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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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Is face management the fundamental and universal motivation behind polit-
eness? Don’t people sometimes attack each other’s face via insults and challe-
nges? Isn’t there individual and cultural variability in politeness? In other words,
are people in all cultures always concerned with the collective management of
face? Well, no, they are not. And these facts have raised a number of issues
regarding the conceptualization of face and face management as they relate to

First, people sometimes engage in aggressive face-work and perform speech
acts that directly threaten (rather than support) another’s face (Craig et al., 1986;
Penman, 1990; Tracy, 1990; Tracy & Tracy, 1998). Obviously such occurrences
need to be explained within a theory of politeness, and the Brown and Levinson
model clearly gives short shrift to such occurrences. The lack of politeness
(bald-on-record) is not the same as aggressively threatening another’s face. One
possibility would be to expand the model to include an aggressive face-work
strategy, a strategy that would be less polite than bald-on-record (Craig et al.,
1986). In this regard, some language researchers have proposed that certain
speech acts can be ordered on a mitigation-aggravation continuum (Goguen &
Linde, 1983; Labov & Fanschel, 1977; McLaughlin et al., 1983). It is important
to note, however, that aggressive face-work (insults and challenges) has its
impact, in large part, because it is assumed that people will be face supportive. It
is thus the presumption of politeness that is assumed, not its actual occurrence.
So although people may engage in aggressive face-work, they succeed in doing
so because of the underlying presumption of cooperative face-work.
A related criticism is that there has been an overemphasis on the management
of the hearer’s face at the expense of face-work directed toward managing one’s



own face (Craig et al., 1986; Penman, 1990; Ting-Toomey, 1988). Although the
self- vs. other-face distinction is included in the Brown and Levinson model, the
politeness strategies they consider are clearly oriented toward the hearer. This is
because face management is assumed to be cooperative; threats to the other’s
face are threats to one’s own face. So, by supporting the other’s face, one is
supporting one’s own face. But clearly there are times when there is a trade-off
between protecting one’s own face and managing the face of the hearer.
Consider the giving of an account for violating a norm, an act that is interesting
because of the simultaneous threat to both the speaker and the hearer. The
occurrence of a violation threatens the offended person’s positive face (e.g., an
insult) and/or negative face (e.g., spilling a drink on the host’s carpet), as well as
the offender’s positive face (a desire to look good) and/or negative face
(remedial work must now be done). A concession (admitting fault) with an
apology supports the hearer’s positive face (and possibly negative face if resti-
tution is included), but will simultaneously threaten the speaker’s positive and
negative face. Conversely, refusing to provide an account will prevent the
speaker’s positive and negative face from being threatened, but will increase the
positive and negative threat to the offended person (Gonzales, Manning, &
Haugen, 1992; Holtgraves, 1989). Although not necessarily a zero-sum
situation, for certain speech acts, there does appear to be an inherent tension
between giving and receiving face; the more attentive a speaker is to the hearer’s
face, the more the speaker’s face is humbled. Thus, estimates of act weightiness
may need to incorporate the perceived cost to the speaker for using a particular
politeness form.

Finally, one of the most important issues surrounding politeness is its status
as a cultural universal. Although few would argue with the claim that politeness
exists in all cultures, the claim that positive and negative face are universal
desires motivating the form that politeness takes has been questioned by many
researchers. These arguments take several forms. Some have argued that the
Brown and Levinson politeness continuum does not hold in all cultures. Katriel
(1986), for example, argues that in Sabra culture in Israel there is a preference
for a direct, straightforward style; greater directness (the lack of politeness) is
seen as more attuned to the interactants’ face than is politeness via indirectness.
A second general critique is that negative face is relevant only in Western
cultures, or cultures where there is an emphasis on individual autonomy. For
example, Rosaldo (1982), in her analysis of Llongot speech acts, argues that
directives in that culture are not particularly face threatening, referencing as they
do group membership and responsibility rather than individual wants and desires
(see also Fitch & Sanders, 1994). Hence, directives in that culture will usually
not be performed politely. Similarly, Matsumoto (1988) argues that in Japanese
culture, interactants orient toward their relationships instead of emphasizing
individual rights; hence, negative face wants are relatively unimportant. As a
result, strategies normally viewed as addressing negative face may take very



different forms in Japan. For example, deference can be indicated by increasing
imposition on the hearer (by displaying dependency) rather than by attempting
to lessen an imposition.
Clearly there is great cultural variability in terms of politeness. The crucial
question is whether this variability is a result of differing cultural conceptions of
face or whether these differences can be explained at a lower level of
abstraction. Brown and Levinson (1987) assumed positive and negative face to
be universal desires, but that cultures will vary in terms of what threatens face,
who has power over whom, how much distance is typically assumed, and so on.
In this view, politeness can serve as a framework for examining cultural
differences. Thus, certain acts are more threatening in some cultures than in
other cultures, and hence, greater politeness will be expected for those acts in
the former than in the latter. For example, directives appear to be more
threatening in Western cultures than in Ilongot culture and, hence, are more
likely to be performed politely in the former than in the latter.
There have been several demonstrations of the utility of politeness theory for
explaining cross-cultural differences in language use. Recall that the theory
predicts greater politeness as a function of perceived distance, imposition, and
power. Now, cultures and subcultures may systematically differ both in terms of
the default values for these variables, as well as in terms of the weighting given
to these variables. Regarding the former, Scollon and Scollon (1981) report that
Athabaskans tend to assume greater distance when interacting with unacq-
uainted individuals than do English-speaking Americans. As a result, the former
display a preference for negative politeness strategies and the latter a preference
for positive politeness strategies, preferences that can result in misunderstanding
when members of these groups interact.
In terms of the weighting of the variables, Holtgraves and Yang (1992) and
Ambady et al. (1996) have demonstrated that South Koreans weight the power
and distance variables more heavily than do U.S. Americans. This means that
South Koreans tend to vary the politeness of their remarks as a function of
power and distance to a greater extent than do U.S. Americans. This is an
important finding and one that dovetails nicely with the concept of indivi-
dualism-collectivism. In collectivist cultures such as Korea, strong distinctions
are drawn between in-groups and out-groups, and this results in greater overall
variability in social interaction (Gudykunst, Yoon, & Nishida, 1987; Leung,
1988; Wheeler, Reis, & Bond, 1989). Hence, the findings for politeness are
consistent with the overall pattern of greater behavioral responsiveness to social
situations for collectivists relative to individualists. Another possibility in this
regard has been suggested by Ting-Toomey (1988), who has argued that the
politeness of people in collectivist cultures focuses more on other-face, while the
politeness of people in individualistic cultures focuses more on self-face.
The concepts of face and face-work have great utility in terms of explaining
the patterning of language behavior over contexts. Is face a universal concept?



Possibly. Do people in all cultures have both positive and negative face wants?
Possibly, but they will probably be weighted differently. Do acts threaten face in
the same way in all cultures? Definitely not. The specific manifestations of face
threat show great cultural and subcultural variability. Again, with politeness
theory we are at a relatively high level of abstraction, a level that provides a
framework for explaining cross-cultural similarities and differences in language
use. And the importance of such a framework should not be underestimated.
Examining cross-cultural variability in language use without such a framework
would result in a purely descriptive enterprise, a listing of features that appear to
be cross-culturally different, but which at a higher level may reflect similar
underlying motivations. Now, one problem with the theory, as with any broad
theoretical enterprise (e.g., Freudian psychoanalytic theory), is that it may
border on the non-falsifiable. For example, failing to confirm politeness theory
predictions in one culture can be explained away by arguing that face was
manifested differently in that culture. Obviously, specification of the
manifestations of face within a culture needs to be undertaken before the theory
can be tested within that culture.

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