Telling it as it is, Mr. President? Strategies of politeness and impoliteness used by President Donald Trump in an adversarial interview setting

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2016

25 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Previous Research
2.1. (Im-)Politeness Strategies
2.2. (Im-)Politeness Strategies in Political Discourse

3. Methodology

4. Results

5. Discussion of Results

6. Conclusion



1. Introduction

Successful communication asserts a common sense when it comes to social interaction. This is especially crucial in the face of the power relation between politicians and their followers. It is a common skill of politicians to be able to properly utilize communication strategies as to effectively convey a message or make use of tactics to influence followers. It can therefore be asserted that an aptness in effective use of politeness and impoliteness strategies1 is necessary in political discourse.

The proper use of politeness and impoliteness strategies is closely tied to the language tool of manipulation (Slavova 2012: 170). Political discourse resembles a constant power struggle as well as a cooperation between those who hold power and those who the ones in power rely on to maintain it. Therefore, it is of some significance for the one in power to properly communicate with his or her supporters. This double-sided power struggle, which entails on the one hand, to assert dominance and on the other hand, to maintain positive relations, asserts a high level of aptness when it comes to proper manipulation of social interaction (Slavova 2012: 170-171).

President Donald Trump’s use of language has been subject of investigation as well as criticism. Many think that his language style is uncalculated, with a large amount of people even calling it “word salad” (Lakoff 2016). His voters have praised him for always “tell[ing] it as it is” (BBC News 2016), thereby painting a picture of sincerity. But how sincere is the recentlyelected president? George Lakoff writes in a blog post on his website that “[e]very time someone in the media claims his discourse is word salad it helps Trump by hiding what he is really doing.” (2016)

This research paper aims to dispute the assumption that President Trump’s use of language is uncalculated by focussing on the utilization of politeness and impoliteness strategies in relation to political discourse, as outlined and categorized by Brown & Levinson, and Culpeper. Subject of analysis is a television interview held by ABC’s David Muir with President Trump. The analysis is an attempt to provide evidence to expose President

Trump’s strategic use of politeness and impoliteness strategies to assert his power over his critics and create a false sense of balance between him and his followers.

2. Previous Research

In order to engage in an analysis of the interview based on certain concepts and categorizations, a frame of reference has to be established. The research conducted in this analysis will be based on categorizations and definitions as well as concepts proposed, mainly, in these three different research areas: Politeness strategies as outlined by Brown & Levinson (1987), impoliteness strategies as discussed by Culpeper (1996) and a basic concept of politeness strategies as used in political discourse, with a specific focus on power as discussed by Culpeper (2005, 2008). The concept of face, as outlined by Goffman (1967), will also be explained as it lies at the foundation of further categorizations.

Other notable research conducted by academics should be mentioned as well: Especially in the field of politeness theory, research has been covered vastly since the beginning of the 1970s. This includes concepts created by Leech in 1983 (Politeness Maxims) and Lakoff in 1973 (Politeness Principles), as well as the commonly cited politeness strategies as conceptualized by Brown & Levinson in 1978. Impoliteness theory took longer to catch on. With Culpeper’s Impoliteness Strategies as a ground level, researchers such as Bousfield (Monography of Impoliteness) in 2008 and Watts’ work on concepts of aggression and rudeness in 2003 did much to extend existing concepts.

However, these concepts have also been criticized for lacking certain variables. One of them being the rather fluid definitions made in regards to power. In his essay, Reflections on impoliteness, relational work and power (2008), Culpeper states that “concerns have been raised about the way in which different studies tend to emphasize different aspects of the notion of power”. (22)

Politeness strategies in general, but with a focus on political discourse, based on concepts discussed by Brown & Levinson (1973), Goffman (1967), as well as Culpeper (1996, 2005, 2008) will be further detailed in this part of the research paper.

2.1. (Im-)Politeness Strategies

Politeness research has seen a vast number of concepts. The following summary serves to briefly list and describe those concepts which are significant for the analysis engaged in in this research paper, beginning with Goffman’s concept of face.

Goffman developed his concept in 1967, which defined face as “[...] the positive social value a person effectively claims for himself by the line others assume he has taken during a particular contact.” (Goffman 1967:5)

This definition assumes that face is a socially constructed concept. Further extension, however, have distorted the extrinsic definition of face, as described by Goffman and turned it into a phenomenon which is basic to human consciousness.

Brown and Levinson defined face as an internal occurrence which is natural to people, by dividing it into two categories and thereby giving it a dualistic meaning: positive and negative face. Positive face is described as “the want of every member that his/her wants be desirable to at least some others”, while negative face is defined as “the want of every ‘competent adult member’ that his/her actions be unimpeded by others.” (Brown et al. 1987:62). In context to the definitions of face Brown and Levinson developed their definitions of positive and negative politeness.

Positive politeness presumes an approach where a speaker

“[...] ‘anoints’ the face of the addressee by indicating that in some respects, S wants H’s wants (e.g. by treating him as a member of an in-group, a friend, a person whose wants and personality traits are known and liked).”

The approach in negative politeness would be to avoid negatively affecting a hearer’s negative face, which would entail that “the speaker recognizes and respects the addressee’s negative face wants and will not (or will only minimally) interfere with the addressee’s freedom of action.” (Brown et al. 1987:70)

Brown & Levinson came up with four super-strategies which were supposed to be ways of avoiding events which they coined Face-Threatening

Acts, acts which challenge the face of an interlocuter in some way (Brown et al. 1987: 70): bald, on-record politeness; positive politeness, negative politeness, and off-record politeness and. (Brown et al. 1987: 69-131). These can then be further explained by giving examples. (1) Positive politeness could be achieved via compliments, attentiveness towards the hearer by the speaker, or showing sympathy or approval towards the hearer. (2) Negative politeness can be achieved via restraint, self-effacement or showing formality via apology or deference of speaker towards hearer. (3) Bald, on-record politeness could be achieved via order or commands that are commonly used in situations where the face threat to the hearer is very low. (4) Off-record politeness assumes a great risk to the hearer’s face and is only implied by means of indirectness (hinting, being vague). (Brown et. al 1987: 69 -131).

Impoliteness is a topic which has received less attention. Culpeper developed a model of impoliteness in 1996, which is largely based on the above-mentioned ideas and marks a kind of opposite to Brown & Levinson’s politeness model. Culpeper defined impoliteness as “the use of strategies that are designed to [cause] social disruption” (Culpeper 1996:350). Based on Brown & Levinson’s five politeness strategies, he developed six impoliteness strategies: Bald, on-record impoliteness; Positive Impoliteness, Negative Impoliteness, Off-Record Impoliteness2, Sarcasm or mock politeness, and Withholding Politeness.: (1) Bald, on-record impoliteness is achieved by means of direct and uninhibited attack to the hearer’s face, where the hearer’s face is already weakened. (2) Positive impoliteness is achieved via disassociation or disinterest in the hearer’s positive face wants (ignoring, snubbing, using inappropriate identity markers). (3) Negative impoliteness is achieved by frightening or ridiculing the hearer to where his or her negative face is threatened. (4) Withholding politeness is achieved via refraining from using politeness when it is expected. (5) Sarcasm (mock politeness) is achieved via implicature and expressing the opposite of what is actually said. (Culpeper 1996: 356-358, 2005: 44)

These theories and concepts are under constant investigation and extended upon frequently. However, those mentioned in this text, so far, will make up the categorization used in the analysis (see chart on pg. 17-18).

2.2. (Im-)Politeness Strategies in Political Discourse

Power is subject to several factors in language analysis: Relative power, social distance and imposition (Brown et al. 1992: 76-77). Relative power is decided by level of authority and social status. This becomes clear in the following statement by Culpeper:

“The fact that impoliteness is more likely to occur in situations where there is an imbalance of power is reflected in its relatively frequent appearance in courtroom discourse. The witness has limited capacity to negotiate face wants, whereas the barrister has almost unlimited capacity to threaten and aggravate the face.” (Culpeper 1996: 354)

Social distance as a factor in power relation describes the familiarity between speaker and hearer. (Brown et al. 1987: 76-77) It is often decided by factors such as age, sex and sociocultural background.

Imposition is a factor that appears in power relations as part of requests or desires. The deciding factor here is the level of intensity of the face threat. (Brown et al. 1987: 78)

Political discourse, however, is subject to a unique power struggle, a type of co-operative power situation, which presupposes the acceptance and support of the speaker by the hearer, but at the same time, a hierarchical assertion of dominance by the speaker over the hearer. (Slavova: 170-171). Instead of the power relation being clear, it is distorted by the politician’s desire to influence his listener. Politicians often make use of politeness and impoliteness strategies, which both represent very different aims.

Politeness is a useful tool when the aim is to influence people. Many politicians will attempt to choose the path which least threatens their follower’s face to ensure their support. (Fairclough 1995: 1) Brown & Levinson describe also that power influences a speaker to be politer to the interlocuter with less power (Brown et al.: 1992: 76).

Strategies of politeness can both affect positive and negative face. The goal of using such a strategy is to achieve and maintain a balance of power.

The speaker wishes to both assert dominance and give a sense of unity and closeness between the speaker and the hearer at the same time. (Slavova 2012: 172)

Impoliteness achieves a different aim in political discourse in that it is less concerned with achieving balance. It is mostly about power assertion. It can be gathered from this that a powerful speaker would have an increased level of freedom to engage in impoliteness, because of a sense of entitlement as to not having to experience retaliation in the form of returned impoliteness. (Culpeper 1996: 354) Culpeper, drawing on Beebe (1995), describes further in his 2008 article, that impoliteness is effective in power relations in the following ways:

“(1) To appear superior. Includes “insults” and “putdowns”. (2) To get power over actions (to get someone else to do something or avoid doing something yourself). Includes “sarcasm” and “pushy politeness” used to get people to do something, as well as attempts to get people to “go away or leave us alone or finish their business more quickly”. (3) To get power in conversation (i.e. to do conversational management) (to make the interlocutor talk, stop talking, shape what they tell you, or to get the floor). Includes saying “shush!” and rude interruptions.” (27).

Impoliteness in political discourse tends to mostly affect the hearer’s negative face, as explained by Culpeper:

“[…] impoliteness can restrict an interactant’s action-environment insofar as the producer pressures the interactant into a reaction […].” (Culpeper 1996: 24)

However, this is different in an interview setting, in which it is common to affect both negative and positive face.

A further notable aspect of politeness and impoliteness in regards to political discourse is speech etiquette. Broadly speaking it can be said that following Grice’s conversational maxims (Grice 1973: 51) would lead to a proper use of speech etiquette. However, politicians tend to either strictly adhere to or break communication rules to achieve their aim in the power struggle. Speech etiquette includes:

“addressing, congratulations, saying good-bye, saying thanks, agreement or disagreement [and adheres to a set of rules based on] nationally, ethnically and socially conditioned rules of speech behaviour” (173)

The following analysis will take these categorizations into consideration.


1 as defined by Brown & Levinson (1987) and Culpeper (1996)

2 Off-record impoliteness will be disregarded in this analysis as it is impossible to evaluate in an interview setting.

Excerpt out of 25 pages


Telling it as it is, Mr. President? Strategies of politeness and impoliteness used by President Donald Trump in an adversarial interview setting
University of Bremen
English Linguistics - Pragmatics
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
975 KB
linguistics, politenesstheory, pragmatics, trump
Quote paper
Aneka Brunßen (Author), 2016, Telling it as it is, Mr. President? Strategies of politeness and impoliteness used by President Donald Trump in an adversarial interview setting, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: Telling it as it is, Mr. President? Strategies of politeness and impoliteness used by President Donald Trump in an adversarial interview setting

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free