Irony and Politeness: Softening or Enhancing Face-Threats

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2006

24 Pages, Grade: 5.5


Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 Irony and Sarcasm

3 Politeness: Face-Saving and Face-Threatening

4 The Interaction of Politeness and Irony
4.1 Mock Politeness
4.2 Mock Impoliteness
4.3 Ironic Criticism and Ironic Compliments

5 Analysis of Two Example Dialogues

6 Conclusion

8 References

1 Introduction

When someone uses verbal irony it can make us smile, but it can also influence how polite or impolite this person comes across. Thus irony can be integrated into theories of politeness. Therefore, this paper will take a closer look at the interaction that takes place between irony and politeness. In some cases irony is just used to amuse or joke around as for example in the following situation: Two friends are cooking dinner, and while chatting they forget the roast in the oven and don't notice it until the smell of burnt meat fills the kitchen. One of the friends says jokingly:

(1) Oh oh it smells good!

In other cases, irony is not only used with an amusing intent but also or only with the purpose to say something indirectly. The irony consequently influences the politeness that comes with the remark. These cases where irony and politeness interact are the ones this paper will focus on.

Irony in politeness theories was at first considered as a tool to save the face of the addressee, but later research challenged this view as will be shown in this paper. The use of irony can easily become a tightrope walk for the speaker between being friendly and funny or being rude and offending. Irony can also be challenging for the addressee, if a situation is ambiguous and if he or she therefore must find out how a remark is meant to be understood. Since irony is an indirect way of saying what one is thinking it often leads to misunderstandings or awkward situations. However, irony might also be used very well directed and purposeful. For instance, irony is often used when criticizing someone and can in this case fulfill either the function of enhancing or reducing the criticism. Some researchers, however, disagree about the function of irony in this context. Is irony now a face-saving tool or does it help to attack face? What are the determining factors to decide this, if at all such factors can be found? How do different researchers understand the function of irony in politeness theories, and can some similarities between the different approaches be found? These are questions that shall be answered in this paper. The politeness theories of Brown and Levinson (1987) and Leech (1991) will provide a basis for these considerations and will be complemented by newer surveys. In spite of the different statements made by various researchers in their theories and surveys, irony can be seems to not only have a face-saving function. When sarcasm is understood as a subordinate form of irony then irony can be used very well to also attack face. The next section will therefore show how sarcasm can be related to irony.

2 Irony and Sarcasm

The words "irony" and "sarcasm" both have been of interest to philosophers, psychologists and linguists for over 2500 years and both have an ancient lineage (Katz 2000: 1). The word irony is rooted in the Greek language and is traceable to the word "eironeia", a word used in Greek to describe unscrupulous trickery. The word sarcasm is rooted in the Greek word "sarazein", meaning to speak bitterly (Lee and Katz 1998, quoted from Katz 2000: 1). The significance of these words has changed slightly over the years and different views about what their precise meaning is have developed. Researchers of various disciplines have also proposed differing theories to explain how people use and understand irony and sarcasm. For linguists, irony is a figure of speech and a "language device in which the real intent is concealed or contradicted by the literal meaning of words or a situation" (Encyclopxdia Britannica Online 2006). This language device is also often called "verbal irony" (Encyclopxdia Britannica Online 2006). It can be spoken or written and "arises from an awareness of contrast between what is and what ought to be" (Encyclopxdia Britannica Online 2006). This contrast or incongruity is mentioned in most definitions of irony. Dews et al. (1995: 347) for example understand irony as a "form of nonliteral language in which the speaker means much more than he or she says . . . [and it; Y.M] is characterized by opposition between two levels of meaning: The speaker's literal meaning is evaluatively the (approximate) opposite of the speaker's intended meaning". Already Brown and Levinson (1987: 221) were aware of this two-leveled meaning in ironic utterances: "By saying the opposite of what he means, . . . S can indirectly convey his intended meaning, if there are clues that his intended meaning is being conveyed indirectly". For instance if a speaker says

(2) What lovely weather we are having! as she or he looks out at a rainstorm, it is obvious for the hearer that the speaker makes an ironic utterance and in fact expresses his or her dissatisfaction with the weather.

Gibbs (2000) found in a study that examined irony in talk among friends, five main types of irony; one of them is sarcasm. Thus, sarcasm can be understood as a special form of ironic language. Long and Graesser (1988: 42) understand sarcasm as a form of ironic criticism that is intended to chastise. Thus they also think of sarcasm as a form of irony but add to it the dimension of criticism. Jorgensen (1995: 619) agrees: "The speaker is usually motivated to make the remark because of a criticism or complaint he or she holds against the victim". In the opinion of Jorgensen (1995: 619), this victim is commonly addressed directly. The sarcastic remark is according to Jorgensen actually never made about an absent third party, whereas from Haiman's (1998: 25) point of view "the 'other speaker' may be the sarcast's present interlocutor, an absent third person, or a conventional attitude". As an example of a sarcastic remark, one can imagine an employer saying to his lazy employee:

(3) Don't work too hard.

This utterance is a clear criticism of the employee's performance, but it is uttered in an ironic form, which is marked by the difference between the literal meaning and the intended meaning of the sentence.

Sarcasm and irony are often confused with each other in popular discourse because both are indirect forms of speech. Irony generally refers to the literal meaning and the intended meaning of the words uttered being different, while sarcasm refers to the mocking intent of an utterance. In addition, people as well as situations may be ironic, but only people can be sarcastic. Furthermore one can be unintentionally ironic, whereas sarcasm requires intention (Haiman 1998: 20). In a characterization of sarcasm Haiman (1998: 25) summarizes the above mentioned importance of criticism and intentionality: "sarcasm is characterized by the intentional production of an overt and separate metamessage 'I don't mean this' in which the speaker expresses hostility or ridicule of another speaker, who presumably does 'mean this' in uttering an ostensibly positive message".

3 Politeness: Face-Saving and Face-Threatening

The aim of this section is to give a short overview of Brown and Levinson's (1987) perception of politeness and of Leech's Politeness Principle (1991). These two perceptions provide a basis for the next section, in which the linkage between irony and politeness is discussed.

Brown and Levinson (1987: 57) argue that in many languages, when a speaker is formulating a request, a criticism, a complaint or another type of verbal act, these formulations seem to share a "strategic orientation to participant's 'face', the kernel element in folk notions of politeness". The "face" therefore seems to be a very central element, but what does it exactly mean? Brown and Levinson derive their concept of politeness from Goffman's (1967) notion of face and from the English folk term that associates face with notions of being embarrassed or humiliated, as known from examples like losing face. Face is something that is linked with emotions, something that can be lost, maintained or enhanced and that must be constantly attended to in interaction. When people are interacting, they mostly are aware of the vulnerability of face and know that normally everyone's face depends on everyone else's being maintained. This leads to the interest in maintaining each other's face "that is to act in ways that assure the other participants that the agent is heedful of the assumptions concerning face" (Brown and Levinson 1987: 61). Brown and Levinson's (1987: 61) assumptions made about face are the following: they assume that all "competent adult members of a society have (and know each other to have)" a vulnerable face which can be described as "the public self-image that every member wants to claim for himself". Also part of this assumption is the idea that this face consists of two related aspects: the "negative face" and the "positive face". The negative face stands for the basic claims to territories and to freedom of action and imposition. The notion of positive face marks the claim for a positive self-image including the desire that this self-image is also accepted and appreciated. These descriptions of the negative and positive face were restated by Brown and Levinson because they argue that the aspects of face are not norms, values or claims but "basic wants, which every member knows every other member desires, and which in general it is in the interest of every member to partially satisfy" (1987: 62). The restated components of face are defined as follows: The negative face stands for "the want of every competent adult member that his actions be unimpeded by others" (1987: 62) and the positive face represents "the want of every member that his wants be desirable to at least some others" (1987: 62). One must bear in mind that the positive face wants may be for non-material as well as material things and that in general, persons want their goals, possessions and achievements to be desirable not just by anyone but especially by particular others that are relevant to their goals (Brown and Levinson 1987: 63). For instance, a musician may want his music to be admired by other musicians, his clothes by friends and his tenderness by his wife or lover. Following the assumptions of Brown and Levinson, to respect the face wants of the participants of an interaction is part of what it takes to be polite.

Of special interest regarding the concept of face are those linguistic acts that inherently threaten either the face of the speaker, the hearer or both interactors. Brown and Levinson call them "face-threatening acts" (1987: 60). By "act" Brown and Levinson have in mind "what is intended to be done by a verbal or non-verbal communication" (1987: 65). In most situations one tries to avoid face-threatening acts or one will employ certain strategies to minimize the threat. The possible strategies listed by Brown and Levinson to do a face-threatening act are shown schematically below and are ranging from avoiding it altogether to carrying it out on different levels.

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Fig. 1: Possible strategies for doing FTAs (Brown and Levinson 1987: 60)

If an actor decides to go "on record" in doing an act, this means that it is clear to the other participants what communicative intention led the actor to do the act. So if someone goes on record, there is just "one unambiguously attributable intention with which witnesses would concur" (Brown and Levinson 1987: 69).

An actor goes "off record" in doing an act if there is more than one unambiguously attributable intention. In this case, the actor cannot be held to have "committed himself to any particular intent" (Brown and Levinson 1987: 69). There are several linguistic realizations of off-record strategies. For instance metaphors, irony, rhetorical questions, or understatement can be part of an off record act. They are all hints as to what a speaker wants and means to bring across without saying it directly. Due to their inherent ambiguity, off record acts have the greatest potential for negotiation.

The on record act discussed above can be done in two different ways. Either "baldly, without redress", or with "redressive action". To do it baldly means doing it in the most direct and unambiguous way possible. In contrast, an on record act with redressive action gives face to the addressee in trying to counteract the potential face damage of the face-threatening act. This is attempted to achieve by modifications or additions which indicate that no face-threat was intended. By a redressive action the actor tries to communicate that he or she in general recognizes the addressee's face wants. Redressive actions can again take two forms "depending on which aspect of face (negative or positive) is being stressed" (Brown and Levinson 1987: 70). Either it takes the form of "positive politeness" or the one of "negative politeness".

Positive politeness is oriented toward the positive face of the addressee and emphasizes the closeness between speaker and addressee by confirming or establishing common ground or by mentioning desirable attributes in the addressee. In general, the speaker tries to communicate that he or she likes the addressee so that the face-threatening act doesn't mean a negative evaluation in general of the addressee's face. Negative politeness is oriented toward the negative face of the addressee and suggests distance by paying attention to the addressee's right to freedom from imposition.

Although the face-saving view of politeness, proposed by Brown and Levinson (1987), has been regarded as the most influential politeness model to date, Brown and Levinson point out that they have only presented a tool, rather than its sociological application (1987: 55). It is a tool for describing "the quality of social relationships" (1987: 55) and therewith the signification of politeness in communication.

Leech (1991: 132) chooses a different approach and proposes a "Politeness Principle" that was developed against the background of Grice's (1975: 45) "Cooperative Principle". Leech states that the Politeness Principle is a necessary supplement to the Cooperative Principle because for instance "the CP in itself cannot explain . . . why people are often so indirect in conveying what they mean" (1991: 80). With a series of maxims Leech (1991: 132) proposes the Politeness Principle to be a way of explaining how politeness operates in conversational exchanges. It consists of six maxims and each of them has two sub-maxims of which "sub-maxim (b) seems to be less important than sub-maxim (a)" (Leech 1991: 133).


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Irony and Politeness: Softening or Enhancing Face-Threats
University of Zurich  (English Seminar)
Seminar zu Politeness
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ISBN (Book)
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Irony, Politeness, Softening, Enhancing, Face-Threats, Seminar, Politeness
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lic. phil. Yvonne Miller (Author), 2006, Irony and Politeness: Softening or Enhancing Face-Threats, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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