Have you ever wondered why some people are so polite? I have. Living in the Midwest and the South, I’ve encountered more polite people over the last five years than I previously had during the rest of my life living on the East Coast. From always holding doors open for others to sending thank you cards for anything and everything to going out of one’s way to make sure that everyone at a party is having a good time, politeness is everywhere in these parts of the country. And it's a good thing too, since politeness has been shown to be an important communicative strategy that people use to maintain their relationships with others. (Don’t get me wrong; I’m not an anti-politeness activist- I actually really appreciate polite people. I’m just not used to so many polite people all at once.)
So, why are people polite? In the late 1970s, researchers Brown and Levinson developed a formal theory of politeness that is used to explain when and how we communicate politely with others. Central to this theory is the notion that individuals are polite in order to support or save the face of others. Face has been defined as the public image that an individual wants to project to others (Goffman, 1967; Lim & Bowers, 1991). Facework, then, is the process of managing threats to an individual’s face in social situations in order to minimize those threats (Goffman, 1967). More specifically, facework has been referred to as “the communicative strategies one uses to enact self-face and to uphold, support, or challenge another person's face” (Masumoto, Oetzel, Takai, Ting-Toomey, & Yokochi, 2000, p. 398).
For instance, let’s say that Alaina wants to project a face (a public image) that she is a generous person. Now, let’s say that her boyfriend James threatens Alaina’s face by saying in front of others that Alaina never volunteers at any of the community non-profit organizations. Alaina may then enact a communication strategy like claiming ignorance or scapegoating (Scott & Lyman, 1968) to maintain her face. Additionally, Alaina’s best friend Violet, may also try to help save Alaina’s face through the use of various face-saving strategies. This is known as facework.
As explained, politeness theory (Brown & Levinson, 1978, 1987) states that individuals can use politeness when engaging in facework.
According to this theory, when individuals are deciding when to be polite, they tend to take three things into consideration:
- First, people are more likely to be polite to others they are not very close with. Individuals are not as likely to be polite with close friends or family. Instead, individuals tend to be polite with strangers or other people who they are socially distant from such as bus drivers, cashiers, or postal carriers.
- Second, Brown and Levinson (1978; 1987) claim that people are also more likely to be polite with others who have more power than them. For instance, an individual is more likely to be polite with his or her boss as opposed to a co-worker.
- Lastly, when individuals want to be polite, they are more likely to make small requests of others instead of large requests, which tends to be considered impolite.
When individuals are deciding how to be polite to others, they tend to use two main types of facework: positive facework and negative facework.
- Positive facework strategies involve situations where people are attempting to protect their partner’s desire to be evaluated positively and liked by others (Brown & Levinson, 1978; 1987). For example, Alaina may compliment James in front of their friends so that he can feel liked and accepted by them.
- On the other hand, negative facework is an individual’s attempt to alleviate any feelings of force within his or her partner to maintain or restore their autonomy (Brown & Levinson, 1978; 1987). Here, Alaina may tell James that she is going to leave a party early, but that he shouldn’t make his plans about leaving based on her. This way, she’s not forcing James to stay at a party for longer than he may want to.
Another principle of politeness theory states that people try to avoid face-threatening situations so that they can continue to be polite. For instance, Goldsmith (2007) discovered that individuals can threaten an individual’s positive face (i.e. a desire to be socially accepted) by criticizing them or complaining to them in front of others, whereas individuals can threaten individuals' negative face (i.e. a desire to maintain or restore autonomy) by giving unwanted advice or making requests, especially substantial requests, of them. Polite individuals will either try to avoid situations where someone’s face could be threatened or try to still be polite when communicating in a face-threatening situation. Let’s imagine that James has gotten drunk at a party and is acting inappropriate. According to Goldsmith (2007), his girlfriend, Alaina, can react to this situation in a variety of ways. Ranging from most to least polite, Alaina can either do nothing, hint to James that he is being inappropriate, or even yell at James by telling him that he has to leave the party due to his inappropriateness.
What does all of this have to do with your relationship? Saving your partner's face by being polite in front of others can enhance feelings of trust and togetherness in your relationship. Also, try to avoid threatening your partner's face by not complaining about them or not telling your partner to do things in front of others.
So, be polite. You may be able to save your face or the face of someone you love.
- Brown, P., & Levinson, S. (1978). Universals in language usage: Politeness phenomena. In E. Goody (Ed.), Questions and politeness. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Brown, P. & Levinson, S. (1987). Politeness: Some universals in language usage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Goffman, E. (1967). Interaction ritual. Garden City, NY: Doubleday Anchor.
- Lim, T.S., & Bowers, J.W. (1991). Facework: Solidarity, approbation, and tact. Human Communication Research, 17, 415-450.
- Masumoto, Tomoko, Oetzel, John G., Takai, Jiro, Ting-Toomey, Stella, & Yokochi, Yumiko (2000). A typology of facework behaviors in conflicts with best friends and relative strangers. Communication Quarterly, 4, 397.
- Scott, M. B., & Lyman, S. M. (1968). Accounts. American Sociological Review, 33, 46-62.
For more information about being polite, see the following resources: