Minding Manners, Saving Face

Today marks the beginning of a new era!

…I mean section. Era might have been a tad over-dramatic. But onward! We’re taking a look at the politeness theory proposed by Penelope Brown and Stephen Levinson – what it is, what it’s all about and how it looks in the real, not just on my page.

Politeness theory falls within the ‘ethical tradition’ of communication theories because it is a universal cultural value, and every day humans attempt to make relationships more comfortable through ‘politeness’.  The primary objective of politeness theory is to ‘save face’, or avoid humiliation.

769fe1464fa8b328195db95b5a76cd92In this context, we’re not just talking about being on your p’s and q’s, we’re talking about face needs. We have this desire to feel appreciated and safe within our communicative environment. There are a number of ways in which we can evaluate the expression of politeness.

  1. When a friend’s relative has died, we often sympathise and offer our condolences for their loss. This is positive politeness, in which express concern for others or minimise damage to self-esteem, and it results in positive face.
  2. Whenever my auntie is visiting from overseas and she comes over to visit my mother she has the most adorable way of asking favours. Well…at least until I hear it a couple times then it isn’t cute anymore. She always says “Cyndi, if I plant you, will you grow?” which is equivalent to asking if I would terribly mind fetching something for her. This is  negative politeness, where we attempt to avoid imposing on someone, in order to satisfy negative face needs.

Face threatening acts (FTAs) refer to situations in which our behaviours fail to meet either face needs. We use FTA’s when imposition is involved. Essentially this means we should try to be polite in the instances face needs might be threatened. Incorrectly delivery of a face threatening act is damaging.

demanding-bossIf you don’t believe me, watch the chefs in Gordon Ramsay’s kitchen. I’ve never been on the set of Hell’s Kitchen but I can’t even watch what happens to them sometimes.

The whole point of politeness theory is to talk abut how politeness in communication helps us feel safe enough to continue communicating with someone. We’ll deal with communication with strangers a bit more over the next two posts or so. But for now, let’s look at some examples.

The How-To’s of Face-Threatening Acts

If I’m going to show you the right ways, I think it best we talk about the wrong way first. 0002.jpg

Has this ever happened to you? You’re sitting comfortably, glad that you’ve finally got some relief to do the more banal things like scroll through your Facebook news-feed and watch funny cat videos…and then someone asks you for something? It’s absolutely annoying, but it happens to the best of us.The couch potato in the comic strip is a great example of how NOT to deliver a face-threatening act.

But why does it bother us so much?

There are other nifty was to ask the same thing, without making the guy at the computer feel like throwing the water on you. (Hey you were thinking it).


Option 1: Give him a compliment, then askComputer Guy equates the completion of the action with being kind. So now, with his positive face needs satisfied, he feels a little more inclined to carry out the request than he did when Couch Potato barefacedly asked.


Option 2: Apologise for the inconvenience you’re causing, then ask. Couch Potato’s acknowledgement of the fact that he is causing some inconvenience seems to be a form of empathy to Computer Guy. Acknowledging the intrusion is likely to satisfy Computer Guy’s negative face needs so he might just do as he was asked.

Option 3: Off-the-record face-threatening acts. Suppose Couch Potato and Computer Guy lived in a house with another person, let’s call her Absent (only because we don’t see her). Couch Potato might say “I wish somebody would get me some water…” or “A glass of water would be nice” or even “Would somebody mind getting me a glass of water?”

These statements are special kind of FTA’s called off the record FTA’s. What they all have in common is that they are FTA’s with a loophole. In all three cases, if Computer Guy or Absent were to respond and say they don’t intend on getting Couch Potato some water, Couch Potato can say “well I didn’t mean you”.

The cheeky fella.

What do we get out of this? Politeness theory is more than just minding your manners, its core value is being considerate of others in the communication process. It looks at the way in which we deal with the short- and long-term effects of communication, and how we attempt to take others’ views – in this case particularly their feelings – into account.


Cyndi, the Theory Analyst


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