Politeness and Pragmatics in the Context of Cross-Cultural Communication

Category: Communication
Last Updated: 10 Mar 2020
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Throughout almost all societies, politeness plays an integral role in the effectiveness of social life and interaction within the context of both inter-cultural and cross-cultural communication. Within different cultures the definition of politeness may vary substantially and as a result may be appropriated in ways that are largely misunderstood within the context of other cultures.

It is for this reason that scholars such as Brown and Levinson have derived theories on politeness and its use within global society, however the seemingly non-existent universal definition of politeness can also be responsible for the criticisms that these theories receive. When discussing the notion of politeness, the study of cross-cultural pragmatics as represented by Thomas, Tannen and Wierzbicka provide a deeper understanding of the appropriation of politeness and the difficulties that emerge as a result of cross-cultural misunderstanding.

One of the major theories surrounding politeness is that of Brown and Levinson (1978, later revised in 1987). Brown and Levinson’s theory argues that politeness consists of three basic elements of human interaction: the maintenance of personal face, the acts which may threaten the face of either a speaker or hearer and the politeness strategies used within the context of conversation to maintain face. The concept of ‘face’, according to Brown and Levinson, outlines the human desire of avoiding embarrassment or humiliation whilst maintaining a positive representation of themselves.

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In accordance with the politeness phenomena theory, face exists in both a positive sense and a negative sense. Positive face is defined simply as ‘self-image’ while negative face refers to the freedom from imposition. The face-threatening act, according to Brown and Levinson, exists in four main categories. Firstly, the act which threatens the hearer’s negative face can include orders, advice, etc. and can ultimately undermine the hearer’s freedom of action whilst criticism and disagreement can lead to a threat on the hearer’s self-image.

Alternatively, acceptance of either apologies or thanks can impact on the speaker’s negative face although issuing an apology or offering a confession can upset the self-image of the speaker. Brown and Levinson theorise that “the assessment of the seriousness of a face-threatening act involves the following factors in many and perhaps all cultures” (1987, 74). These factors include Social Distance i. e. he acquaintanceship between speaker and hearer, the Relative Power of the speaker in relation to the hearer such as the degree of imposition the speaker holds over the hearer and the Absolute Ranking of the imposition within the context of the culture in which the imposition occurs. The third basic notion of Brown and Levinson’s politeness phenomena theory is that of Politeness Strategies, or simply the formulation of messages in order to save the face of the hearer in the wake of an impending face-threatening act.

Brown and Levinson outline politeness strategies as being either ‘On-Record’ or ‘Off- Record’. Off-Record strategies avoid the use of direct impositions to maintain a hearer’s face whereas On-Record strategies can be further separated into four categories. Carrying out an act ‘Baldly, without redress’, refers to the act between a speaker and hearer who share a great deal of familiarity and thus make no attempt to avoid the most direct form of imposition. Redressive action’ is the act of the speaker imposing on the hearer while trying to adjust their behaviour to maintain either the positive face or negative face of the hearer. Redressive actions aimed at preserving the positive face of the hearer are known as ‘Positive politeness’ and are employed to enhance the hearer’s self-image.

These include the exaggeration of interest in the hearer and his or her interests, sympathising with the hearer and the avoidance of disagreements. Negative politeness’ is a Redressive action aimed at the preservation of the Hearer’s negative face. Negative politeness is achieved through indirectness, deference and apologising for imposition. The politeness theory phenomena has drawn much criticism in subsequent years due to its universality. For example, Goffman advocates that “each person, subculture and society seems to have its own characteristic repertoire of face-saving practices, yet these are all drawn from a single logically coherent framework of possible practices” (1967, p. 13).

Put succinctly, this argument suggests that face does not necessarily belong just to the individual, but rather to sub-culture and society as well, and as a result one concise theory, no matter how logical, cannot possibly serve to represent all cultures in global existence. Tannen, in her discussion of The Pragmatics of Cross-Cultural Communication, outlines several instances in which politeness may become lost in instances of cross-cultural interaction. She outlines eight levels of conversation: when to talk, what to say, pacing and pausing, listenership, intonation, formulaicity, indirectness and cohesion and coherence.

In each of these instances misunderstandings may occur and as a result the concept of politeness may be lost. One example provided outlines the difference between American and Japanese businessmen: “Americans as a group tend to ignore or even rail against indirectness […] but it gets American businessmen in trouble when they try to skip the small talk and get right down to business with Japanese […] counterparts, for whom elaborate ‘small talk’ is big and essential, furnishing the foundation for any business dealings. (1984, p. 193). Thomas simply defines cross-cultural pragmatic failure as the hearer’s inability to ascertain meaning from the speaker. She outlines two distinct types of pragmatic failure: pragmalinguistic failure and sociopragmatic failure. Pragmalinguistic failure occurs when an utterance from a speaker is misused and thus misinterpreted by a native speaker. Sociopragmatic failure is used to “refer to the social conditions placed on language in use” (Thomas, 1983).

These factors are large contributors to the notion of politeness being lost in the context of cross-cultural communication i. e. the dismissal of a compliment by a hearer of non-Western origin (a norm in many non-Western cultures) may be viewed as rude by the issuer of a compliment of Western origin. While Brown and Levinson’s study on the politeness phenomena allows us a greater insight into the workings of politeness in social context, it is fairly evident that its universality is not entirely representative of the practices of all cultural groups.

While it can be said that face and face-threatening acts and the resulting politeness strategies are the basis for much of the appropriation of politeness in human interaction, we must look deeper when discussing politeness on a cross-cultural level. This is evident through a deeper study of the use of politeness in a cross-cultural context and the failures that result in cross-cultural pragmatism.

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Politeness and Pragmatics in the Context of Cross-Cultural Communication. (2017, Apr 07). Retrieved from https://phdessay.com/politeness-and-pragmatics-in-the-context-of-cross-cultural-communication/

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