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The Varying Definition Of Politeness Across Cultures English Language Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Language
Wordcount: 2623 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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1.1 Background of the study

The definition of politeness varies across cultures and the claims for universals have shown divergence and also lack of clarity as they have received serious attention since the Brown and Levinson theory was proposed (1978, 1987). Lakoff (1989) defined the term ‘Polite’ as the use of politeness rules regardless of expectation whereas the term ‘non-polite’ behaviour refers to the act of not using politeness rules when they are not expected. The Brown and Levinson’s (B&L’s) model has contributed a lot in the study of politeness discourse although there are many criticisms that have been made by some researchers due to its lack of clarity concerning the definition of politeness and concomitant concepts of across studies and within the same studies (A. J. Meier, 1995). Furthermore, the B&L’s theory is said to be ethnocentric because it is derived directly from the high value which is based on individualism in the Western culture (Kasper, 1990: 252-253) and the fact that their distinction between the negative and positive politeness is dubious (Meier, 1995: 384). Goffman’s (1967) work has also contributed a lot in the field of politeness discourse and has become one of the most significant in the research of language use. Goffman has introduced the notion of face (B&L, 1987: 61). The B&L defined the term politeness in terms of speakers’ need to say things which enable them to mitigate the imposition inherent in speech acts and also the face that those speech acts threaten including the face of the speaker as well as the face of others. A mitigated form is a form that is used in speech by expressing a given prepositional content in order not to offend others (Linde, 1988). According to Leech (1983), politeness is needed and important in the theory of linguistic pragmatics in order to explain the reasons that cause speakers to violate Grice’s Co-operative principles and its maxims. Self-politeness is taken seriously in Leech’s framework. The self-politeness is important in the theory of linguistic politeness because it involves the face of the speaker which tends to be as vulnerable as the face of the hearer. This vulnerability is viewed in two ways and is described in the B&L model. First, there are speech acts that threaten faces of others and speech acts that threaten the self-face. Second, the face of the speaker can also be attacked by the hearer just as the face of the hearer can be attacked by the speaker in a conversation.

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Brown and Levinson have devoted an entire book of politeness although its concept is never actually defined. They focused on two types of politeness strategies which are the negative and positive strategies that are used in order to reduce the imposition or threat to an addressee’s face upon the enactment of an inherently face-threatening act. Negative strategies are characterized as expressions of restraint, formality, and distancing whereas positive strategies are described as expressions of solidarity, intimacy, informality, and familiarity (A. J. Meier, 1995). These strategies focus on the positive and negative face notions. Positive face refers to a person’s self-esteem and how he or she wants to be appreciated and accepted by the society. On the other hand, negative face refers to a person’s freedom to act. Every individual has the rights to be involved in making decision. Speakers have to perform various speech acts in communication and these acts tend to threaten the face of the speaker or the hearer or both which can cause misunderstandings among them. There are five superstrategies that were proposed by the Brown and Levinson theory which are:

Without redressive action, baldly

Positive politeness

Negative Politeness

Off record

Withhold the FTA

Rudeness is the contrast of the term politeness. Lakoff (1989) defined the term ‘rude’ as an act that disregards politeness rules when they are in fact expected although there is no clarity in considering what politeness rules consist of and on what basis they are determined in order to be considered as polite (A. J. Meier,1995). An apology is an act of politeness which is stated in Holmes (1990: 156) and is practised in most cultures of the world. According to Britain (1992), high rising tones which are used in declarative sentences are considered as markers of politeness in New Zealand English. In the work of Bublitz (1980), the terms please, just, passive voice, and tag questions are considered as the expressions of politeness. Politeness routines such as “Thank you” and “You’re welcome” are also essential in communication. In order not to sound rude when speaking to others, the appropriate politeness strategies should be implied and practised which can avoid misunderstandings between the speakers and hearers. According to Janney and Arndt (1992), tact resembles the B&L’s concepts and it is important in order to avoid conflicts. Blum-Kulka (1989:67) on the other hand considers tact as an aspect of the appropriate polite behaviour. Kasper (1990:200) argued that the strategies and means of politeness are not exactly endowed with politeness values, which creates a question mark in one’s mind. If polite strategies are not always polite as what is said by her, one would wonder what qualifies them as politeness strategies to begin with. Furthermore, some would argue that there is no particular style nor particular syntactic constructions (Fraser and Nolen, 1981; Zimin, 1981) can be polite or impolite. Many would question when and where to be polite and this is when sociolinguistic competence becomes important. Sociolinguistic competence is the knowledge of appropriate language use (Joseph A. DeVito, 2008). Lakoff (1989: 103) made an equate clarity with non-politeness where she maintained that politeness only differs in importance depending on the discourse genre which she believed that the more transactional the interaction is, the less important politeness will be.

1.2 Statement of the problem

The universality of politeness is yet to be clarified because politeness varies across cultures which create problems in establishing objective measures for application across cultures. In this case, misunderstandings in communication can occur when one is unaware of another one’s culture. Ehlich (1992) has warned of the dangers of ethnocentricity in determining the standards of politeness that apply to all groups whereas Hymes (1986:49) emphasized on the cautions of the tendencies in seeking the satisfaction of universal framework without considering the empirical inadequacy of them. Malaysia is a country that consists of various ethnics that have different practices, cultures and beliefs. Its biggest ethnic groups are the Malays, followed by the Chinese, Indian, and lastly the minority ethnics. Politeness is important because it can cause misunderstandings if it is not taken seriously. However, due to the culture differences politeness is viewed differently by different groups of society in Malaysia. The B&L’s model cannot be applied in some of these cultures because they do not seem to fulfil each other’s wants. Gu (1990) argued that the B&L’s concepts are not adequate to account for aspects of Chinese and Matsumoto (1988, 1989) argued that the B&L’s notion of face with its individual territorial rights cannot be applied to the Japanese since the Japanese are more concerned with positional relation to others rather than with the individual territory.

Everyone has the tendency to be rude when speaking to other people and they can in fact choose to be or not to be rude whenever and wherever they want. However, does this mean that they do not know the rules of politeness? According to the B&L theory of politeness, an utterance is considered polite when there is an implicature that is generated due to the violation of the conversational maxims in order to save the face of others. An utterance can be polite even though the implicature is not. If that is so, how can someone tell when someone else meant to be polite or rude? A speaker’s communication competence is correlated to the degree of politeness. In order to be a competent speaker, one must possess communicative competence which consists of four types of competencies which are Grammatical competence, Sociolinguistic competence, Discourse competence, and Strategic competence. Grammatical competence is the mastery of the language and Sociolinguistic competence is the knowledge of appropriate language use. Discourse competence on the other hand means the knowledge of how to connect utterances in a text in order to make sure it is both cohesive and coherent. Finally, strategic competence refers to the mastery of the strategies used by speakers to compensate for breakdowns in communication as well as the strategies that they use in order to enhance the effectiveness of the communications.

The B&L’s model agreed with Grice’s co-operative principles and the conversational maxims which consider politeness as part of rational communication. Grice’s theory assumed that communication involves the intention of a speaker which is directed at a hearer and intended to be recognized (Brown and Levinson, 1987:7) and that communication is governed by a rational Cooperative Principle and also a number of maxims which give rise to conversational implicatures (1987:3). The co-operative principles emphasized four maxims which are the maxim of quantity, maxim of quality, maxim of relation, and maxim of manner which are formulated under the assumption that the common purpose of the talk exchange is to be maximally efficient and reliable. If one has to follow the B&L’s concepts, one probably has to flout the co-operative principles. One’s utterance can be polite even if the speaker doesn’t mean anything polite. One can be rude even though it is not done on purpose and one can be polite even though it is not meant. According to Grice (1957:219, 1968:122), in order to mean something by an utterance one must have the intention to produce some effect in an audience by means of the recognition of this intention. In short, one can choose to follow the Brown and Levinson’s concepts or neglect its message to save the face of others.

Interruptions are not tolerated in the English language but it is tolerated in the Italian language. It is considered rude for a person to interrupt another person’s speech in the English culture. (Brian Paltridge, 2005). Interruption is also considered as a Face Threatening Act. (Jonas Pfister, 2010). For this reason, interruption is considered rude among Malaysians for example interrupting a person’s conversation when he or she is not finished talking. If this is true, what about the practice of interruptions in a debate competition? One may question when and where can politeness be applied. Some would even consider interruption by permission in a conversation is tolerable. If so, one may question the accuracy of the definition of the terms ‘rude’ and ‘polite’. Both competent and incompetent speakers can choose to neglect the politeness rules whenever they want and yet, they are still considered as competent and incompetent speakers of a language.

1.3 Objectives of study

This study seeks to:

To investigate the politeness practices among competent and incompetent speakers of English in Malaysia.

To understand the many reasons that lead to rudeness among most incompetent and competent speakers of English in their conversations.

To give guidance to incompetent and competent speakers of English in helping them to understand the politeness strategies.

To help us understand the needs in educating these incompetent and competent speakers of English in language usage.

1.4 Research questions

The following are the research questions for the study:

1.4.1 What are the factors that cause incompetent and competent speakers of English to have the tendencies to sound rude in their speeches?

1.4.2 What are the ways that may help the incompetent and competent speakers of English in improving their speeches?

Who are responsible in helping the incompetent and competent speakers of English in improving their speeches?

When and where should the incompetent and competent speakers of English be polite when having a conversation with others?

Significance of the Study

This study is important in order to help us understand about the problems faced by the incompetent and competent speakers of English in their everyday conversations. This study is also concern whether there is a need for maxim of politeness in our everyday conversation. Politeness is hardly defined due to the lack of clarification of its term and its definition has been argued by many researchers in their various theories of politeness. Researchers such as Lakoff (1973), Leech (1983), Kingwell (1993), Davis (1998), and Kalia (2004, 2007) believed that a maxim of politeness is needed in our everyday conversation and their views will help us to understand the significance of the term polite. This study also explores the competent and incompetent speaker of English in Malaysia’s point of views of the term polite based on their own understandings and practices since politeness can differ across cultures. I will also explain why the Brown and Levinson’s theory is not satisfactory and cannot be universally accepted. Through this study, a Malaysian perspective of the term polite can be explored, understood and compared.

Scope of the study

This study is conducted in Fakulti Bahasa Moden dan Komunikasi (FBMK) UPM which is confined to the population of 12 selected ESL learners in Malaysia. All of the respondents are picked randomly from 3 major races in Malaysia which are Malay, Chinese, and India besides. However, the natives of Sabah and Sarawak are not included.

Definition of Terms

For the purpose of the study, the following terms are defined below in order to facilitate a better understanding of the study’s main concern.

1.7.1 Polite

The term ‘polite’ refers to the use of politeness rules regardless of expectation (Lakoff, 1989). Besides that, an utterance is considered polite if and only if there is an implicature that is generated due to the violation of a conversational maxims because of concerns of face (Brown and Levinson, 1987).

1.7.2 Non-polite

The term ‘non-polite’ refers to the behaviour of not using politeness rules and yet not expected (Lakoff,1989).

1.7.3 Rude

The term ‘rude’ on the other hand includes the disregarding of the politeness rules when they are in fact expected (Lakoff, 1989).

1.7.4 Positive Face

The term ‘Positive face’ refers to the want that the wants be desirable to others and also the wants be approved of by others (Brown and Levinson, 1987).

1.7.5 Negative Face

The term ‘Negative face’ refers to the want of every member that his wants be desirable to at least some others. Negative politeness is said to be more polite than the positive politeness.


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