Universals in language usage: Politeness phenomena

Citation Brown, S., P.; Levinson. (1978). Universals in language usage: Politeness phenomena. In E. N. Goody (Ed.), (Tran.), Questions and politeness: Strategies in social interaction (56-99, 107, 136, 219). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Sidewiki
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address = {Cambridge},
author = {Brown, P.; Levinson, S},
booktitle = {Questions and politeness: Strategies in social interaction},
date-added = {2012-02-08 10:10:51 -0500},
date-modified = {2012-02-08 10:34:23 -0500},
editor = {Goody, E.N.},
keywords = {Discourse; D&L in M&S -theory},
pages = {56-99, 107, 136, 219},
publisher = {Cambridge University Press},
title = {Universals in language usage: Politeness phenomena},
year = {1978},


My Summary and Insights

Brown and Levinson set out to come up with a formal model of universal verbal interaction strategies. They have made what we have come to know as cultural/communication 'norms', explicit; and have applied a logic to predict which which strategy (i.e. positive politeness, negative politeness, off record) will be chosen, to satisfy the ends. Generally, the least face-threatening strategy is chosen after a rational assessment of face risk to participants. Hence ”'norms' have rational origins”, as my classmate Kenton has inferred.

I find their 3 strategy charts (Figs. 7, 8, 10) to be helpful. This would be a useful logic map to have, if one were creating some sort of Artificial Intelligence (i.e. holographic bots) that were to interact with learners in a way that would motivate them towards more collaborative and constructive knowledge processes.

Links here

Highlights (83%)

Aim #1: They want to come up with universal social principles for "deep functional pressures on the shape of grammars in general". p. 4

Aim #2: They want to show the role of rationality, its mutual assumption by participants, and its role in inferencing beyond words, tone, and gesture. Brown et al. believe rational/logical strategy use is an explanation p. 4

Aim #3: They see "message construction" as the datum of analysis for strategic language use. Message construction is the interface of language and society. Interaction is: (1) expression of social relationships, and (2) built out of strategic language use. p. 4

Aim #4: rebut doctrine of cultural realtivity in the field of interaction. Superficial diversities can emerge from underlying universal principles. p. 4

Paper's aim: describe and account for politeness (as a cross-cultural tool) in discourse and its effects on the quality of social relationships p. 4

Their method involves constructing a Model Person (MP) who is a fluent speaker, and has rationality and face. MP wants to be unimpeded and wants approval p. 5

Overall problem: what assumptions and reasoning are used by participants to produce universal strategies of verbal interaction? They wan to account for the observed cross-cultural similarities underlying polite usage. They hope a formal model that accounts for such cross-cultural similarities will provide reference model for culturally specific usages (so that the quality of social relations in any society can be precisely investigated). p. 5

Strategies of multiple MPs: S=speaker. H=addressee. All MPs have +ve and -ve face, are rational agents (i.e. choose means to satisfy their ends), mutually advantageous to maintain each other's face. FTAs='face threatening acts'. p. 6

Experiment: 3-way, 3 unrelated cultures; 2 MPs p. 6

Redefinition of face. NEGATIVE FACE: every competent adult member's want that his actions be unimpeded by others; politeness of non-imposition. POSITVE FACE: every member's want that his wants be desirable to at least some others (especially others who are relevant to the goal); positive politeness. p. 7

Brown et al. assume that everyone universally is aware of everyone else' face, and the social necessity to orient oneself to it in interaction. p. 7

Assumptions: properties of interactants: (1) everyone wants to claim -ve ("freedom from imposition/distraction") & +ve ("personality") face (public self image), and (2) rational consistent reasoning from ends to the means towards those ends. p. 7

Usually, everyone's face depends on eveyone else's being maintained - this is mutually advantageous. p. 7

Negative politeness is avoidance-based/restraint, reassures the addressee that he won't (or will minimally) be interfered. p. 11

Positive politeness 'annoints' the face of the addressee, indicates S wants what H wants. p. 11

How serious an FTA is can be assessed by these factors: (1) social distance (D) of S & H - symmetric relation, (2) relative power (P) of S & H - asymmetric relation, (3) absolute ranking (R) of impositions in the particular culture. p. 13

Rational face-bearing MPs are predicte to choose to do FTAs that minimize the threat. Hence they'll choose a higher-numberd strategy as the threat increases. As social risk increases, similar choice of strategies are observed. p. 18

Their general schema for deriving actions from goals is a system driven by intentions and motives. System's output is thought-to-sentence process, and has general application. p. 19

3 super strategies: positive politeness, negative politeness, off record. p. 22

4 highest level strategies: bald on record, positive politeness, negative politeness, off record p. 22

"Output strategies: is the final choice of linguistic means to realize the highest goals. p. 22

Face-bearing rational agent will use strategies to minimize tafe threatening attacks (FTAs), according to a rational assessment of the face risk to participants. Inference of the best means to satisfy stated ends. p. 22

Choosing strategic wants to be attained by linguistic means may involve ORGANIZATION and ORDERING of expressing these wants more politely p. 23

The more S communicates his sincere desire that H's face wants are satisfied, the more he shows that he cares for H and H's face. p. 23