A Contrastive Analysis of Politeness

Requests and Refusals in German and English

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2008

25 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Content

1. Introduction - why politeness is crucial for the linguistic analysis of English and German

2. Theoretical approaches to the linguistic analysis of politeness
2.1. Grice’s Cooperative Principle
2.2. Lakoff’s Rules of Politeness

3. Brown and Levinson’s Theory of Politeness
3.1. Goffman’s face concept as the basis for the Theory of Politeness
3.2. Politeness Strategies
3.3. Determinants for the choice of politeness strategies

4. Contrastive analysis of politeness in English and German
4.1. Dimensions of cross-cultural difference (German − English)
4.2. Contrastive analysis of the speech act of request
4.3. Contrastive analysis of the speech act of refusal
4.3.1. Refusals as dispreferred actions and compliance-resisting speech acts
4.3.2. Contrastive analysis of refusals between Americans and Germans

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography

1. Introduction - why politeness is crucial for the linguistic analysis of English and German

Social interaction, especially in the form of verbal communication, constitutes one of the most important parts of human life by influencing conversations between individuals and shaping their interpersonal relationships. During the development of civilized societies people have established norms and values describing socially appropriate behaviour as well as specific conversational strategies and linguistic formulae which are generally considered to be ‘polite’ in a particular culture and context. When being asked to judge a person as ‘polite’ almost everyone has his own concept of politeness in mind, ranging from showing good manners, such as allowing women to go ahead, to politely asking other people for a favour such as lending lecture notes, by using specific linguistic formulae. Therefore, politeness cannot only be shown in people’s way of behaviour towards each other but particularly in the use of language and specific linguistic devices in speech acts like requests, refusals, apologies, thanking as well as greeting and parting. On the basis of a general understanding of polite behaviour people consider their fellow-beings as being either well-behaved and respectful or rude and ill-mannered in social interactions. However, people do not assess other people’s behaviour in the same way since their individual understanding of politeness varies quite considerably. Depending on factors like the situation and their relationship with the conversational partner people evaluate polite behaviour differently from being socially appropriate, considerate, and respectful to even hypocritical and insincere when they feel that some people overdo their friendliness.

But besides this general understanding of polite behaviour “politeness is also a well-established scholarly concept”[1] which has attracted not only the attention of sociologists, philosophers, and anthropologists but especially that of sociolinguists and linguistic pragmatics. It is their concern and the aim of this paper to analyse how what Watts calls linguistic politeness is conveyed through the use of specific linguistic forms and expressions, how it is expressed in different speech acts and how it is determined by social and cultural factors. In addition to these issues, it is also important to investigate the reasons and incentives which motivate interlocutors to apply polite language in conversations which will discussed here in the framework of Brown and Levinson’s Theory of Politeness and their notion of politeness as face work.

Another aspect which is of great importance within the linguistic analysis of politeness is the cultural aspect and the culturally varying perceptions of politeness. Even though speech acts seem “to operate by universal pragmatic principles” they simultaneously “vary in conceptualization and verbalization across cultures and languages”[2] since the underlying social values and norms, especially those defining politeness, differ from culture to culture in the same way as the linguistic devices and formulae to express politeness differ from language to language. As a result, a cross-cultural analysis of speech acts including politeness can shed light on the differences between different languages and speech communities in expressing politeness and contribute partly to the prevention or at least the reduction of intercultural misunderstandings which are caused by different expectations of politeness in behaviour and language use.

After explaining different theoretical approaches to politeness from a conversational-maxim view which is supported by Grice, Lakoff, and Leech, the paper at hand will focus on the face-saving view advocated by Brown and Levinson and their Theory of Politeness. Finally, the paper will analyze two different cross-cultural studies on speech acts of requests and refusals in English and German in order to compare how politeness is conveyed through the use of language by both speech communities. By doing this it is the aim of the paper to uncover the reasons for most of the cultural misunderstandings which occur in encounters of Americans and Germans.

2. Theoretical approaches to the linguistic analysis of politeness

Politeness is an important issue in the sociolinguistic and pragmatic field of study which has been highly debated about. Brown and Levinson claim a universal politeness theory, others like Watts, however, argue that “a theory of politeness should not attempt to ‘create’ a superordinate, universal term that can then be applied universally to any socio-cultural group at any point in time” since such a term would fail to conceptualize the people’s notion of politeness and their controversial dispute about its assessment and significance in everyday life.[3] Therefore, the current research on politeness still misses a universal definition of the term and seems to remain controversial about this issue.

2.1. Grice’s Cooperative Principle

Despite the theoretical debate about a universal definition of politeness it remains evident that politeness plays a significant role in all civilized societies since it founds the basis for a respectful interaction between human beings and for successful conversations. When people communicate with each other they try to achieve particular goals such as maintaining or extending personal relationships which, however, can only be accomplished by cooperation. Therefore, Grice’s Cooperative Principle, introduced in his publication “Logic and Conversation” in 1975, served as a starting point for the development of different theoretical approaches to the pragmatic and sociolinguistic study of politeness in language use. According to Grice’s theory, people inherently seek to be as cooperative and informative as possible in verbal communication by adapting themselves to universal norms of conversation. In other words, people follow certain maxims and simultaneously expect that they are followed by their conversational partners as well in order to be provided with as much information as is needed for the correct understanding of utterances and the appropriate interpretation of messages.[4] Therefore, Grice formulated his general Cooperative Principle as follows:

“Make your conversational contribution such as is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which you are engaged.”[5]

Moreover, he divided this universal principle into four maxims determining human conversation:

1. Maxim of Quantity − the speaker should make his/her contribution only as informative as is required, i.e. the message should not be more informative as necessary.
2. Maxim of Quality − the speaker should make his/her contribution one which is true and one which the speaker has adequate evidence for.
3. Maxim of Relation − the utterances should be relevant.
4. Maxim of Manner − the speaker should be clear and intelligible, avoid obscurity of expression and ambiguity, and be brief and orderly.[6]

2.2. Lakoff’s Rules of Politeness

In reality, however, people do not necessarily obey to the rules of the Cooperative Principle and they formulate their utterances differently from their actual meaning, particularly in order to be less direct and polite. As Beckers points out, “politeness is one of the forces working to cause flouting of the maxims of the Cooperative Principle in all languages.”[7] Since human communication is not merely directed to the providing of clear information but mostly to the dealing with interpersonal relationships and the expression of ideas, people articulate their utterances not literally as they are supposed to be according to the Cooperative Principle. In fact, they tend to formulate their messages less clearly and consequently less offending in order to show more respect and appreciation towards the addressee and maintain a personal relationship based on mutual esteem and harmony. Owing to the fact that “if a conflict arises between the actor’s attempt to be clear and his or her attempt to be polite, it is more important for the actor to be polite and avoid offending the target than achieve clarity in communication”, Lakoff saw the existence of an additional principle, in particular in informal conversations in which the actual talk is more important than the content. Therefore, she introduced a ‘politeness rule’ which is connected with Grice’s Cooperative Principle and combines the principles of human conversation with social issues, such as the effect an utterance has on the relationship between the conversational partners.[8] In contrast to Grice’s conversational principles, which are only “guidelines for the ‘rational’ use of language in conversation”[9] and of relative importance, Lakoff’s Rules of Pragmatic Competence and her Rules of Politeness should be pursued in order to avoid offense and interpersonal conflicts and to maintain harmonious social relationships. She established the following Rules of Pragmatic Competence:

1. Be clear.
2. Be polite.

These two rules, however, are contradictory because being clear is not often considered as polite at the same time and can cause offense and impoliteness. Since Lakoff’s Rules of Pragmatic Competence conflict with each other in most of the everyday speech situations, Lakoff created three additional sub-rules, the Rules of Politeness:

1. Don’t impose.
2. Give options.
3. Make A feel good − be friendly.[10]

The first principle ‘Don’t impose’ is applied when social distance and formal or impersonal politeness is required, i.e. in conversations in which the illocutionary partners seek to keep formal distance and their freedom in order not to be too personal, especially when it comes to what Lakoff calls “non-free goods” which refer to highly intimate topics such as sex or incomes. Linguistic devices to avoid imposition are, for instance, passive constructions and other impersonal expressions.

The second principle ‘Give options’ is used in more informal conversations and is directed at leaving options open for the addressee in order to preserve his right to take decisions by himself. Hedges such as “I guess” or tag questions are a linguistic means to leave the final decision and his own opinion formation open to the addressee, to weaken the speaker’s self-assertion and to “give the target the option for non-compliance without the fear of retribution.”[11]

Finally, the third principle ‘Make A feel good’ is “the rule producing a sense of camaraderie between speaker and addressee”[12], for instance by using first names or nicknames, making compliments, using tabooed words as well as apparently meaningless particles such as ‘like’, ‘y’know’ and ‘I mean’ which make the addressee feel more intimately involved in the conversation. Thus, the third rule becomes relevant with respect to intimate politeness.

Lakoff concludes that these Rules of Politeness are universal in human interaction and have priority over the rules of Grice’s Cooperative Principle. Nevertheless, cultures consider the importance of each rule differently and set their priorities in applying one rule instead of the other differently depending on how their societies are organized and which principles (distance, deference, or camaraderie) predominate in their respective social lives.[13] In other words, different traditions and beliefs lead to the fact that different cultures apply different politeness strategies. However, Lakoff does not define the term politeness in detail and fails to provide the reader with information of how the speaker or hearer can determine the required level of politeness and which of the rules to apply in a given speech situation.[14]

2.3. Leech’s Politeness Principle

Similar to Lakoff, Leech resumed and theoretically extended Grice’s Cooperative Principle with a set of rhetorical principles subsumed under the idea of his Politeness Principle. In his theory he differentiates between a speaker’s ‘illocutionary goals’ (what speech act the speaker intends to be conveying by the utterance) and a speaker’s ‘social goals’ (what position the speaker is taking on being truthful, polite, ironic etc.)[15], which can be related to two sets of conversational principles: textual rhetoric, which determines the grammatical and stylistic form of an utterance and thus the speaker’s ‘illocutionary goals’, and interpersonal rhetoric, which includes a speaker’s ‘social goals’ and allows for the appropriate level of politeness while simultaneously serving as a means to decode the actual communicative meaning of an utterance beyond the ‘textual rhetoric’.[16] Both forms of rhetoric include a variety of maxims and sub-maxims. The ‘interpersonal rhetoric’, however, is the sphere in which politeness becomes relevant. It consists of the maxims mentioned in Grice’s Cooperative Principle as well as of the interpersonal maxims of Tact, Generosity, Approbation, Modesty, Agreement, and Sympathy. These maxims, in turn, are subsumed under Leech’s Politeness Principle which demands to “minimize the expression of impolite beliefs [and] maximize the expression of polite beliefs.”[17] It, thus, demands the use of more expressions which are favourable to the hearer and reduce the amount of expressions unfavourable to the hearer. Moreover, he provides a set of scales to assess the degree of Tact or Agreement needed in a given speech situation.


[1] Eelen, Gino (2001), A Critique of Politeness Theories, Manchester: St. Jerome Publishing, p. i.

[2] Blum-Kulka, S.; House, J.; Kasper, G. (1989), Cross-cultural pragmatics. Requests and apologies, Norwood: Ablex, p. 1.

[3] Watts, Richard J. (2003), Politeness, Cambrigde: University Press, p. 9.

[4] Eelen 2001: 2.

[5] Grice, H.P. (1975), “Logic and Conversation”, in: Cole, P.; Morgan, J.L. (eds.), Syntax and Semantics, vol. 3, NewYork: Academic Press, p. 45.

[6] Grice 1975: 46-47.

[7] Beckers, Astrid M. (1999), “How to Say No Without Saying No − A Study of the Refusal Strategies of Americans and Germans”, Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Mississippi, p. 32.

[8] Strohmetz, David Brian (1992), “Politeness Theory: Beyond Please and Thank you” , Ph.D. Dissertation, Temple University, p. 4.

[9] Fraser, Bruce (1990), Perspectives on Politeness, Journal of Pragmatics, p. 222.

[10] Lakoff, Robin (1973), “The Logic of Politeness; or, Minding Your P’s and Q’s”, Papers from the Regional Meeting, Chicago Linguistic Society, p. 298.

[11] Strohmetz 1992: 5.

[12] Lakoff 1973: 301.

[13] Lakoff 1973: 303f.

[14] Fraser 1990: 224.

[15] Fraser 1990: 224.

[16] Eelen 2001: 7.

[17] Eelen 2001: 8.

Excerpt out of 25 pages


A Contrastive Analysis of Politeness
Requests and Refusals in German and English
University of Rostock  (Institut für Anglistik/Amerikanistik)
Contrastive Linguistics - German and English
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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569 KB
Contrastive, Analysis, Politeness, Linguistics, German, English
Quote paper
Juliane Behm (Author), 2008, A Contrastive Analysis of Politeness, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/112561


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