Language and Power: Brown & Levinson’s ‘Politeness Theory’ Face Face is a term which Brown and Levinson take from the work of Goffman, (1967). We are all familiar with the idea of ‘losing face’ when in an embarrassing or confrontational situation and this is where Goffman gets his term from. Goffman’s (and subsequently Brown and Levinson’s) notion of ‘face’, however, is more clearly defined than the everyday version of the term. Brown and Levinson describe face as: ‘The public selfimage that every member wants to claim for himself.’ (Brown and Levinson, 1978; 66) In other words, their ‘positive face’ is the way that a person thinks, or hopes, others will see them. Brown and Levinson then go on to explain that face is made up of two different parts, ‘positive face’ and ‘negative face’:
Positive Face ‘Positive face’ is to do with our selfimage and our desire to be liked and to have what we say and do generally approved of by others. Our ‘positive face’ wants others to approve of our aims and desires.
Negative Face A person’s ‘negative face’ desires that their wants and actions are unimpeded by others. In other words we all wish to have freedom of action and to be in control of our next action or thought – we do not desire to have actions we don’t expect to be imposed on us by others.
Face Threatening Acts ‘Losing face’, be it in the everyday sense or in the way Brown and Levinson describe, is not a particularly pleasant experience – no –one enjoys being belittled, for example. In order to avoid the unpleasantness involved in loss of face people aim not only to maintain their own face during an interaction but also to maintain the face of others, as Goffman describes below. ‘Just as a member of any group is expected to have selfrespect, so also he is expected to sustain a standard of considerateness: he is expected to go to certain lengths to save the feelings and the face of others present, and he is expected to do this willingly and spontaneously because of emotional identification with the others and with their feelings. In other words he is disinclined to witness the defacement of others. (Goffman in Owen, 1967; 14)
If a person acts in a way that is not consistent with ‘maintaining the face’ of others present then they are performing what is called a ‘face threatening act.’ Face threatening acts can threaten either a person’s positive or negative face. If a facethreatening act is directed towards someone’s positive face then their selfimage is being threatened, if directed towards the person’s negative face then their freedom of action is being threatened. Rational people, however, do not simply issue facethreatening acts just for the sake of it. Firstly, they will ask themselves if they can avoid threatening the face of the other interactant. In the cases where the facethreatening act is unavoidable then the person will often try and minimise the effect by using politeness. It is, of course, entirely possible for someone to issue a facethreatening act with no efforts to minimise its impact. In such cases the speaker must be confident that there will be little, if any, retribution for it. These sorts of facethreatening acts usually occur when the person issuing them is in a position of relative power when compared to the recipient. These types of interactions, therefore, are particularly relevant to this assignment.
Politeness Politeness is used to maintain, restore or enhance a person’s face during an interaction and is most frequently used to minimise the effect of a face threatening act. Just as there are two different kinds of ‘face’, there are two different kinds of politeness that relate each aspect of face:
Positive politeness When using ‘positive politeness’, the speaker is reassuring the addressee that they, their actions and their wants are approved of. Brown and Levinson give an example of positive politeness. They say that by treating him or her [the addressee] as a member of an ‘in group’, a friend, a person whose wants and personality traits are known and liked, the addressee’s positive face is maintained and any negative effects of a face threatening act are minimised.
Because positive politeness is used to include people in certain groups and to show approval of them it is more commonly used in situations where the relationship of the interactants is close.
Negative politeness You use ‘negative politeness when you wish to reassure the person you are speaking to that you do not wish to impede their freedom of action, and thus threaten their negative face. When a speaker is performing a facethreatening act they will often use negative politeness to reassure the addressee that the infringement on their freedom will be minimal. In many cases the negative politeness used by the speaker will allow the addressee to escape from the imposition altogether. This is done by making the addressee feel under as little pressure as possible to comply with the speaker’s wants.
Negative politeness is most commonly found when the relationship of the interactants is distant or if the power weighting of the interactants is unequal (i.e. an ‘unequal encounter’ as Fairclough would put it).
Directness and Indirectness Indirectness is quite similar to negative politeness in that it is avoidance based. By being indirect and ambiguous about what you want the addressee to do, you allow yourself a ‘get out’ option. This means that you can save face by claiming that what you said was misinterpreted. For example, if a speaker says, ‘Gosh, this room is untidy!’ This can be interpreted in one of two ways. The speaker could be simply making a statement about the state of the room or he could be indicating that he wants the other person to tidy up the room. These sorts of ambiguous face threatening acts are said to be ‘off record’ as the speaker cannot be held to one specific meaning of the utterance they have made. The opposite of ‘off record’ is ‘bald on record.’ When a speaker makes a ‘bald on record’ utterance then what they are saying is unambiguous, direct and to the point. ‘Bald on record’ utterances are the most likely sort of utterance to threaten face as neither the speaker nor the addressee has any way of getting out of what has been said. These kinds of utterances are therefore usually used in situations where the utterance needs to be understood quickly and efficiently. They can also be used where the relationship of the interactants is sufficiently intimate to survive a serious face threatening act or where the person doing the threatening is so powerful they do not fear retribution.
Intrinsic Face Threatening Acts Although it is the aim of the interactant to preserve his face and the face of those around him or her there are, as Brown and Levinson point out, certain, everyday situations in which face threatening acts are unavoidable. There are several ways in which the face threatening acts described by Brown and Levinson can either establish, threaten or maintain power relationships between interactants. Orders & Bald on Record Requests These kinds of face threatening act are most likely to occur when the speaker does not fear retribution from the person they are addressing. These acts are a threat to the addressee’s negative face as they impede their freedom of action. The acts are also likely to occur when the power relationship between the interactants is unequal. To illustrate this point I will now take some examples from Karen Grainger’s paper Care and control: Interactional management in nursing the elderly. This study can be found in Clark et al. eds. (1990). The paper gives details of interactions which Grainger has recorded on two long stay geriatric wards. In the first piece of dialogue which Grainger refers to as extract 1 an elderly patient is being dried and dressed by nurses after having a bath. During the dialogue the nurses make two bald on record requests. In line one of the dialogue the nurse is recorded as saying ‘open your legs’ to the patient in order to make the drying process easier. On line 7 of the same extract another nurse instructs the patient to ‘put your hand in’ when he/ she is trying to dress the patient. Both these utterances are bald on record requests by the nurses and a clear threat to the negative face of the patient. Grainger goes on to examine these bald on record requests and to explain how they fit in with Brown and Levinson’s theory. She also explains how they help us to understand the power relationship between the nurse and the patient. It has already been said that bald on record requests are often made when someone wants something done quickly and efficiently. In this case the nurses want to dry and dress the patient in quick and efficient way. Grainger also points out to us that the nurses are in a position of power relative to the patient, ‘Due to youth, good health and institutionally sanctioned authority.’ (Grainger in Clark et al. 1990; 150). In order for this power relationship to be maintained the compliance of the patient is required. For example, should the patient decide not to cooperate then the nurse’s efficiency would be reduced and her professional face threatened. However, because of the position of power of the nurse relative to the patient, retribution for these serious face threatening acts is likely to be minimal. Suggestions and Advice. A speaker can threaten an addressee’s negative face by suggesting or advising a course of action. The degree to which a suggestion threatens a person’s negative face, however, can be very much dependant on the relative power of the interactants.
In the case where the speaker is less powerful than the person whom they are addressing, then their suggestion may well be ignored. This may be especially true if the addressee is more powerful than the speaker in terms of knowledge about the topic being discussed. For example a motorist taking their car to the garage for repair may suggest to the mechanic as to what is wrong with the car. The mechanic however, from her/ his greater experience in the repair of cars, may have come to a different opinion about what the problem is from the symptoms described. The mechanic, therefore, will disregard the suggestion of the motorist. When the relative power of two interactants is more or less equal, then the addressee may take the speaker’s suggestion into consideration, and interpret it as friendly advice. The addressee however should still feel relatively free to make up his/ her own mind about the course of action to be taken. Therefore in this case the threat to the addressee’s negative face is minimal. In the case, however, that the speaker is in a position of power relative to the addressee then the addressee may be under greater pressure to act on the speaker’s advice. This would then mean that there is a greater threat to the addressee’s negative face. For example, if a college lecturer suggests that a student should read a certain book then the student feels compelled to do so. This is because the lecturer is more powerful in term of knowledge about the subject and which books the student needs to read in order to gain the required knowledge. Threats and Warnings These are the types of face threatening acts that are perhaps the most obviously linked to power. If a speaker issues a threat or a warning then it is likely that the speaker is in such a position of power as to be able to instigate sanctions against the addressee, should they not comply with their wishes. A good example of this could be taken from the context of education. A teacher may threaten a child with missing their play time unless the complete their work. This is a serious threat to the negative face of the child as it threatens their negative face by imposing work on the child and impeding his/ her freedom of action. This interaction shows quite clearly that it is the teacher in the position of power as only the teacher has the power to decide whether or not the child should have their playtime. Disapproval and Criticism These kinds of face threatening acts threaten the positive face of the addressee, as their want to be approved of is not being complied with in this situation. It would seem that the relative power of the speaker and the addressee is quite important here. In order to keep retribution to a minimum, in most cases, the speaker will only criticise the addressee about something they, (the speaker), have superior knowledge or experience of. For example, when a teacher or lecturer marks a piece of work and criticises what a student has said, their criticism is generally accepted. This is on the grounds that the person marking the piece of work is seen to have superior knowledge on the topic. Politeness Politeness is used when a speaker wishes to minimise the seriousness of a facethreatening act. In this part of the assignment I will use Karen Grainger’s paper, to which I have previously referred, to demonstrate how politeness is used to gain compliance and to exercise power. As I have already mentioned, should the nurses in the paper fail to gain the compliance of their patients, then this would be a serious threat to their professional face. In the extracts of dialogue that Grainger provides we often see the nurses referring to their patients as ‘love’ or with similar terms of endearment. Calling the patients love can be seen as a form of positive politeness. The nurse is dealing with the positive face wants of the patient by reassuring her that she is liked and approved. In extract 2 on page 151 of the paper, recorded as the nurse is doing the drug distribution round, the nurse opens the interaction with the patient by saying, ‘Hello love.’ Grainger comments on this utterance below. ‘The interaction starts with the nurse using the endearment love, a positive politeness strategy which is said by Brown and Levinson to ‘claim common ground with the addressee.’ (Grainger, 1990; 152)
In other words the nurse is assuming that if she attends to the positive face wants of the patient then compliance is more likely in the subsequent task of getting the patient to take her medication.
Conclusion We have learned that during a verbal interaction: •
It is the aim of every rational adult to maintain their own ‘face’
It is normal to try to maintain the ‘faces’ of those involved with us in the interaction.
Because of the nature of everyday life this is not always possible.
For everyday life to function within society to allow us to achieve our goals, face threatening acts have to be created.
As rational people, we find ways of minimising the impact of face threatening acts we cause, partly because any retribution for it may lead to unpleasantness (and which we try to avoid).
The main tool we used to minimise the impact of our face threatening acts is politeness. By using politeness the speaker takes the pressure off the addressee to comply with their wants and so minimises the threat to the addressee’s face.
Politeness, however can be used, in some cases, as a way of masking power. If the relative power of those interacting is unequal then the less powerful party may feel obliged to comply with the wants of the more powerful party whether politeness is used or not. In this case politeness is simply used by the more powerful interactant to disguise their power and to give them a way out should their position of power be challenged.
The lack of politeness in an interaction can also tell us an awful lot about the relative power of those involved in an interaction. If someone is making facethreatening acts, such as ‘bald on record’ requests, then it is quite likely that they are the more powerful of the interactants. This is because the risk of retribution for the facethreatening act is minimal if the recipient is less powerful than the person issuing it.
Take note, however, that ‘bald on record’ requests do not always symbolise inequality of power. Such obvious face threatening acts sometimes show quite the contrary, that a relationship is so close and equal in power that it can survive such requests without any unpleasantness arising.
Published on Mar 6, 2012
Positive Face When using ‘positive politeness’, the speaker is reassuring the addressee that they, their actions and their wants are appro...