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Language as Social Action

Language as Social Action

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Published by Andriy Savenko

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Published by: Andriy Savenko on Oct 07, 2011
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04/09/2012

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Given the tremendous variability in politeness strategies that exist for
performing any particular act, what determines the particular strategy that a
person will use? The choice depends on the relative weighting of two competing
motives: the motive to communicate efficiently (in accord with Grice’s maxims)
and the motive to manage face. In general, the greater the perceived face threat

LANGUAGE AS SOCIAL ACTION: SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGY AND LANGUAGE USE

47

of the to-be-performed act (or the weightiness of the threat in Brown and
Levinson’s terms), the greater the likelihood that a speaker will opt for a more
polite strategy. This must be balanced, however, against pressures for efficient
communication. In an emergency situation, the motive for clarity should
outweigh concerns with face management (Goguen & Linde, 1983). It makes
little sense to be polite when attempting to warn others of a fire.
What, then, determines the weightiness of the threat? It is the speaker’s
perception of act weightiness, a dimension based on the speaker’s assessment of
three variables: the culturally influenced degree of imposition of the particular
act (Rx), the social distance between the speaker and the hearer [D(S, H)J, and
the relative power of the hearer over the speaker [P(H, S)]. These variables are
assumed to be assessed simultaneously in determining act weightiness, and this
can be depicted with the following formula:

Wx=D(S, H)+P(H, S)+Rx

Thus, increasing weightiness of an act is associated with increasing distance
between the speaker and hearer, increasing power of the hearer relative to the
speaker and increasing imposition of the to-be-performed act. The model makes
intuitive sense. It predicts (and reflection generally confirms) that we are more
likely to be polite (due to increased weightiness) to a higher-power person than
to one who is lower in power than us. We are also more likely to be polite when
asking for a large favor (e.g.,“Do you think I could possibly borrow your car?”)
than when asking for a small one (“Got a quarter?”), due to the greater
imposition of the former relative to the latter.
Several features of this formulation deserve discussion. First, the weightiness
of any act is based on the speaker’s perceptions of these variables. Although
there may be a general consensus (within a culture) regarding the assessment of
these variables (e.g., most would agree that a general has greater power in an
army than a private), in the end such assessments are in the eye of the beholder.
This can result in individual and cultural variability in the assessment of face
threat and, hence, differing levels of politeness in the same situation (a point to
be elaborated on below). Cultures and subcultures, for example, may vary in
terms of how much distance is typically assumed between unacquainted
individuals, resulting in cultural differences in overall politeness (Scollon &
Scollon, 1981).

Second, the variables of power and distance were not randomly chosen; they
are the fundamental dimensions of social interaction and show up (sometimes
under different names) in many empirical and theoretical examinations of
dimensions underlying social interaction (e.g., Wish, Deutsch, & Kaplan, 1976).
Note also that power and distance are related to negative and positive politeness
respectively. Finally, a common reaction to this model is that there must be
other variables impacting politeness. And there are. But power, distance, and

48

2. THE INTERPERSONAL UNDERPINNINGS OF TALK

imposition are high-level, abstract variables that subsume other potentially
relevant variables. For example, power can be based on ethnic identity,
situation-based authority, expertise, or gender. Hence, these variables are
constantly shifting, and this illustrates their contextual sensitivity. In other
words, it is only in a particular context that these variables have meaning. When
the general goes home at night his power might be considerably diminished in
his interaction with his spouse—thus, he may no longer issue orders. Similarly,
the degree of imposition of an act can vary over settings and most importantly
among cultures. What may be regarded as relatively imposing in one culture
(e.g., an offer in Japan) tends to be perceived as relatively less imposing in
another culture (e.g., the United States).

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