Politeness
Readings:
Y. Kachru & L. Smith,
Chapter 3;
Kyung-Ja Park
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The concept of politeness is crucial in any
communication, but particularly in cross cultural
communication
Communication with others must take culture
into consideration
Norms of politeness
vary from culture
to culture
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Politeness in High and Low Context Cultures
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What is meant by a ‘high context message’?
What is meant by a ‘low context message’?
What is meant by a ‘high’ or a ‘low context culture’?
Is the understanding of this concept important? If
so, in what way? If not, why not?
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All languages have devices to indicate
politeness and formality.
◦ Linguistic markers of status, deference,
humility
◦ Posture, facial expressions, gestures, etc.
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Politeness is closely
tied to cultural values.
One must know the
cultural values in order
to function successfully
in a society.
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Face
Status
Rank
Role
Power
Age
Sex
Social Distance
Intimacy
Kinship
Group membership
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The public self-image that every member
wants to claim for him/herself
Negative face – the claim to freedom of
action and freedom from
imposition.
Positive face –
the positive
self-image of the
conversation
partners.
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Negative face-threatening speech acts threaten
to restrict addressee’s freedom of action or
freedom from imposition
◦ Could you lend me $100 until next month?
◦ If I were you, I’d consult a doctor. That sounds serious.
◦ You’re so lucky to have such a good job!
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Positive face-threatening speech acts threaten
the positive self-image of the addressee by
signaling undesirable qualities or disagreement
◦ Wasn’t that report due today?
◦ I’m not sure I agree with your interpretation of that.
◦ ‘Mabel thinks you have put on some weight.’
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Are all requests considered threatening to the
negative face of the interlocutor(s) in other
cultures?
Are all less-than-positive comments about
one’s appearance considered threatening to
the positive fact of the interlocutor(s) in other
cultures?
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‘… a collection of rights and duties’
‘… hierarchy and position in a system of roles’
General Rule: The higher the status, the more
politeness from the lower status participant
◦ Japanese Politeness Assignment
Rule: If the speaker is lower in
social status that the hearer, then
the utterance has to be polite. If the
speaker is higher in social status than
the hearer but is lower than the
subject of the sentence he is
uttering, then the utterance has to be
polite.
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Rank: A hierarchical organization with reference
to a social institution.
◦ One’s rank often serves as the
term of address
◦ One’s rank often cues the level of
politeness required.
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Cultures vary as to which relationships
are treated as rank relationships and
which ones are treated as status
relationships
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Role refers to the less institutionalized position
one assumes in some interaction
◦ Host/guest
◦ Captain/team
◦ Etc.
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Power: The ability to impose one’s will on others
Sometimes high status and high power don’t
coincide
◦ Constitutional monarchy
In Britain, Japan, Thailand,
special terms of address &
other markers of polite
language use signal the
monarch’s high status &
power.
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The relative ages of the
speaker and the hearer
determine how politeness is
expressed
In many speech communities ,
a younger person may not
address an older person by his/her name, even if the
younger person is of higher status. In Thailand, even
among close friends & casual acquaintances, the
younger person uses a term of respect in addressing
the older.
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Sex or gender differences
exist in all cultures with
respect to polite language
◦ In general, women’s speech is supposed to be more
polite.
◦ In many cultures, men’s speech is constrained in the
presence of women.
◦ Sex differences take precedence over intimacy in malefemale interaction.
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Social distance is a factor affecting politeness.
 Social distance is linked to
intimacy.
The more intimate the
participants are, the less social
distance between them. The
more intimate , the less polite they are to each
other
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Of participants – significant
others
Of setting – boss/employee
at a bar-be-cue
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The relationship between
participants determines
what linguistic features are used.
India: use of honorific / plural
forms of pronouns to address
or refer to parents-in-law
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In some societies, group membership is
important in determining what politeness
strategies are used.
◦ Japan: certain honorifics used with out-group
members only; others for in-group
◦ AAE: signifying & marking
 Marking: narrator affects the voice
mannerisms of
the speaker in the
story
 Signifying: ‘I see you
got your furniture
rearranged.’
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Cultural values determine which parameters
(i.e., face, status, rank, role, power, age, sex,
social distance, intimacy, kinship, group
membership) interact with each other, and
which ones are weighted more heavily in
comparison with the others.
Pronouns of address
◦ Romance languages - ‘tu’ vs. ‘vous’ forms
◦ Thai – use of pronouns for ‘I’ and ‘you’ depends on
status, rank, age, sex, social distance/intimacy &
kinship/group membership
‘I’
phŏm/dichăîn
chăn
uáʔ
kuu
rau
kháu
phîi
nǔu
etc.
‘you’
khun
thəə
lur
mɨŋ
kææ
nɔɔŋ
naay
than
etc.
Honorifics
◦ Japanese
 Yamada ga musuko to syokuzi o tanosinda.
 Speaker H, referent & son L
 Yamada-san ga musuko-san to o-syokuzi o tanosim-are-ta.
 Speaker L, referent & soon H
 Yamada-san ga musuko to o-syokuzi o tanosim-are-ta.
 Speaker & son L, referent H
“Yamada enjoyed dinner with (his/my) son.”
◦ German –
 ‘Herr Doktor Professor Hűbner’
◦ English
 ‘Honorable,’ ‘Respected,’ ‘Sir,’ ‘Excellency’
Kinship terms
 In many Asian languages, kinship terms are
often used for people unrelated to the
speaker:
Uncle / aunt
Older sibling
Younger sibling
etc.
Set formulas
 Arabic
◦ Alla maʔak = ‘God be with you’
◦ Alla yihfazak = ‘God preserve you’
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Hindi
◦ Praņaaam
◦ Xuš raho
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Korean
◦ ‘Where are you going?’
◦ ‘Just over there.’
Plurals
 In many languages (e.g., Russian, Czech, SerboCroatian, some dialects of Polish), plurals may be
used to show politeness when addressing a single
person.
ŋ
Questions
 In some societies,
questions are used to
express politeness,
e.g. Inner Circle Englishspeaking
cultures.
‘Could you tell me the time?’
Indirect speech acts
◦ ‘It’s cold in here.’
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In Bengali, requests are sometimes made through
plain statements, e.g., in a clothing shop …
◦ Aamaar šarţ dorkaar
‘I need a shirt.’
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In some cultures, talk about some unrelated topic
is first indulged in before the real subject is
mentioned.
Topicalization and focus
 In English, topicalization and focus can effect
the degree of politeness.
◦ ‘If you DON’T MIND my asking, where did you get
that dress?
◦ ‘WHERE did you get that dress, if you don’t mind my
asking?’
Which is more polite sounding? Why?
Effort
 The greater the effort expended in facemaintaining linguistic behavior, the greater the
politeness,
E.g., ‘I wouldn’t dream of it since I know you are very
busy, but I am simply unable to do
it myself, so ….’
Is this a universal tendency?
Use of ‘little’
 Many languages use the phrase ‘a little’ to
convey the meaning carried by English
‘please’ in imperatives.
◦ Japanese ‘chotto’
◦ Thai ‘nooy’
◦ Milwaukee-ese ‘once’
(as in ‘Come here once’)
Hedges
 Linguistic devices by which a speaker avoids
statements that are considered too strong.
◦ Hedges are used to reduce friction in that they leave the
way open for the respondent to disagree with the
speaker and the speaker to retreat.
◦ ‘Doc, Sleepy and Grumpy
are sorta short.’
Gaze, gesture, & body posture
 Japanese bow, exchange business cards with two
hands
 Thais wai, avoid touching the head
 The ‘ok’ sign can mean
◦ Money (Japan)
◦ Zero (France)
◦ An obscene comment
(Greece)
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What value system is Korea English rooted in?
What are the characteristics of that value
system?
How do those values manifest themselves in
Korea English?
What are the implications for international
business transactions?
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Implications for doing business in a global
economy - China
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