Online Politeness Strategies Used By Malaysians Cultural Studies Essay

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This study aims to investigate the politeness and the related strategies used by Malaysian chatters in the conversations of online setting. Chat room messages are spontaneous and instantly visible, making it similar to the daily natural-occurring discourse. For this study, Yahoo chat rooms have been chosen to evaluate the pattern of politeness strategies used by most Malaysians. This study examines 20 written conversations or messages in Yahoo chat rooms. The data were collected by logging in into Yahoo Messenger, and into one of the many chat rooms that has been featured. The conversation or messages written by the Malaysian chatters in the chat rooms were then copied and saved. The data were then analyzed by referring to Brown and Levinson's theory of politeness strategy (1987). Based on Brown and Levinson's model of politeness strategy (1987), the politeness strategies used in daily conversations to reduce Face Threatening Acts (FTAs) are grouped into four main strategies which are Bald on Record, Positive Politeness, Negative Politeness, and Off-the-Record. The results of the analysis show that positive politeness strategy is most widely used by Malaysian chatters in the Yahoo chat rooms. It may happen because the conversation is in the form of sharing where chatters reveal stories about themselves or state their opinion about something. Most chatter interacts with each other to share their experiences or stories among themselves. In this case, S satisfies H's positive face by giving gift, not only in the form of thing, but human-relation that wants to be liked, admired, care about, understood, listened to, etc. Therefore, it is proved that even in this 'faceless' community, people still want to be liked and admired. They also want to share and be able to understand each other's feelings and thoughts even when they are not communicating face-to-face.

1.0. Introduction

           A chat room is part of a Web site, or part of the online services such as the Yahoo chat rooms, that provides a venue for communities of users around the world with a common interest to communicate in real time. It is indeed a common fact that each human has the need to communicate with others. Communication is defined as a process by which we assign and convey meanings in an attempt to create shared understanding, considering that both the speaker and hearer should hold to general rules or principles and thereby use certain strategies. An often used strategy to achieve this is known as politeness (Renkema, 1993).

            Leech (1983) defines politeness as "a form of behavior that establishes and maintains comity", that is, "the ability of participants in a social interaction to engage in interaction in an atmosphere of relative harmony". Brown and Levinson (1987) suggest politeness as a compensation action taken to counter-balance the disruptive effect of face-threatening acts (FTAs). In addition, they also describe Face Threatening Acts as "acts that infringe on the hearer's need to maintain his/her self-esteem and be respected" (Brown and Levinson, 1987).

            According to Brown and Levinson, politeness strategies are developed in order to save the hearer's "face". Face refers to a speaker's sense of linguistic and social identity, which is defined as "the public self-image that every member (of the society) wants to claim for himself" (Brown and Levinson, 1987).

             However, this linguistic aspect occurs in the verbal communication of the real conversation not only in the real world but also in the cyber world. Nowadays, since technology has developed rapidly, people can communicate with others using many kinds of media. One of the technologies used widely by the society of the world is the internet. The internet is a system that has revolutionized visual, oral, written communications and methods of commerce by allowing various computer networks around the world to interconnect. Therefore, it is now possible for people to communicate visually, orally, and in written form by using their Personal Computer and Internet modem.

            To communicate in the written form via the internet, people can use the facilities which are called e-mail and chat. Chat or chatting via the internet is a real-time communication between two or more users via computer and the users are popularly-known as "chatters". Most networks and online services offer a chat feature. One of the common and popular internet facilities for chatting is the Yahoo Messenger chat room.

Yahoo Messenger is one of the internet free facilities which can be accessed by many internet users that have a Yahoo account. On-line chat-channels or rooms in Yahoo Messenger have become a popular environment for meeting new people and for general conversations. These chat-channels are comparable to "real-life" situations where participants interact at the same time spontaneously and often in the same spatial environment. The same conversational rules are adhered to both in chat-channel conversations and in face-to-face interaction. However, some specific features of chat-channel conversation, such as the politeness strategies, might be different from those we meet outside the cyberspace, where a face-to-face interaction would occur.

Thus, this study aims to explain the politeness strategies used by Malaysian chatters in Yahoo Messenger chat rooms through observation and analysis.

2.0. Literature Review.

At the same time as supporting renewed interest in Grice's Cooperative Principles (1975), the issue of politeness has become one of the most active areas of research in language use (Chen, 2001). Studies from Brown & Levinson (1978, 1987) and Scollon and Scollon (1995) have aroused increased attention in the study of politeness. The face theory proposed by Brown and Levinson (1978, 1987) serves as the most influential theory on politeness. It plays a leading role in the study of speech acts (Ji, 2000; Hobbs, 2003). Brown & Levinson's face theory contains three basic notions: face, face threatening acts (FTAs) and politeness strategies.

2.1. Politeness

Politeness is an aspect of pragmatics in that its use in language is determined by an external context. This external context is the context of communication, which is determined by the social status of the participants. Politeness is a system used by the speaker in order to keep up to the addressee's expectations. According to Grundy (1995: 135) the determiners of the need to use politeness strategies are distance, power and imposition. Imposition covers every action (including speech acts) which threatens the addressee's autonomy and freedom of action and usually is conveyed in the form of an order. On the other hand, power is evaluated in terms of numerous factors such as position in society and age whereas distance implies the evaluation of the other's place in the world, degree of familiarity and/or solidarity towards the addressee. The politeness systems theory advocated by Scollon and Scollon (1995) is also noteworthy in this field. They observe three politeness systems which are the deference politeness system, the solidarity politeness system and the hierarchical politeness system. The distinction of the three systems is mainly based on whether there exists power difference (+P or -P) and on the social distance between the interlocutors (+D or -D). The deference politeness system is one in which participants are considered to be equals or near equals but treat each other at a distance (e.g. classmates). In a solidarity politeness system, the speakers may feel neither power difference (-P) nor social distance (-D) between them (e.g. friends). The hierarchical politeness system may be widely recognized among companies, government and educational organizations, in which the speakers resort to different politeness strategies.

2.3. Face Threatening Acts (FTAs)

Every utterance is potentially a face threatening act (FTA), either to the negative face or to the positive face. Therefore, people need to employ politeness strategies to redress the FTA. According to Brown and Levinson, Face Threatening Acts (FTA's) are acts that infringe on the hearers' need to maintain his/her self esteem. If we do or are about to threaten someone's positive or negative face, but do not mean it, we need to minimize it by applying politeness strategies. There are four polite strategies; Bald on Record, Positive Politeness, Negative Politeness, and Off-the-Record (as suggested by Brown and Levinson, 1987).

2.4. Politeness Strategy

According to Brown and Levinson (1987), politeness strategies are developed to save the hearer's face. Face refers to the respect that an individual has for him or herself, and maintaining that "self-esteem" in public or in private situations. Their notions of 'face is derived from that of Goffman (1967, as cited in Brown and Levinson 1987) and from the English folk term, which is related to notions of being embarrassed or humiliated, or 'losing face'. Brown and Levinson stated that there are two types of face in an interaction which are positive and negative face. A person's positive face is the need to be accepted, even liked, by others, to be treated by members of the same group, and to know that his or her wants are shared by others. Whereas a person's negative face is the need to be independent, to have freedom of action and not to be imposed on by others (Yule, 1996).  

In the bald on record strategy, the speaker provides no effort to minimize threats to the other person's "face." The prime reason for its usage is that whenever a speaker (S) wants to do the FTA with maximum efficiency more than he wants to satisfy the hearer's (H's) face, even to any degree, he will chose bald on record strategy (Brown and Levinson, 1987: 95). There are, however, different kinds of bald on record usage in different circumstances, because S can have different motives for his or her wanting to do the FTA with maximum efficiency. It is divided into two classes which are cases of non-minimization of FTA and cases of FTA-oriented bald on record usage.

On the other hand, in cases of FTA-oriented bald on record, the use of this strategy is more oriented to the face. In other words, it is used where face involves mutual orientation, so that each participant attempts to predict what the other participant is attempting to foresee. For in certain circumstances it is reasonable for S to assume that H will be especially worried with H's potential violation or S's maintaining. There are three functional categories or areas where we expect the pre-emptive invitations to occur in all languages (which are potential to FTA):

The positive politeness strategy is usually seen in groups of friends, or where people in the given social situation know each other fairly well. It usually tries to minimize the distance between them by expressing friendliness and solid interest in the hearer's need to be respected. The only feature that distinguishes positive politeness compensation from normal everyday intimate language behavior is an element of exaggeration. There are fifteen sub-strategies that are used in positive politeness strategies:

Negative politeness is defined as "a redressive action addressed to the addressee's negative face: his want to have his freedom of action unobstructed and his attention unrestricted" (Brown and Levinson, 1987). Negative politeness strategy recognizes the hearer's face, but it also recognizes that the speaker is in some way forcing on them. Some of the sub-strategies of negative politeness are:

According to Brown and Levinson (1987), a communicative act is done off-record if it is done in such a way that it is not possible to attribute only one clear communicative intention to the act. Thus, if a speaker wants to do an FTA, but wants to avoid the responsibility for doing it, he can do it off-record and leave it up the addressee to decide how to interpret it. Some sub-strategies of off-record:

The research design of this study was descriptive qualitative. The data or the information were reported and described as the way they were, therefore any content of the information were not changed for the sake of the originality of the data required. The technique used, as in most descriptive research, was the observation technique, since it could exactly describe how the chatters responded directly to other chatters in the chat room. After being connected to the internet, a yahoo messenger window was opened. After approximately two hours of chatting with friends and strangers, all the written conversations were then copied and saved. Next, the data were printed out and analyzed.

A document analysis was used because the data were in the form of written or visual material. While collecting the data, interpreting and analyzing them also took place. The data were classified according to the FTA contained in it. In this case, it was about what kind of politeness strategy used by the chatters, whether they were bald on record, positive politeness, negative politeness, or off-record based on Brown and Levinson's theory. After that, the data were described more specifically according to the chosen strategy.

From table 2, it can be seen that in the chatting conversation, Malaysian chatters used many variations of Positive Politeness strategy. Based on the results of this study, it is clear that Give gifts to H is frequently used by the chatters (23.6%). It may happen because the conversation is in the form of sharing where chatters reveal stories about themselves or state their opinion about something. Most chatter interacts with each other to share their experiences or stories among themselves. In this case, S satisfies H's positive face by giving gift, not only in the form of thing, but human-relation that wants to be liked, admired, care about, understood, listened to, etc. Therefore, it is proved that even in this 'faceless' community, people still want to be liked and admired. They also want to share and be able to understand each other's feelings and thoughts even when they are not communicating face-to-face.

As shown in Table 1, Bald on Record politeness strategy is the second most applied strategy by Malaysian chatters in Yahoo chat room. Malaysian chatters used this strategy mostly by giving sympathetic advice or warning (48.3%) (Table 3). In line with Positive Politeness strategy, it may happen due to the form of the conversation that is sharing problems and ideas. It is common fact that chatters logged into the cyberworld to release their tense whilst sharing what they felt about certain things with others. Bald on record strategy also is usually used among speakers that have close/intimate relation with each other (i.e. siblings, friends). Apart from this result, the current study also has found that among two group of people (strangers and friends), friends tend to use more bald on record when communicating among themselves (among all 40 chatters,26 friends used bald on record compared to only 3 strangers using bald on record). This is because they do not feel the need to minimize the threat to the H's face believing that both S and H understand that they do not mean to embarrass each other purposely.

According to the result by the current study, it is clear that the negative politeness strategy is not much used by the Malaysian chatters in their interaction with each other. The negative politeness strategy is only been used for a total 13 times by the chatters. The negative strategy mostly used by Malaysian chatters is by impersonalizing S and H (38.4%). It is rather common to impersonalize when the social distance between S and H is vast. In Malaysian it is considered 'polite' when we use the negative politeness strategy, which explains why we apologize a dozen times to our lecturer before asking them a question. We Malaysian tend to address our superior with their title (i.e. ma'am, Dr, Professor, etc). In the chat room context, when we are communicating with a stranger or someone who is at a higher level in the social hierarchy (or a higher level status, language proficiency) we will mostly resort to this strategy in order to be 'polite' because it is the norm in Malaysia.

A speaker uses off-record strategy when he/she wants to avoid the responsibility of doing an FTA. When a speaker uses off-record strategy, he/she leaves the FTA up to the addressee to decide how to interpret it since here the speaker must say something in general (less information) or different from what he means (Brown and Levinson' 1987: 211)

Off the Record


Percentage (%)

Give Association Clues



Be vague



Over -generalize



Use saying






Table 5: distribution of the variation of Off the Record Strategy


Chatters and dialogues

Chosen strategy


YT: I'm about to explode. All this whle I tot shes comin!!!! Wtff??

HF: oooooo…. Someone's really mad.

KP: I noeeee,,,y did she canceled her concert? =(

Off the Record

(be vague)

Examples of Off the record strategy in a conversation

As shown in Table 5, off-record strategy is very rarely used by Malaysian chatters. Based on the results of the current study, Malaysian chatters only used off the record strategy for a total of 2 times only. Malaysian used this strategy by giving association clues and being vague towards the topic of conversation.

5.0. Conclusions

From the findings, it is discovered that politeness strategies are also applied in computer-mediated communication, as presented by Malaysian chatters in Yahoo chat room. Politeness is used to maintain the social value of the community, including in virtual-community. The chatters used the strategy of politeness when they communicate in the computer-mediated communication (CMC) to reduce the FTA in 'saying' something. The findings show that positive politeness strategy is the most frequently used strategy by Malaysian chatters in Yahoo chat room. Most chatters use this strategy while considering other chatters' feeling or face. It is also used to gain and show respect towards each other. It may happen due to the setting of the conversation and the social distance between the chatters which clearly is very close. Thus, this result is parallel with if the chatters were to have a face-to-face conversation with each other. Because of their closeness with each other, they tend to use polite strategy in order to be liked, understand and accepted among themselves. Thus, this result supports Brown and Levinson's theory which says that polite strategy contains statements of friendship, compliments and etc.

            Bald on record is also quite widely used by Malaysian chatters in the CMC because most of the chatters know each other mutually; hence they have a very close relation with each other. According to Brown and Levinson's theory, people that used this strategy are likely to be friends or having any intimate relation with one another. This explains the phenomena where mutual friends interact through chat rooms in order to share their thoughts and feelings when they are not able to meet each other in person (due to time and other constraints). It also the belief that people sound less polite in CMC can be attributed to production costs: It takes more time to type hedges and indirect requests in fast-paced CMC, and so people use balder, shorter forms (Brennan and Ohaeri, 1999).

            Negative politeness strategy is generally used by Malaysian chatters when they want to ask other chatters to do something and to show that the interlocutor recognizes the addressee's want to have his freedom of action unobstructed. A rather different phenomenon from what happen in the 'real' world is that sometimes Malaysian chatters minimize the imposition of the FTA by writing smiley sign (e.g. :) or =), ;) etc.) or grinning expression (e.g. 'hehehe'). It happens since the chatters in the CMC cannot see each other's face.

            Off-the-record strategy of politeness is the least used by Malaysian chatters in Yahoo chat room. This might happen considering the social distance between the chatters. As explained earlier, Malaysians tend to vague when communicating with strangers or those who are of a higher ranking in social hierarchy. This is because the speaker wants to remove the potential to be imposing.

5.1. Limitations of study

This study shows its limitations in several ways. Firstly, the study only investigates the chat room discourse between interlocutors of college-going ages. Thus the language used by chatters might be influenced by their age. Therefore, this finding may not apply to situations where interlocutors are of different (older) age and unequal social status (lecturers, parents, etc).

Furthermore, the subjects are limited to a relatively small group of college students (the chat room was joined by only 40 people). So the result can only reflect the speech of a small group of people in a limited region. More research can be conducted on more subjects to test and complement the findings of this present study.

5.2. Future study

It may be very interesting to investigate the politeness phenomenon of the subjects having different ages, unequal social status and different social relationships A future research can be done to analyze the politeness strategy used by people in e-mails. Furthermore, a study of the politeness strategy used by men and women can be compared in terms of the writing styles for both men and women and relate it with the effect of the strategy used. This is possible since gender difference is also one of the factors in the politeness applied.

            Future research can also be done by conducting a similar research studying the private messages in Yahoo chat rooms. Here, the politeness strategies used by the chatters can be observed when they communicate privately (e.g. what kind of politeness strategy will they choose to answer a personal question). A cross-cultural study which compares the politeness strategy used by Malaysian and English chatters in the private messages may also be done in the future. It is since in each culture, people have different values in communicating; thus it will influence the politeness employed in the same context.