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A central concept in linguistic pragmatics is politeness. It has been suggested ( for example, R. Lakoff 1972, 1973; Brown and Levinson 1978; Leech 1980, 1983) that politeness is another level to conversational interaction besides the rules of the cooperative principle. Robin Lakoff (1977b) sees Grice’s rules as essentially rules of clarity, and proposes that there are two prior rules of ‘pragmatic competence’. These are: ‘Make yourself clear’ and ‘Be polite’.
Lakoff (1977b:89) elaborates the second rule as ‘Permit addressee to decide his own options.’ It is not difficult to see how the operation of this rule could lead directly to the troublesome inference in ‘Henry likes apples or bananas’. If we imagine, for example, that Henry’s wife knows her host is about to serve fruit, she might well make this utterance, conveying and intending to convey that Henry is fond of both fruits; the host may select either option without fear of making a mistake.
Lakoff pointed out that a hostess would be seen as polite if she said, ‘You must have some of this cake’, but very impolite if she said, ‘You may have some of this cake.’ On the face of it this is strange, since ordinarily you would think telling someone what they must do removes all other options, imposes on them, and is therefore impolite. On the other hand, granting permission, if one is in a position to do it, makes it possible for the hearer to do what he or she wants to do, and would seem polite, or at least considerate.
The answer hinges on the fact that the hostess is responsible for the quality of the cake. Offering the cake by placing an obligation on the hearer conforms nicely to the modesty maxim. By implying that she cannot assume that the guest will want the cake is a way in minimizing praise to herself. If the hostess had offered the cake by saying ‘You may have some of this cake’, she would have violated modesty by appearing to assume that the cake is so good that the guest naturally wants a piece of it, and is only waiting to get permission.
Leech’s politeness principle also seems to be applicable to the disjunction example in a natural way. One way that Henry’s wife can conform to the maxim of tact, minimizing the cost to the host, is by making sure no one has to go to any special trouble to supply just the fruit Henry likes. Whichever of the two fruits can be supplied with minimum difficulty will be satisfactory. This can only be really true if Henry likes both apples and bananas.
Perhaps the most thorough treatment of the concept of politeness is that of Brown and Levinson (1978). They have set out to develop an explicit model of politeness which will have validity across cultures. The general idea is to understand various strategies for interactional behavior based on the idea that people engage in rational behavior to achieve satisfaction of certain wants.
The wants related to politeness are the wants of face, ‘something that is emotionally invested, and that can be lost, maintained, or enhanced, and must be constantly attended to in interaction. The concept is directly related to the folk-expression ‘lose face’, which is about being embarrassed or humiliated. There are two kinds of face. One is ‘negative face’, or the rights to territories, freedom of action and freedom from imposition; essentially the want that your actions be not impeded by others.
The other is ‘positive face’, the positive consistent self-image that people have and want to be appreciated and approved of by at least some other people. The rational actions people take to preserve both kinds of face for themselves and the people they interact with essentially add up to politeness.
A strength of the Brown and Levinson approach over the rule-oriented presentations of politeness by Robin Lakoff and by Leech is that Brown and Levinson are attempting to explain politeness by deriving it from more fundamental notions of what it is to be a human being (being rational and having face wants). There are two advantages of this over normative or rule-based approaches.
First, norms are discoverable and valid within a particular culture and therefore not too useful in understanding a concept like politeness cross-culturally. Second, even to posit universal (not culture-particular) rules as arbitrary primitives is ‘to invent a problem to be explained, rather than to explain it’ (Brown and Levinson, 1978:91).
In other words, if you start with a set of rules like Leech’s maxim of politeness, you can understand politeness phenomena in terms of these rules, but you do not learn very much about why there should be such rules in the first place. Granted, Brown and Levinson ask us to accept at the start that people are rational and have two kinds of face wants, but this is a much deeper starting point for explanation than starting with rules designed specifically for politeness itself.
Face wants become a problem if we assume that certain kinds of actions are intrinsically face-threatening. Such acts may threaten the hearer’s negative face, like a request which, as an attempt to get someone else to do something that you want done, means that the recipient of the request is being impeded in pursuing what he or she wants to do. Others threaten hearers’ positive face: for instance, a contradiction or expression of disagreement, which means the speaker thinks there is something wrong with an opinion held by the hearer.
Even saying something irreverent or taboo threatens the hearer’s positive face, since it reveals that the speaker does not care about the hearer’s face as well as the hearer’s. The speaker’s negative face is jeopardized when he or she makes an offer in somewhat the same way as requests threaten the hearer’s negative face since, in carrying out the offer, he or she will be pursuing the hearer’s aims, not the speaker’s own.
Confessions, admissions of guilt, and apologies threaten the speaker’s positive face since they mean the speaker has done something the proper sort of person would not have done. Such nonspeaking acts as tripping or stumbling also threaten a person’s positive face; they reveal a certain incompetence in carrying out a basic action like walking. None the less there are times when actions like this are going to occur and at times they may be desirable or necessary.
But it will not do to minimize the risk too much, because that will imply that the act is more face threatening than it actually is. For example, if there is something that only someone else can do for you, and you really need it done, and you select 5, ‘Do not do the FTA’by refraining from asking your best friend to do it for you, you will hurt your friend’s feelings. Your friend could easily say, with a pained expression, ‘Don’t you think I would have done that for you?’
The meaning of the last of the five ways of dealing with a potential FTA is self-evident; you simply do not take the action that would threaten face. Doing an FTA ‘off the record’s is essentially dropping a hint, or otherwise trying to make the FTA salient while still keeping the possibility of denying that you ever intended an FTA more-or-less open.
For example, if you say ‘Gosh, I’m out of money. I forgot to go the bank’, your companion might take it that you want a loan. But if your companion responds by saying, ‘Sorry, I’d like to help you out, but I’m a little short of cash myself’, you could still say, ‘Oh, I didn’t mean I wanted you to lend me money!’
‘On the record’ FTAs with negative politeness redress are instances in which the FTA is undeniably made, but something else is said or done to show concern for the other person’s freedom of action and right not to be imposed upon. One of the most straightforward ways of doing this is simply to express reluctance to impose: ‘I hate to impose, but would you do something for me?’
Brown and Levinson suggest that the use in many languages of the plural form of ‘you’ as a deferential form , as we saw in chapter 1, has its origins in negative politeness redress. One possible explanation, originally Robin Lakoff’s and recapitulated by Brown and Levinson (1978:203-4) is that the plural form does not literally single out the addressee.
If we assume that what the speaker has to say, or even the sheer fact that the hearer is obliged to listen, is a potential imposition on the hearer’s freedom, than the use of the plural pronoun gives the hearer the option of thanking it as being directed to someone else associated with him or her, not specifically to that person as an individual.