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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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Not only is language use an action, it is simultaneously an interpersonal action.
By interpersonal action I mean that what we do with language—the actions that
we perform (e.g., a request)—have implications for the thoughts and feelings of
the involved parties, as well as the relationship that exists between them. Our

LANGUAGE AS SOCIAL ACTION: SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGY AND LANGUAGE USE

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words are typically addressed to other people, and people are not abstract
entities devoid of feelings, goals, thoughts, and values. People’s language use—
how they perform actions with language—must be sensitive to these concerns.
We cannot always say exactly what we mean because we generally do not want
to threaten or impose on or criticize our interlocutors. Of course we have the
same feelings and goals and thoughts and values; we do not want to be criticized
and threatened and imposed on, either. These interpersonal concerns are related.
By attending to others’ feelings we increase the likelihood that they will attend
to ours. Language appears to be remarkably responsive to these concerns. Many,
if not all, languages allow speakers to perform threatening actions (e.g.,
requests, criticisms) in ways that attend to these feelings.
I consider the interpersonal determinants of language production in detail in
chapter 2—“The Interpersonal Underpinnings of Talk: Face Management and
Politeness.” In this chapter, I focus primarily on politeness theory (Brown &
Levinson, 1987), a comprehensive framework for understanding how
interpersonal concerns motivate many aspects of language use. Politeness
theory, although not without problems, has the advantage of postulating links
between interpersonal variables and numerous aspects of language use; it is truly
a social psychological approach to language use.
A number of issues are considered in this chapter. For example, why do
people often not say what they mean? And why is it possible to say the same
thing—perform the same linguistic action—in so many different ways? Also,
why are we more circuitous with some people than with others? Are there
underlying principles (e.g., face management) that account for this variability,
and are such principles valid across cultures? Does this linguistic variability play
a role in person perception and recognition of a speaker’s intention.
Language use is interpersonal in another way; it is a rich source of identity-
relevant information. Many aspects of our language use (accent, speech rate,
politeness level, etc.) provide pieces of information that can be used by others in
forming impressions of us. And many of these variables can be strategically
altered as a means of managing the impressions we convey to others. Hence,
language use plays an important role in both person perception—how we
perceive others, and them us—and impression management—how we
strategically vary our talk to achieve particular effects.
I discuss these ideas in chapter 3: “The Interpersonal Consequences of Talk:
Impression Management and Person Perception.” A number of related issues are
discussed in this chapter. For example, what linguistic (and extralinguistic)
variables play a role in person perception? How do these variables play a role in
person perception? Are people generally aware of these effects, and if so, do
they strategically manipulate these variables as a means of managing their
impressions? What is the role of the social context in these processes? And to
what extent do pragmatic principles guiding conversations play a role in person
perception and impression management?

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INTRODUCTION

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