Author: Kate Beeching


Politeness theory is currently attracting a great interest amongst scholars and is developing at breakneck speed. Notions of politeness are perhaps best taught using a pincer movement combining intellectual understanding (through linguistics lectures) and practical exercises (in language classes).

Table of contents

1. Introduction

Conventions of politeness vary considerably between language communities, not least in their linguistic form. In most societies, however, there appears to be a correlation between more formal styles and a higher level of overt politeness. Politeness may be defined in a number of ways and will depend on a variety of factors, including the relative age and social distance between speakers, the context, and how well the speakers know one another. Personality traits also enter into the equation. Some speakers are able to drop quickly into informal modes of address and create a relaxed atmosphere while others prefer to keep a certain distance between themselves and their interlocutors. It is probably true to say that it is safer to err on the side of formality with relative strangers, though this is a peculiarly British way of going about things, something which, for example, Greek and Uruguayan Spanish speakers might find over-polite and hence unfriendly (see Sifianou 1999, and Marquez Reiter 2000).

2. Teaching approaches

Notions of politeness are perhaps best tackled in a pincer movement combining intellectual understanding (through linguistics lectures) and practical exercises (in language classes). Second year languages undergraduates at the University of the West of England follow a Language in Society module aimed at preparing them for their year abroad. This raises Intercultural Communication problems, many of which involve conventions of politeness.

A study of address forms (see Holmes 1992:296-310) and the use of the personal pronouns tu/vous; du/Sie; tu/Usted (see Brown & Gilman 1960) forms a practical first exercise in the relationship between politeness and linguistic form. If students learn more than one European language, it will be quickly apparent to them that conventions for tu/Usted differ from tu/vous which, in their turn, differ in their conventional usage from du/Sie. Such variability and the context-dependent nature of what might be considered polite and impolite behaviour makes teaching anything beyond the most rudimentary framework somewhat hazardous.

A most profitable and entertaining hour may be spent exploring lexis marked as taboo in the dictionary - the Collins Robert usefully provides a distinction between words which "should be handled with extreme care" and those which are "highly indecent or offensive which should be avoided by the non-native speaker". Even in academic contexts, however, students will constantly hear phrases such as "Ça me fait chier" ("That really pisses me off"). Paradoxically, usage of ostensibly "highly indecent or offensive" phrases of this nature may serve to break the ice and create an informal atmosphere and rapport with others which should be included as part of our strategies of politeness - but only when we know we are with people that it is unlikely to offend.

It is important for students to be made aware of the sensitive nature of conventions of politeness and the importance of observing custom in the particular contexts in which they conduct their social and work lives in the foreign culture. Most students have a feel for this from their native language but some do not. A case in point, which might serve as a useful introductory gambit, is the anecdote recounted in Mills (2002).

3. Scholarly investigations

Politeness theory is currently attracting great interest amongst scholars and is developing at breakneck speed (see the Web-site of the Linguistic Politeness Research Group, established in 1998, and that of the Sheffield Hallam Working Papers, for up-to-date information). Watts et al. (eds) (1992) provides a good overall introduction to the theme. Brown & Levinson's (1987) theory is still deemed the most satisfactory unifying and universal theory, though interesting critiques have been made of it (e.g. Eelen 2001, Kerbrat-Orecchioni 1997).

Kerbrat-Orechionni (1992) is excellent on politeness in French (and see Beeching (2002) for the use of c'est-à-dire, enfin, hein and quoi). Studies on the differences between English conventions and those in other cultures include Marquez Reiter (2000) for Uruguayan Spanish, Cook (1996) on Portuguese, Sifianou (1999) and Bayraktaroglu & Sifianou (eds) (2001) on Greek and Turkish, and Hendry (1993) on Japanese.


Bayraktaroglu, A. & M. Sifianou (eds) (2001). Linguistic Politeness across Boundaries: The Case of Greek and Turkish. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Beeching, K. (2002). Gender, Politeness and Pragmatic Particles in French. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Brown, P. & S. Levinson (1987). Politeness. Some Universals in Language Usage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Brown, R. & A. Gilman (1960). The Pronouns of Power and Solidarity. In T. A. Sebeok (ed.), Style in Language, 253-76. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

Cook, M. (1996). Translating Forms of Address. The Linguist 35:6.

Eelen, G. (2001). A Critique of Politeness Theories. Manchester: St.Jerome Publishing.

Hendry, J. (1993). Wrapping Culture: Politeness Presentation and Power in Japan and other Societies. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Holmes, J. (1992). Introduction to Sociolinguistics. Harlow/New York: Longman.

Kerbrat-Orecchioni, C. (1992). Les Interactions verbales. Tome II. Paris: Armand Colin.

Kerbrat-Orecchioni, C. (1997). A Multi-level Approach in the Study of Talk-in-
interaction. Pragmatics 7, 1:1-20.

Marquez Reiter, R. (2000). Linguistic Politeness in Britain and Uruguay: A Contrastive Study of Requests and Apologies. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Mills, S. (2002). Rethinking Politeness, Impoliteness and Gender Identity. In L. Litosseliti & J. Sunderland (eds) Gender Identity and Discourse, 69-89. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Sifianou, M. (1999). Politeness Phenomena in England and Greece: A Cross-cultural Perspective. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Watts, R., S. Ide & E. Konrad (eds) (1992). Politeness in Language: Studies in its History, Theory and Practice. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Related links

Linguistic Politeness Research group.
Available at http://www.linguisticpoliteness.eclipse.co.uk

Sheffield Hallam Working papers.
Available at http://www.shu.ac.uk/wpw/politeness

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