumptions (e.g., distance) can predict differential levels of politeness.

Major weakness:

Emphasizes (along with speech act theory) single turn or utterance as primary unit of meaning and face-work.

But much face-work and meaning is negotiated and coordinated over a series of moves. Face-work/meaning can be missed if focus on single turn.

Conversation Analysis - (Schegloff, Sacks, Jefferson). Rigorous, atheoretical, inductive, empirical examination of conversational structure.

Some results demonstrate sequential patterning of face-work (authors would disagree with face management interpretation)

For example, pre-sequences (specifically, pre-requests)

(1) A: Doing anything?

(2) B: Nah,

(3) A: Want to look at my computer now?

(4) B: Sure

Analysis (following Levinson): (1) check on potential obstacles; will request succeed? Can avoid making request if likely to not succeed. B can offer following (1), request is avoided altogether

Many other examples: moves to avoid/lessen disagreement; self-disclosure, etc.

Politeness and Language Comprehension

Little research; but if politeness plays a role in production it should also play a role in comprehension

The problem: Given the occurrence of a maxim violation, how do hearers decide the intended, indirect meaning? An infinite number of implicatures are possible.

Interpersonal underpinnings of comprehension:

assume speaker is engaging in face management and interpret remark as conveying face threatening information.

Andy: What did you think of my presentation?

Bob: It's hard to give a good presentation.

Some supportive evidence:

Ss interpret replies as conveying face-threatening information

Difficult to comprehend when situation is altered so that not face- threatening

Note: Positive evidence can be threatening in some situations.



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