"I‘m not A Bitch, I‘m THE Bitch, and it‘s MISS Bitch to you!" Responding to insults among Texan high school students

Term Paper, 2014

24 Pages, Grade: 2,0


Tables of content

1. Introduction

2. Responses to insults
2.1. The connection of impoliteness, face and insults
2.2. Counter-strategies to insulting behavior

3. Methodology
3.1. Instrument
3.2. Informants
3.3. Data collection procedure
3.4. Coding scheme

4. Findings

5. Discussion

6. Conclusion


1. Introduction

In my experience, a considerable portion of our everyday conversations and interactions involve people being impolite to each other physically or verbally. One might get insulted by a close friend or by a total stranger. A stereotype of Americans is the belief that they do not curse, swear or use any kind of taboo words, which is something that cannot be generalized that easily. Especially the South of North America is held to be very prude.

So far little work has been done to investigate impoliteness, but a lot has been done on politeness. Can politeness even work without a complete overview of impoliteness in the same amount? Not only has there been rarely any research on how impoliteness works and when it occurs, but also the research of how people cope with impoliteness has been vastly neglected. Especially when it comes to insults people tend to pretend that they never insult anybody or even swear. Only would they insult somebody if they were insulted. Too many theories consider (im) politeness a single-turn-thing, but it gets even more interesting when it occurs in interaction(cf. Bousfield 2008). In insult situations there will always be the insulter who realizes the first insult and the insultee who receives the insult. The insultee sometimes will become an insulter as well. Why do insultees feel the urge to retaliate the insult being paid on them? Gouldner (1960) puts forward the idea of a reciprocity social norm, meaning that behavior, prosocial or anitsocial should be equally matched (Culpeper 2011:37). Does this retaliation differ across gender? Are males or females more likely to counter with aggressive strategies? Who uses which strategy most and especially which taboo words are used in combination with insults?

To investigate this field a discourse completion task has been conducted to elicit counter- strategies to insults. The informants were high school students aged between 15-19, both male and female, from a small town called Rosebud-Lott in the South-East of Texas. To understand responses to insults, the next chapter will introduce the general idea of impoliteness and shows how impoliteness, face and insults belong together. Furthermore previous studies to impoliteness and first attempts to come up with impoliteness-strategies are explained.

The third chapter will give detailed information on the methodology. Why using a DCT was useful, who were the informants, how the data was collected and what the drawback of a DCT is. In the end the coding scheme will be listed and explained to understand the next chapters where the data is being analyzed.

In chapter four the most interesting results will be presented and further down the line in chapter five we will discuss contradicting and striking results focusing on female and male differences which will be compared to previous studies. Chapter six will summarize the question posed, the findings, limitations of study and then give an outlook for further research.

2. Responses to insults

2.1. The connection of impoliteness, face and insults

When one thinks about insults or insulting behavior it will be seen that this phenomenon is most likely linked to the notion of impoliteness or moreover to impolite behavior. So before we can define what an insult is, we first have to define impoliteness and further phenomena such as face, because naturally face will be at risk. Locher and Bousfield (2008:3) claim that "there is no solid agreement in the chapters as to what "impoliteness actually is". Culpeper (2011:22) already states that not all impoliteness is actually impolite, and that it lies in the eye of the beholder, e.g. banter in cases of ritualistic instults vs. real offence. You could scream and shout at your friend and he/she might think that this is really impolite, but the same behavior at a football scene might not be taken impolite at all (cf. Culpeper 2011:22). Thus, Culpeper (2011:23) defines impoliteness as follows:

Impoliteness is a negative attitude towards specific behaviours occurring in specific contexts. It is sustained by expectations, desires and/or beliefs about social organisation, including, in particular, how one person‘s or a group‘s identities are mediated by others in interaction. Situated behaviours are viewed negatively - considered ,impolite‘ - when they conflict with how one expects them to be, how one wants them to be and/or how one thinks they ought to be. Such behaviours always have or are presumed to have emotional consequences for at least one participant, that is, they cause or are presumed to cause offence. Various factors can exacerbate how offensive an impolite behaviour is taken to be, including for example whether one understands a behaviour to be strongly intentional or not.

It is important to mention here that impoliteness is not something a person just does, it is something that occurs and happens in interaction ("at least one participant"). It is about negatively judged behavior. While other definitions (e.g. by Bousfield and Locher 2008, Lakoff 1989 or Beebe 1995) are much shorter and rather define face, social norms, intentionality, and emotions (cf. Culpeper 2011: 21), this definition includes all the features mentioned above and furthermore adds the notions of contexts and expectations about social organizations.

An issue Culpeper (2005) comes up with is the question if impoliteness and rudeness mean the same thing. In Culpeper (2005:63) he suggests that rudeness could be taken for unintentional caused offence and impoliteness as intentional caused offence, and so gives another idea of impoliteness which goes as follows: "impoliteness, as opposed to rudeness, would seem to be a better term for 'intentional face-attack' " (Culpeper 2008: 32). He proves his choice of word usage, that it makes more sense to use impoliteness instead of rudeness, by quoting definitions of both impoliteness and rudeness taken from The Collins Cobuild English Language Dictionary (Sinclair 1987) and summarizes his findings by saying that impolite refers to "someone (my emphasis) who is rude" and that rude is "behaviour (my emphasis) towards other people" that is "not polite" (cf. Culpeper 2008: 32).

To explain Culpepers (2008) last definition above and the notion of face we have to go a bit deeper into the sphere of early conceptualizations of face. Probably everyone has once heard of "losing face", meaning "that one‘s public image suffers some damage, often resulting in emotional reactions" (Culpeper 2011:24). The most prominent definition was worked out by Goffman (1967:5) and he defines face as follows:

[...] the positive social 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 for himself.

This "image" is a mental self representation especially connected to contexts which are crucial to prime a particular component of face (Culpeper 2011:26).

As Bousfield (2008) emphasizes, the concept of face presents the core of earlier politeness studies, one of the most prominent being by Brown & Levinson (1978/1987), and of Culpeper‘s (1996, 2005) impoliteness approach (cf. Bousfield 2008:33). The notion of face is central to relational work which Locher and Watts (2008:78) define "as the work people invest in negotiating their relationships in interaction". Another word for relational work could be face- work, which Locher (2004) argues is not a sufficient word, because it does not highlight the involvement of at least two interactants (Locher, 2004: 51), which is also an important feature of impoliteness. Brown & Levinson subdivide face into positive face and negative face, the former being "the want of every member that his/her wants be desireable to at least some others" and the latter "the want of every 'competent adult member that his/her actions be unimpeded by others" (Bousfield 2008:34).

To understand that Brown & Levinson‘s version of face-work is not sufficient for this study Locher and Watts (2005) explain that Brown & Levinson‘s theory is a face-threat-mitigation theory that fails to "account for those situations in which face-threat mitigation is not a priority, e.g., aggressive, abusive or rude behaviour"(Locher and Watts 2005:10). Furthermore, do they claim that face is universal, at least in the Western world, but when closely looking at it we will see that face "claims" vary from person to person and culture to culture and that it is not universal (cf. Culpeper 2011:25).

Whilst earlier politeness researchers, such as Brown & Levinson (1978/1987), use the word "face-threat", when it comes to impoliteness it sounds too feeble. Culpeper (2008) uses a more sufficient term called "face-attack", which underlines the intentionality and severity of an offence (cf. Culpeper 2008:32). Culpeper (2011:5) describes "face-attack" as "using behaviours which attack or are perceived to attack positive identity values that people claim for themselves", a description which is very much connected to conflict. The wording is taken up from Goffman‘s (1967) definition of face above.

As every other speech act impoliteness has to be somehow conveyed. Culpeper (2011:113) writes that not every linguistic form is taken impolite in all contexts and that virtually no study so far has tried to link conventionality to politeness or impoliteness except for Terkourafi (e.g. 2001). Culpeper (2011:117) distinguishes two kinds of contexts: a) context-spanning which will be seen as genuinely face-attacking in a broad range of situations and b) context-tied strategies which appear in conversation that could be also neutral. Culpeper (2011:117) gives the example of a context-spanning situation: cunt in a frame of you X, with sharp intonation and an expression of disgust will be very unlikely to be taken as non-offensive and is therefore context- spanning. Conventionalised impoliteness formulae is what Culpeper (2011:113) names a way to convey context-spanning impoliteness on which this study will mainly lay its focus. He claims that there are connections to impoliteness that are not ambiguous: "insulting, verbally abusive and/or threatening behaviours" (112) which are not open to discussion as they will be taken as impolite and aggressive.

The Oxford Advanced Learner‘s Dictionary (2000, 6th edition) describes the noun in-sult as "a remark or an action that is said or done in order to offend sb." and defines in-sult-ing as "causing or intending to cause sb to feel offended". If we try to find similarities among the definitions so far mentioned we will see that one condition for impoliteness is always mentioned: intention. And an important aspect for this study is the perception of face-attacking behavior, especially the perception of intentionality. Social psychology researchers have found that aggressive behaviors are taken more severe if the hearer thinks it is intentional and will therefore be very likely to receive strong responses (cf. Culpeper 2011:32). This gives us a hint that if a person is intentionally, aggressively offended, it is not a far-fetched thought that this person will put on an aggressive counter-strategy.

What Culpeper (2011:141) wants to drive at is that speakers use certain words or phrases to strengthen or emphasize their meaning. Leech (1981:15) calls this "affective meaning", meaning "how language reflects the personal feelings of the speaker, including his attitude to the listener [...]". Negatively affective words are more likely to cause more damage of face, and insults are a perfect example for an aggressive strategy to cause face-damage (cf. Culpeper 2011:143).

2.2. Counter-strategies to insulting behavior

When are we impolite? Culpeper (1996:354) states that impoliteness is not only more likely to happen in situations with imbalance of power but also in situations where interlocutors are more intimate. This holds for the boss-situation and also for the brother- and friend-situation. No one was more insulted and offended than the brother in my data. That does not mean that the more intimate people grow the more impolite they get.

Culpeper (1996) offers strategies to convey impoliteness which he relates to Brown & Levinson‘s (1987) politeness strategies and claims that "impoliteness is very much the parasite of politeness". He writes that every politeness "superstrategy" created by Brown & Levinson (1987), has its opposite impoliteness strategy (1996:356). This was one of the earliest attempts to come up with impoliteness strategies:

1) Bald on record impoliteness

The face-threatening act (from now on called FTA) is performed in a direct, clear way where face is not irreleavant or minimised

2) Positive impoliteness

The use of strategies designed to damage the addressee‘s positive face wants

3) Negative impoliteness

The use of strategies designed to damage the addressee‘s negative face wants

4) Sarcasm/Mock politeness

The FTA is performed with the use of politeness strategies that are obviously insincere [...]

5) Withhold politeness

The absence of politeness work where it would be expected.

Culpeper (1996:356ff)

Culpeper‘s strategies are also opposite in terms of face, in contrast to Brown & Levinson‘s idea to save face, impoliteness strategies are a tool to attack face. Nonetheless do they share the same formula of the "weightiness" of the FTA: "The greater the imposition of the act, the more powerful and distant the other is, the more face-damaging the act is likely to be" (Culpeper 1996:357). Culpeper (1996) also remarks that his classification still leaves open questions, e.g. how these superstrategies relate to the degree of face-attack and how these promote to impoliteness (1996:357).

Let us put it more simple: Generally, when people are being offended, they have two choices: 1) they respond or 2) they do not respond, i.e. being silent. Bousfield (2008:188) investigates the problem of analyzing silence as a reaction and gives possible reasons why insultees might prefer to say nothing: it could be a) that the insultee did not hear the utterance, b) that he/she accepts the face-attack or c) that he/she did not understand the utterance of the insulter (cf. Bousfield 2008:118). Culpeper (1996:357) suggests that staying silent could also be a way of being offensive, especially when politeness is expected. Another reason is offered by Bousfield (2008:188) that the insultee is just "lost for words", that they are so dumbfounded to the insulter‘s utterance.

On the other hand interlocutors can choose to respond to impolite attacks. They have two options: a) they can accept the face-attack or b) give a counter-strategy (Bousfield 2008:193). Accepting the face-attack might be realized in form of an apology or agreement, which is even more face-damaging to the insultee. To counter an impolite attack can be subdivided into offensive, i.e. countering with another face-attack, and defensive strategies, i.e. defending one‘s own face. Defensive strategies are for example to give an explanation, to ignore the face-attack (sarcasm is included here) or opting out (cf. Bousfield 2008:193-200). Bousfield (2008) furthermore divides his impolite strategies into intentional, incidental and accidental. For this present study only the factor of intenion is important, as the first insult will be clearly presented to the participant to be an intentional face-attack. In Bousfield‘s (2008) study data is taken from military-discourses, situations based on an imbalance of power filled with aggressive formulae and also Culpeper‘s (1996) data is taken from army recruit training discourses. A summary of response options is seen in fig. 1 taken from Bousfield (2008:203).


Excerpt out of 24 pages


"I‘m not A Bitch, I‘m THE Bitch, and it‘s MISS Bitch to you!" Responding to insults among Texan high school students
University of Bonn  (Anglistik)
Variational Pragmatics
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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714 KB
insult, impoliteness, swearing
Quote paper
Katja Grasberger (Author), 2014, "I‘m not A Bitch, I‘m THE Bitch, and it‘s MISS Bitch to you!" Responding to insults among Texan high school students, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/322900


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