Defining politeness: Universality in appropriateness (2022)

Table of Contents
Language Sciences Abstract References (69) Journal of Pragmatics Journal of Pragmatics Journal of Pragmatics Journal of Pragmatics Journal of Pragmatics Journal of Pragmatics Journal of Pragmatics A Comparative Study of Politeness Phenomena in Nigerian English, Yoruba and Ogori Multilingua Politeness Revisited: Cross-Modal Supportive Strategies IRAL An Investigation of Compliance-gaining as Politeness Human Communication Research Language and Social Knowledge: Uncerainty in Interpersonal Relations What's the Magic Word: Learning Language Through Politeness Routines Discourse Processes Symbolic Representation and Attentional Control in Pragmatic Competence Indirectness and Politeness in Requests: Same or Different? Journal of Pragmatics Playing it Safe: The Role of Conventionality in Indirectness The Metapragmatics of Politeness in Israeli Society Terms of Address Linguistic Change in Intonation: The Use of High Rising Terminals in New Zealand English Language Variation and Change How and Why are Women More Polite: Some Evidence from a Mayan Community Universals in Language Usage: Politeness Phenomena Politeness: Some Universals in Language Usage Höflichkeit im Englischen Linguistik und Didaktik Feminism and Linguistic Theory Politeness in Context: Intergenerational Issues Language in Society The Discourse of Requests: Assessment of a Politeness Approach Human Communications Research Cultural Meaning Systems On the Historicity of Politeness The Association of Deference with Linguistic Form International Journal of the Sociology of Language Interaction Ritual Culture, Language and Society Gender Voices The Totalitarian Ego American Psychologist Toward a Typology of Politeness Strategies in Communicative Interaction Multilingua Beziehungsarbeit und Konversationsanalyse am Beispiel eines Bittgesprächs Folia Linguistica Cited by (40) Recommended articles (6) FAQs Videos

RegisterSign in


  • Access throughyour institution

Language Sciences

Volume 17, Issue 4,

October 1995

, Pages 345-356


The definition of politeness and the claims for universals have shown considerable divergence and lack of clarity as they have received increased attention since Brown and Levinson's (1978, 1987) proposed framework. This paper re-examines relevant literature relating to politeness in an attempt to bring some order to the issue and argues for a view of politeness as appropriate behavior, which provides a basis for a broader claim for universals and reduces the danger of ethnocentricism.

References (69)

  • A. WierzbickaDifferent Cultures, Different Languages, Different Speech Acts

    (Video) Is Politeness A Universal Concept?

    Journal of Pragmatics


  • Y. MatsumotoReexamination of Face

    Journal of Pragmatics


  • G. KasperLinguistic Politeness

    Journal of Pragmatics


  • B. Hill et al.Universals of Linguistic Politeness

    Journal of Pragmatics


  • Y. GuPoliteness Phenomena in Modern Chinese

    Journal of Pragmatics


  • B. FraserPerspectives on Politeness

    Journal of Pragmatics


  • S. Blum-KulkaYou Don't Touch Lettuce With Your Fingers: Parental Politeness in Family Discourse

    Journal of Pragmatics


  • E. Adegbija

    A Comparative Study of Politeness Phenomena in Nigerian English, Yoruba and Ogori



  • H. Arndt et al.

    Politeness Revisited: Cross-Modal Supportive Strategies



  • L. Baxter

    An Investigation of Compliance-gaining as Politeness

    Human Communication Research


  • C.R. Berger et al.

    Language and Social Knowledge: Uncerainty in Interpersonal Relations


  • G.J. Berko et al.

    What's the Magic Word: Learning Language Through Politeness Routines

    Discourse Processes


  • E. Bialystok

    Symbolic Representation and Attentional Control in Pragmatic Competence

  • S. Blum-Kulka

    Indirectness and Politeness in Requests: Same or Different?

    Journal of Pragmatics


  • S. Blum-Kulka

    Playing it Safe: The Role of Conventionality in Indirectness

  • S. Blum-Kulka

    The Metapragmatics of Politeness in Israeli Society

  • F. Braun

    Terms of Address


  • D. Britain

    Linguistic Change in Intonation: The Use of High Rising Terminals in New Zealand English

    Language Variation and Change


  • P. Brown

    How and Why are Women More Polite: Some Evidence from a Mayan Community

  • P. Brown et al.

    Universals in Language Usage: Politeness Phenomena

  • P. Brown et al.

    Politeness: Some Universals in Language Usage


  • W. Bublitz

    Höflichkeit im Englischen

    Linguistik und Didaktik


  • D. Cameron

    Feminism and Linguistic Theory


  • N. Coupland et al.

    Politeness in Context: Intergenerational Issues

    (Video) Politeness & Face Theory by Brown and Levinson - Pragmatics

    Language in Society


  • R.T. Craig et al.

    The Discourse of Requests: Assessment of a Politeness Approach

    Human Communications Research


  • R. D'Andrade

    Cultural Meaning Systems

  • K. Ehlich

    On the Historicity of Politeness

  • B. Fraser et al.

    The Association of Deference with Linguistic Form

    International Journal of the Sociology of Language


  • E. Goffman

    Interaction Ritual


  • W.H. Goodenough

    Culture, Language and Society


  • D. Graddol et al.

    Gender Voices


  • A.G. Greenwald

    The Totalitarian Ego

    American Psychologist


  • H. Haverkate

    Toward a Typology of Politeness Strategies in Communicative Interaction



  • G. Held

    Beziehungsarbeit und Konversationsanalyse am Beispiel eines Bittgesprächs

    Folia Linguistica


  • Cited by (40)

    • The Principle of (Im)politeness Reciprocity

      2021, Journal of Pragmatics

      Despite featuring prominently in religions and legal frameworks, and being discussed by anthropologists and sociologists in relation to rights and obligations in society, reciprocity has not received the attention it deserves in the (im)politeness literature. This article proposes and defines the Principle of (Im)politeness Reciprocity, which concerns the (mis)matching of (im)politeness across participants in interaction – something which can be construed in terms of a debit-credit balance sheet. We claim that this principle, driven by morality, is a fundamental mechanism in shaping (im)politeness in interaction and triggering the search for (im)politeness implicatures. We show how it impacts on various kinds of (im)politeness and interacts with context, especially power. The latter part of the article, focusing on requestive exchanges, is more quantitative in orientation, involving studies based on informant testing and corpus analysis. These reveal, for example, that (im)politeness matching is by far the most common interaction, that mismatches are perceived as clear deviations, and that certain kinds of (mis)matching are associated with specific contexts (e.g. school classroom interaction is associated with downward shifts from polite to less polite). Finally, we briefly discuss future research avenues.

    • Emancipating Chinese (im)politeness research: Looking back and looking forward

      2021, Lingua

      Chinese data have been frequently used as a testing ground of Western theories of (im)politeness. While making significant progress, most of the existing studies still concentrate on the dominant Confucianist social norms and analyze a limited number of variants of face-to-face and mediated interactional contexts. By adopting an emancipatory approach to (im)politeness research, we seek to broaden the scope of Chinese (im)politeness research. In this paper, we review the major studies of Chinese (im)politeness published in English and Chinese outlets from the emancipation of theories of (im)politeness, research methods, and contextual variations. The results show evidence for both the Same Position and the Different Position in the East-West debate at various levels of analysis. We argue that scholars should further examine underlying assumptions held by researchers and interlocutors, constructing generalized models for contrastive analysis and seeking for cross-fertilization between Chinese and Western politeness theories.

    • Why do people take offence? Exploring the underlying expectations

      2016, Journal of Pragmatics

      For example, Lakoff's (1989) continuum of ‘polite’, ‘non-polite’ and ‘rude’ language is heavily based on expectations concerning politeness rules. Similarly, Meier (1996: 352) maintains that “politeness can only be judged relative to a particular context and to particular addressees’ expectations, and as such is part of utterance meaning rather than sentence meaning.” By the same token, Mills (2003: 145) contends that “impoliteness can be attributed to someone because of a mismatch of expectations.”

      The principal motivation for this study is to (i) analyse the types of expectations underlying people's evaluation of an act or behaviour as offensive and (ii) explore the various social and cultural factors that inform these expectations. Drawing on a corpus of 150 diary report forms written by Persian-speaking informants, the study revealed seven different, yet interrelated, expectations the unrealisation of which had led to taking of offence. In order to identify how these expectations are shared across a speech community, from each category of expectations two examples were randomly given to 100 new participants. As the retrospective comments revealed, while the expectations identified do exist in the speech community under investigation, they are not equally shared across all members. The ongoing tension between heterogeneity and homogeneity of these expectations can be explained by referring to both cognitive and relational bases of expectations.

      (Video) Brown and Levinson's 4 Universal Politeness Strategies
    • Implications of a changing workforce and workplace for justice perceptions and expectations

      2015, Human Resource Management Review

      Norms for interpersonal fairness (i.e. how one is treated by authorities) can vary across social groups. Although it seems intuitive that all cultures, genders, ethnicities and religions value being treated politely and with respect (Meier, 1995), different groups may define those aspects of interpersonal justice differently. For example, individuals from more talkative cultures may view individuals from less talkative cultures as uncooperative during communications (Tannen, 1983) and women tend to engage in longer conversations than men (Friebel & Seabright, 2011), potentially leading them to see a person in authority as disrespectful or impolite if he or she engages only in a short conversation when discussing a decision.

      We forecast how HRM practice and HR research on fairness in the workplace will need to change in light of several specific global workplace trends, namely, increases in workplace diversity and globalization, technology mediated relationships, individualized psychological contracts, and service-related jobs. After describing these trends, we illustrate how the meaning of fairness and worker expectations regarding fairness may be changing in response. We further discuss how those changes will impact HR management.

    • Commenting on YouTube rants: Perceptions of inappropriateness or civic engagement?

      2014, Journal of Pragmatics

      “Inappropriate” behavior has been defined as the same as or different from “impoliteness.” To some scholars, “inappropriate behavior is not always impolite,” (Culpeper, 2012; Schneider, 2012:1026) while for others they are interchangeable terms (Meier, 1995). The definition of inappropriate behavior may be inferred from researchers’ nearly tautological descriptions that equate it with behavior that insiders deem as not appropriate for a specific interactive context (Culpeper, 2012; Schneider, 2012).

      Ranting is often conflated with flaming and hating, which are frequently interpreted as inappropriate forms of online interaction. Scholars have categorized rants, which contain emotional criticisms of something or someone, as “anti-social” (Vrooman, 2002). However, scholars are moving away from universal interpretations of inappropriateness, and now engage in contextual analyses of online behavior. The present study examines a random sample of 330 text comments (drawn from a pool of 13,609 comments) that were posted across 35 rant videos on YouTube. Ranters describe numerous technical and social problems with the video-sharing site. But how are rant videos received on YouTube? Do commenters characterize them as inappropriate? Do rants stimulate productive discussion or do most commenters prefer to express emotional support for the ranter? Rather than displaying personal offense, numerous commenters discussed how problems with YouTube were being publicly revealed in video rants. Such issues are particularly relevant, as expectations about communicative norms are being proposed and contested in new media sites (Markham, 2011). This study argues that under the right circumstances, ranting helps construct an emotional public sphere (Lunt and Stenner, 2005) that generates discussion among similarly concerned YouTube participants about their online communicative rights and privileges.

    • (Im)politeness: Three issues

      2012, Journal of Pragmatics

    View all citing articles on Scopus

    Recommended articles (6)

    • Research article

      Impoliteness in polylogal interaction: Accounting for face-threat witnesses’ responses

      Journal of Pragmatics, Volume 53, 2013, pp. 112-130

      Though, in recent years, impoliteness research has embraced a view of impoliteness as dynamically co-constructed in interaction, the role of impoliteness in polylogal discourse is still in need of further examination. Drawing from a corpus of naturally occurring classroom discourse, this paper uses a genre approach (Garcés-Conejos Blitvich, 2010a, Garcés-Conejos Blitvich, 2010b, Garcés-Conejos Blitvich, 2010c) to examine the role of face-threat witnesses in small-group discussion practices among adolescents. Our research shows that face-threat witnesses respond to impoliteness in complex and dynamic ways that are integral to the co-construction of impoliteness, and that would have been missed entirely if the focus of our analysis had been purely dyadic. In view of our findings, we propose a refinement of extant models of response options (Culpeper et al., 2003, Bousfield, 2007, Bousfield, 2008) that incorporates the response options available to face-threat witnesses, thus moving beyond the dyad. Accounting for the multifunctionality of impoliteness in polylogal interaction allows for an understanding of impoliteness as constitutive, not just disruptive, of social life. With further application, our proposed refinement of extant models can help expand research that examines manifestations of impoliteness in a wide range of (non)institutional, polylogal discourse.

    • Research article

      (Video) ENG 595 Politeness

      Impoliteness and taking offence in initial interactions

      Journal of Pragmatics, Volume 86, 2015, pp. 36-42

      The notion of “offence” lies at the core of current models of impoliteness. Yet is also well acknowledged that being impolite is not necessarily the same thing as being offended. In this paper, it is suggested that previous work on causing offence (Culpeper, 2011) can be usefully complemented by an analysis of taking offence. It is proposed that taking offence can be productively examined with respect to a model of (im)politeness as interactional social practice (Haugh, 2015). On this view, taking offence is analysed in part as a social action in and of itself, which means those persons registering or sanctioning offence in an interaction, whether explicitly or implicitly, can themselves be held morally accountable for this taking of offence. It is further suggested that taking offence as a form of social action can be productively theorised as a pragmatic act which is invariably situated with respect to particular activity types and interactional projects therein (Culpeper and Haugh, 2014). This position is illustrated by drawing from analyses of initial interactions amongst speakers of (American and Australian) English who are not previously acquainted. It is suggested that ways in which taking offence are accomplished both afforded and constrained by the demonstrable orientation on the part of participants to agreeability in the course of getting acquainted.

    • Research article

      Theorising disagreement

      Journal of Pragmatics, Volume 44, Issue 12, 2012, pp. 1549-1553

      This collection of papers on disagreement adds new theoretical and methodological insights. It brings together interest in opposition in discourse with research on relational issues, traditionally discussed in work on identity construction and im/politeness research. We propose that the following observations in an attempt to systematically approach the understanding of disagreement: a) expressing opposing views is an everyday phenomenon; b) certain practices are prone to contain disagreement so that this speech act is expected rather than the exception; for example, they are in fact a sine qua non in decision making and problem solving talk in either ever day or professional contexts; other practices and contexts are less tolerant of the expression of disagreement; c) disagreeing cannot be seen as an a priori negative act; communities and groups of people have developed different norms over time which influence how disagreement is perceived and enacted; d) as in all language usage, the ways in which disagreement is expressed - and not only its occurrence per se - will have an impact on relational issues (face-aggravating, face-maintaining, face-enhancing); at the same time, expectations about how disagreement is valued in a particular practice will influence what forms participants choose. Against this backdrop, the aim of this special issue is to revisit the existing body of research on disagreement and to probe further in a variety of contexts in five papers and an epilogue to contribute to the debate of the impact of the context/medium on the interaction, the role of im/politeness in disagreements, the notion of ‘appropriateness’ in talk and the theorising of disagreement in general.

    • Research article

      Persian honorifics and im/politeness as social practice

      Journal of Pragmatics, Volume 85, 2015, pp. 81-91

      Im/politeness has recently been conceptualized in terms of evaluations that not only arise in social practice but also form a social practice (Haugh, 2013, Kádár and Haugh, 2013). This necessitates the analysis of politeness to go beyond the analysis of language to the analysis of social actions and meanings. This paper examines the role of Persian honorifics (the language which is conventionally associated with politeness) in the im/politeness evaluations that arise in localized interactions. Conversation Analysis is used to analyze two cases of honorifics-included social interactions in Persian. The implications for im/politeness theory are discussed in conclusion.

    • Research article

      Boundary conditions of the politeness effect in online mathematical learning

      Computers in Human Behavior, Volume 92, 2019, pp. 419-427

      Higher mathematics is an obligatory subject for most students at technical universities and is especially difficult to understand. Many multimedia studies have shown that politeness in instructions and feedback can enhance learning outcomes. Thus, this study aimed to investigate if politeness could improve the learning performance of students in an online mathematics course that was presented within a year. In our experiment, 277 students were randomly assigned to a 2 (politeness in instructions; polite vs. direct) × 2 (politeness in feedback; polite vs. direct) factorial between-subjects design. The learning material consisted of four chapters of higher mathematics and four post-tests. Unexpectedly, politeness in instructions did not influence the results. Furthermore, groups receiving polite feedback spent more time on the exercises in the chapters and achieved higher scores in chapters and post-tests. In sum, politeness in feedback influenced learning positively, but politeness in instructions did not have any influence.

    • Research article

      The dynamics of politeness: An experimental account

      Journal of Pragmatics, Volume 185, 2021, pp. 118-130

      What are the underlying mechanisms driving linguistic politeness? While opposing theoretical positions have argued for either strategic or socio-normative motivations for politeness, we propose to approach these as complementary components in an adaptive communicative process, in which individual strategic choices and collective requirements for social cohesion modulate each other. To substantiate these claims, we designed a laboratory experiment where pairs of human participants request objects from an ‘alien intelligence’ in an artificial laboratory language and compete for resources with simulated alien agents. Our findings suggest that both the functionality of politeness markers (i.e. the extent to which markers were associated with the probability of reward) and the relationships between agents (i.e. competitiveness between players) were predictive of participants' propensity to adapt to politeness markers in their linguistic environment and use them to win the game. While functionality was the stronger predictor of the two, the usage of politeness markers was found to increase in perfectly non-functional contexts, as long as participants were competing against each other. In addition, the experimental manipulations were found to affect participants' intuitions about the meaning of the alien politeness markers. We posit that this conceptual and experimental framework can inform fundamental discussions in politeness research.

      (Video) Politeness: An introduction

    View full text

    Copyright © 1996 Published by Elsevier Ltd.


    What are the two types of politeness? ›

    Positive and Negative Politeness

    Both types of politeness involve maintaining--or redressing threats to--positive and negative face, where positive face is defined as the addressee's 'perennial desire that his wants . . .

    What is politeness theory in discourse analysis? ›

    The Politeness theory is a theory that appeared within the framework of pragmatic approach in linguistics. According to this theory the interlocutors use particular strategies in order to achieve successful communication. These strategies enable to create maximally comfortable environment for communication.

    What does politeness mean in linguistics? ›

    Linguistic politeness can be defined as the ways in which language is employed in conversation to show consideration for the feelings and desires of one's interlocutors, to create and uphold interpersonal relationships (so-called politic behavior), and to comply with the rules for what society or one's culture ...

    What is politeness theory by Brown and Levinson? ›

    Politeness theory, proposed by Penelope Brown and Stephen C. Levinson, centers on the notion of politeness, construed as efforts on redressing the affronts to a person's self-esteems of effectively claiming positive social values in social interactions.

    What are the 4 politeness strategies? ›

    In order to maintain and save person's face, people are supposed to use politeness strategies. Brown and Levinson (1987) suggest that there are four types of politeness strategies. They are bald on-record, negative politeness, positive politeness, and off-record strategy.

    What are the different types of politeness? ›

    There are four types of politeness strategies: bald on record, positive politeness, negative politeness, and off record. Each strategy of politeness is used differently based on the situations surrounded both of the speaker and the hearer.

    What is politeness and examples? ›

    Politeness is defined as behaving in a socially acceptable way with proper manners and etiquette. When you stand up to greet guests as they enter a room and you keep your elbows off the table during dinner, this is an example of politeness.

    Why is politeness theory important? ›

    Politeness theory maintains the universality of an individual's positive and negative face wants in all cultures. During everyday interaction, individuals often perform actions that threaten face. They therefore use politeness strategies to mitigate face threats.

    What is the importance of politeness? ›

    Politeness can and will improve your relationships with others, help to build respect and rapport, boost your self-esteem and confidence, and improve your communication skills.

    How is politeness defined in pragmatics? ›

    Politeness comprises linguistic and non-linguistic behavior through which people indicate that they take others' feelings of how they should be treated into account.

    What is the origin of politeness? ›

    Origins of Politeness

    Historically, traces of the English term 'polite' can be found in the 15th century. Etymologically, however, it derives from late Medieval Latin politus meaning 'smoothed and accomplished'. The term 'polite' was synonymous with concepts such as 'refined', 'polished' when people were concerned.

    Who was the first to introduce the politeness theory? ›

    In most of the studies, the politeness has been conceptualized especially as strategic conflict- avoidance or as strategic construction of cooperative social interaction (Watts, 2003:47). The most seminal theory of politeness was first introduced in 1978 by Brown and Levinson.

    How do you use politeness theory? ›

    First, the speaker can notice and attend to the hearer's wants, interests, needs, or goods. Second, the speaker can exaggerate his/her interest, approval or sympathy with the hearer. Third, the speaker can demonstrate an intensified interest to the hearer.

    When was politeness theory introduced? ›

    The theory reviewed in this article was first developed in 1978 by Penelope Brown and Steven Levinson. It was published as an article in the journal 'Questions and politeness: Strategies in social interaction' (Brown & Levinson, 1978). Later, it was issued as an independent book in 1987 (Brown & Levinson, 1987).

    Why is politeness important in communication? ›

    Politeness gets your message delivered and responded to in the ways you want. When you communicate with courtesy and with a posture that seeks a positive outcome, that will likely get your message across without push back or dismissal. A polite person (or company) will have a stronger, more persuasive brand.

    What is politeness and interaction? ›

    In term of interaction, politeness can defined as the means employe4d to show awareness for another person's face. Showing awareness for another person's face when that other seems socially distant is often described in terms of respect or deference. Politeness occurs in interaction.

    What are the parameters of politeness? ›

    Blum-Kulka assumes that there are four parameters or factors that influence the understanding of the notion of politeness: social motivations, expressive modes, social differentials and social meanings.

    Why is politeness important in pragmatics? ›

    Politeness comes into operation through evaluative moments—the interactants' (or other participants') assessments of interactional behavior—and it is a key interpersonal interactional phenomenon, due to the fact that it helps people to build up and maintain interpersonal relationships.

    What is positive politeness and negative politeness? ›

    A positive politeness strategy seeks to minimize threat to hearer's positive face and make the hearer feel good about him/herself. A negative politeness strategy is avoidance based and it presumes that the speaker will be imposing on the hearer.

    What is true politeness? ›

    Politeness is the practical application of good manners or etiquette so as not to offend others. It is a culturally defined phenomenon, and therefore what is considered polite in one culture can sometimes be quite rude or simply eccentric in another cultural context.

    What is negative politeness example? ›

    Negative politeness, by contrast, is oriented towards the hearer's negative face, i.e. his/her potential threat of losing personal freedom of action. Therefore, the hearer shows respect for the hearer's negative-face wants. Example: “I'm sorry to bother you but… Would you mind making coffee?”

    What is positive face and negative face? ›

    utterance. Negative Face- is the need to be independent, to have freedom of action, and not to be imposed on by others. Positive Face- the need for self-image to be accepted, appreciated and approved of by others. To be treated as a member of the same group and to know that his wants are shared by others.


    1. Politeness Strategies
    (Iin Ruminda)
    (elc European Language Competence)
    3. Let's Read! Eve Sweetser, 1987, "The definition of 'lie'"
    (Kenny Easwaran)
    4. The Use of Politeness Strategies and Respect Markers by Call Center Agents
    (Asian Scholars Network)
    5. Eric A. Anchimbe
    6. Politeness in Pragmatics ! Khan Lectures
    (Khan Lectures)

    You might also like

    Latest Posts

    Article information

    Author: Nicola Considine CPA

    Last Updated: 07/31/2022

    Views: 6302

    Rating: 4.9 / 5 (49 voted)

    Reviews: 80% of readers found this page helpful

    Author information

    Name: Nicola Considine CPA

    Birthday: 1993-02-26

    Address: 3809 Clinton Inlet, East Aleisha, UT 46318-2392

    Phone: +2681424145499

    Job: Government Technician

    Hobby: Calligraphy, Lego building, Worldbuilding, Shooting, Bird watching, Shopping, Cooking

    Introduction: My name is Nicola Considine CPA, I am a determined, witty, powerful, brainy, open, smiling, proud person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.