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More than Please and Thank You

Say please! children are often told after saying something like Give me a biscuit, if they ask why, they may receive the explanation Because it`s polite.

29 November, 2011

Why do English speakers say Would you mind? when they`re not really asking a question? And we say Because it`s polite... We often think of politeness as being long-winded ways of saying simple things, like Would you mind keeping your voice down? instead of Shut up!

The long version is polite, the short version is rude, we say. This is not quite true, however. According to social anthropologists Brown and Levinson, politeness includes the entire spectrum, from convoluted indirectness through to brief and direct. They call the former `negative politeness` and the latter `positive politeness`. Speakers choose which degree of politeness to use from along this spectrum, according to what relationship they are trying to achieve with the listener.

In politeness terms, the significance of a person`s choice of words is determined by when they use them: the context. This includes who they are talking to and what they are talking about. Typically, if you approach a stranger with a request, you use negative politeness. For example, you might say, Could you close the door, please? The question form gives the listener a get-out: it implies that you accept their right to refuse. However, if you are speaking to a very close friend, you can be much more direct, such as Shut that door - it`s freezing in here! This is known as positive politeness: it implies that you are too intimate to require careful indirectness.

Interestingly a speaker`s degree of intimacy with a listener is not an objective fact. It is something they create through the politeness strategies they use. For example, if you use positive politeness with someone you do not know very well, you may be able to create an atmosphere of intimacy between you, It`s a risky strategy, though, because your listener may interpret your directness as rude and pushy, and your relationship will be on the rocks.

Choice of politeness strategies also depends on whether the person you are speaking to is in a position of authority. Typically, people talking to a superior are careful and indirect. If, on the other hand, they are talking to a subordinate, they may be very direct indeed. An employee might say to a boss, Would it be possible for me to have this tomorrow?, while the boss might say to the employee, I need this by tomorrow.


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tags: politeness, explanation, strategy, words, anthropologist, speaker, talk

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