being polite

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:

managing tension: autonomy vs. togetherness

We all have the desire to be around other people, especially our significant others. Usually when we first start dating someone, we can't think of doing anything else but spending every waking moment with our new love interest. However, we can sometimes feel overwhelmed or even like we're being suffocated by our loved ones when we spend too much time together. This relational tension has been referred to as the autonomy versus togetherness dialectic (Baxter, 1988, 1990; Rawlins, 1992).

The more time you spend together, the greater your need for independence usually becomes, which can produce stress in your relationship. Problems can also arise when people don't spend enough time with each other. So, what can you do to manage this tension with your partner?

  • First, be sure to never assume that your partner will automatically want to hang out with you and only you, all of the time. People need their space. You may think that spending every free moment with your partner will bring you closer together. But, unfortunately, research has shown that this usually creates stress in a relationship and can even drive two people apart.
  • Second, make sure that each of you have your own separate activities and your own separate groups of friends. This will help each of you feel independent and will likely help you to better appreciate the time that you actually spend together.
On the other hand...

  • Relationships take a lot of work. You can't build a relationship solely on text messages or phone calls. You need to spend face-to-face time together where you learn about each other and do things that both of you like to do.
  • Also, try to make the time that you spend together quality time. Do some fun and interesting activities instead of always watching television or going to the same restaurant together. Click here to get some unique date ideas.

This relational tension is not just about time spent together. Becoming too dependent on your partner can also create stress or arguments in your relationship. While some dependence is warranted and expected in serious relationships (it is important to rely on your partner for some things), relying on your partner for everything can become cumbersome and make your partner feel under appreciated or taken advantage of. Be aware of this tension the next time you need your partner to help you with something. Could you do it by yourself? Do you really need your partner to help you?

So, create emotional bonds with the ones you love without smothering them. Likewise, spend quality time together and periodic time apart. Learning how to balance this tension is important for every successful relationship.

  • Baxter, L. A. (1988). A dialectical perspective on communication strategies in relationship development. In S. Duck (Ed.), Handbook of personal relationships: Theory, research, and interventions (pp. 257- 273). Chichester, England: Wiley.
  • Baxter, L. A. (1990). Dialectical contradictions in relationship development. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 7, 69-88.
  • Rawlins, W. K. (1992). Friendship matters: Communication, dialectics, and the life course. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.

wise love words: cynicism may poison your relationship

While it's not terrible to be a little cynical from time to time, as this interesting article explains, too much cynicism can be quite poisonous to your relationship. Click here to read more about this phenomenon.

Click HERE to read all of my "wise love words" posts
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...