The Importance of Face in "Politeness Theory"

Essay, 2011

21 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 Politeness Theory and Face

3 Face-threatening Acts (FTAs)
3.1 Negative Face-threatening Acts
3.1.1 Damage to the Hearer's Negative Face Wants
3.1.2 Damage to the Speaker's Negative Face Wants
3.2 Positive Face-threatening Acts
3.2.1 Damage to the Hearer's Positive Face Wants
3.2.2 Damage to the Speaker's Positive Face Wants

4 Strategies for Doing and Mitigating Face-threatening Acts

5 Weighting the Seriousness of a Face-threatening Act

6 Post-modernPoliteness Theories

7 Conclusion

8 Appendix: List of Abbreviations

1 Introduction

The notion of face as the public self-image plays a major role in every culture. It shapes the character of a speaker as well as how he or she is perceived by others. Therefore, the cross-cultural analysis of face is a crucial field of study in every social science. In this essay, the importance of face in Politeness Theory will be discussed. It aims to show the development of the concept first defined by Goffman in 1967 to the further analysis by Brown and Levinson in 1978, which is influenced by Grice's Cooperative Principle and Austin's Speech Act Theory, as well as recent criticism and re-evaluation in post-modernism. Furthermore, the two concepts of positive and negative face will be discussed, which then leads to the devision of negative and positive politeness strategies. These negative and positive face-threatening acts (FTAs) are further subdivided into acts which damage the hearer's and acts which damage the speaker's face.

In the next chapter, five strategies for doing and mitigating face-threatening acts are closely analysed: positive politeness, negative politeness, off-record, bald-on-record and redressive on-record acts. A fifth category - do not do a FTA - is also included in this section as not communicating may also minimise or increase the danger of doing a face-threatening act. In the last chapter of this paper, the development of Politeness Theory and face over the last twenty-five years will be critically discussed and compared to Brown and Levinson's 'traditional' theory.

The author of this paper is very aware that an academic paper should be free of gender discrimination. However, in examples and their analyses, gendered pronouns are unavoidable. The author has decided to use the pronoun 'he' and all its forms, as the double form 's/he' has a negative impact on the flow of reading.

2 Politeness Theory and Face

The term face in the sense of a person's social reputation came into the English language in 1876 in form of a translation of the Chinese word 'diü liän' in the sentence “Arrangements by which China has lost face” (Hart 1901 ct. in Thomas 1995: 168). Erving Goffman, who first analysed the notion of face in 1967, defines it as [T]he positive value a person effectively claims for himself by the line others assume he has taken during a particular contact. Face is an image of self delineated in terms of approved social attributes - albeit an image that others may share, as when a person makes a good showing for his profession or religion by making a good showing of himself (Goffman 1967: 5).

It is, therefore, the self-assumption of a person's own appearance in public, which is determined by defined social features, such as profession, religion, gender, and ethnicity. In a conversation, the hearer directly reacts to the speaker's face, thereby hallmarking it. The individual concept of face changes during a lifetime, which could either lead to an improvement or a decline of the face, depending on whether the person's expectations are fulfilled. Face, thus, “is something that is emotionally invested, and that can be lost, maintained, or enhanced, and must be constantly attended to in interaction” (Brown and Levinson 1987: 61).

Politeness Theory and the concept of face were further developed by Brown and Levinson in 1978, building on Goffman's theory of identity and facework. The linguists' major goal was to find out why people do not tend to use simple and direct language in a conversation, but rather complex and sometimes indirect phrases, especially if a hearer has to be motivated to do a particular act. As Brown and Levinson state, a distinction has to be made between negative and positive face, which are both treated as perpetual wants:

Negative face: the want of every 'competent adult member' that his actions be unimpeded by others Positive face: the want of every member that his wants be desirable to at least some others (Brown and Levinson 1987: 62).

Positive face wants are defined in two ways: On the one hand, they refer to a person's desire to be accepted and approved of in a certain group and on the other hand to the appreciation of the self-image by others. This also means that a speaker's goals in a conversation have to be accepted by or even desirable to other speakers in order to fulfil the positive face wants (cf. Thomas 1995: 169). These goals have to be accepted by specific conversation partners in order to align with the speaker's face wants:

Persons want their goals, possessions, and achievements to be thought desirable not just by anyone, but by some particular other especially relevant to the particular goals [...] These others constitute a collection of sets (extensionally or intensionally defined) each linked to a set of goals (Brown and Levinson 1987: 63).

Negative face, on the other hand, highlights a person's independence and possibility to act on one's own (cf. Verschueren 1999: 45). Therefore, a person's goal in a conversation has to be unopposedly accepted. The differences between positive and negative face are opposing each other. For instance, a sentence such as

(1) The weather is dreadful today, isn't it? (Mey 1993: 72) uttered by a stranger on the bus can be interpreted differently according to the hearer's face wants. If the negative face is being threatened, the hearer's mental reaction would be
(2) This person is rude. I want to be left alone (Mey 1993: 72), while the hearer whose positive face is supported thinks
(3) This person is friendly. I want to engage in a conversation with him as he wants to talk to me (Mey 1993: 72).

Furthermore, Brown and Levinson (cf. 1987: 32) argue that a person constantly has positive and negative face wants, depending on the goals which want to be achieved. These wants have to be fulfilled in order to maintain a person's self-image.

3 Face-threatening Acts(FTAs)

A threat to a person's face is termed a Face-threatening Act (FTA) by Brown and Levinson. Depending on the speaker's and the hearer's reaction, a FTA can influence a communication in two different ways: Either a mitigating statement or a compensation is uttered, or the communication may break down. FTAs are sometimes inevitable in social interactions depending on the type and rules of a conversation, whereby “certain kinds of acts intrinsically threaten face, namely those that by their nature run contrary to the face wants of the addressee and/or of the speaker” (Brown and Levinson 1987: 65). These acts damage the face of the hearer or the speaker by acting inversely to the face wants of the other. However, as Leech points out, “[s]ome illocutions (e.g. orders) are inherently impolite, and others (e.g. offers) are inherently polite” (1983: 83). In order to categorise these different FTAs, a distinction has to be made between acts which threaten the positive face and those which threaten the negative face of either hearer or speaker.

3.1 NegativeFace-threatening Acts

3.1.1 Damage to the Hearer’s Negative Face Wants

According to Brown and Levinson (1987: 65-6), there are three different types of acts where the speaker (S) threatens the hearer's (H) negative face wants, thereby ignoring H's freedom:

1. [A]cts that predicate some future act A of H, and in so doing put some pressure on H to do (or refrain from doing) the act A.
2. [A]cts that predicate some positive future act of S toward H, and in so doing put some pressure on H to accept or reject them, and possibly to incur a debt.
3. [A]cts that predicate some desire of S toward H or H's goods, giving H reason to think that he may have to take action to protect the object of S's desire, or give it to S.

The first sub-category includes orders and requests, such as

(4) Let's go get some coffee (Yule 1996a: 43) or

(5) Shut the window, Jen (Thomas 1995: 170),

where S wants H to do, or not to do, a certain act. This group also includes advice and suggestions, for example

(6) If we help each other, I guess, we'll both sink or swim in this course (Foley 1997:271),

where S is of the opinion that H should act in a certain way. Furthermore, this group of negative FTAs includes remindings, where S reminds H to do an act, and warnings, threats and dares, indicating that S or some (other) authority will take action if H does not do a certain act. The second category implies acts which proclaim a positive act of S towards H.


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The Importance of Face in "Politeness Theory"
University of Birmingham  (School of English)
Language and Communication
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You submitted a very good essay on the importance of face in politeness theory. Your essay is characterized by a very clear structure and covers the important facts in relation to the discussed topic, which are illustrated by appropriate examples. You consulted a range of secondary literature and your essay conforms to the academic conventions of referencing and style. In addition to discussing the concept of face, you also present criticisms and further developments of the original theory and reach adequate conclusions.
importance, face, politeness, theory
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Regina Seiwald (Author), 2011, The Importance of Face in "Politeness Theory", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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