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Politeness Theory

Politeness theory is an important branch of pragmatics developed by Penelope Brown and Stephen Levinson in the 1970s. The theory draws heavily upon Erving Goffman's concept of face theory and has advanced this concept with a particular focus on how and why we are polite to others. 

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Politeness Theory

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Politeness theory is an important branch of pragmatics developed by Penelope Brown and Stephen Levinson in the 1970s. The theory draws heavily upon Erving Goffman's concept of face theory and has advanced this concept with a particular focus on how and why we are polite to others.

Erving Goffman (1922-1982) was a Canadian sociologist, social psychologist, and writer who significantly influenced the study of English language with his theory of face.

Goffman (1955) defines face in the concept of face theory as "The positive public image [we] seek to establish in social interactions." It's also helpful to think of face as 'self-image'. Naturally, most of us want to protect our self-image and wish to portray a positive image of ourselves to others.

Brown and Levinson's politeness theory

Politeness theory works on the assumption that we have two different types of 'face': Positive face and Negative face.

  • Positive face is an individual's desire to be liked and appreciated by others. Think of this as a person's self-esteem.
  • Negative face is an individual's desire to protect their personal rights, such as their freedom of speech and action.

When we are polite to people, we are appealing to one of these two types.

  • Positive politeness: Appealing to a person's Positive Face can mean making the individual feel good about themselves.
  • Negative politeness: Appealing to a person's negative face can mean making the other person feel like they haven't been imposed upon or taken advantage of.

Brown and Levinson suggest that when we are rude to people or impede their personal freedoms, we commit face-threatening acts (these are directed at the person we are talking to). When we admit and apologise for our shortcomings, we commit face-threatening acts (which are directed at ourselves). They also suggest that cooperation is needed between speakers during social interaction. This is to maintain the face of both your own and of the person you are speaking to.

Politeness and face theory

Now that we have a basic understanding of politeness theory and the concept of face, let's take a closer look at the differences between positive and negative 'face'.

Positive face/positive politeness

Brown and Levinson defined positive face as an individual's desire to be liked, admired, ratified, and related to positively. Maintaining a positive face means maintaining and exhibiting a positive self-image to the rest of society.

When we are appealing to someone's positive face, we want to increase their self-esteem and make them feel good about themselves. For example, we might compliment someone's outfit, congratulate someone on their achievements, or agree with something they say. When we wish to protect someone's positive face, we avoid criticisms, insults, and disagreements.

Let's look at ways of appealing to someone's positive face.

You always wear such lovely clothes! I'd love to borrow something one day."

Here, the speaker makes the listener feel good about themselves by complimenting them and confirming their choice of clothes.

This piece of work is really fantastic. Well done! "

Here the speaker is congratulating the listener on their work and recognizing their achievements.

The speaker can also protect his/her positive face. We do this by concealing actions that may be damaging to our self-image. In the world of Sociology, this is referred to as 'saving face'. Saving face is a strategy for avoiding humiliation or embarrassment, maintaining dignity or preserving one's reputation.

Negative face/ negative politeness

The concept of negative face is a little trickier to grasp. Brown and Levinson define negative face as an individual's desire not to have their basic rights and freedoms impeded by others. Whereas positive face involves a desire to be connected to others, negative face desires autonomy (a person's ability to act on their own interests).

When we appeal to a person's negative face, we want to make them feel like they haven't been taken advantage of.

"I know it's a real pain, and I hope you don't mind, but could you please print these off for me?"

Here the speaker has appealed to the listener's negative face by using what Brown and Levinson call Negative Politeness. Here the speaker has used negative politeness strategies, like hedging and indirectness, to avoid feelings of imposition on the listener.

Imposition = "A situation in which someone expects another person to do something that they do not want to do or that is not convenient."

What are face-threatening acts?

A face-threatening act is when communication can damage a person's sense of face or affect the needs and desires of someone's positive or negative face.

Face-threatening acts can be verbal (using words or language), paraverbal (conveyed in the characteristics of speech such as tone or inflexion), or non-verbal (facial expressions or body language).

According to Brown and Levinson, face-threatening acts may threaten either the speaker's or the listener's face (either positive or negative).

Positive face-threatening acts damaging to the listener

Acts that threaten the listener's positive face and self-image include expressions of disapproval, accusations, criticism, and disagreements. Face-threatening acts can also be expressions that show that the speaker does not care about the listener's positive face, for example mentioning taboo or emotional topics, interruptions, and expressions of violent emotions.

Let's take a look at some face-threatening acts (positive face).

"I don't like that outfit at all."

"You ate all my cheese, didn't you?!"

"I'm definitely better at maths than you."

"Didn't your last partner cheat on you all the time?"

Politeness theory Angry girl StudySmarterFig. 1 - Disapproval is a type of positive face-threatening act.

Positive face-threatening acts are damaging to the speaker

Acts that threaten the speaker's positive face and self-image include apologies (an acceptance of being wrong), confessions, and a loss of emotional control.

"I'm all over the place right now and haven't done any housework in weeks!"

Negative face-threatening acts are damaging to the listener

Acts that threaten the listener's negative face and restrict their personal freedoms include utterances that pressurise the listener into doing something in the future, such as giving an order, making a request, giving a reminder, or making a threat. Alternatively, face-threatening acts can involve the speaker expressing a strong emotion towards the listener that typically requires some form of positive reaction. For example, paying a compliment and expecting a compliment in return.

Let's take a look at some face-threatening acts that threaten the listener's negative face.

"I really like you." - In some situations, this would be lovely to hear. However, imagine you don't really like the person but now feel obliged to say something nice in return.

"Pick that up for me."

"If you don't apologize, I won't speak to you again."

Negative face-threatening acts damaging to the speaker

Acts that threaten the speaker's negative face and impede on their personal freedoms include speech acts they feel obliged to perform, such as apologies, excuses, acceptance of compliments or gratitude.

"Thanks, I like your outfit too."

What are the four politeness strategies?

According to Brown and Levinson, there are four main strategies we can use to limit the threat to the listener's face when face-threatening acts are inevitable. We usually use these strategies to avoid embarrassing someone or making them feel uncomfortable. Brown and Levinson propose four politeness strategies: Bald on-record, Positive politeness, Negative politeness, and Off-record (indirect).

Let's take a closer look at each of these.

Bald on-record

The Bald on-record strategy does not attempt to limit the threat to the listener's face. We usually use this strategy when there is a sense of urgency if we know the listener well, or if there is a low risk of threat to the listener's face. When we use this strategy, we get straight to the point and do not use any additional language to help soften our message.

"Watch out!" - Sense of urgency.

"Your headlights are on!" - In the interest of the listener.

"Eat up!" - This command would likely be face-threatening if the speaker and listener did not know each other. However, if the speaker and listener know each other well, this would be deemed acceptable.

The positives of this strategy include: getting recognition for being honest; avoiding confusion by not using unnecessary language; and putting public pressure on the listener when needed.

Positive politeness

Positive politeness strategies aim to reduce the threat to the listener's positive face. Positive politeness strategies include: finding common ground; juxtaposing criticism with compliments; telling jokes; and using statements of friendship (think about nicknames, slang or insider jokes that only you and your friends use). These strategies make the listener feel good about themselves and avoid conflict or offence by emphasising friendliness and politeness.

"Hey mate, can I borrow a fiver?" - Using friendly language.

I love your shoes, and your hair looks great. I'm not sure about that top, though...”- Juxtaposing a criticism with compliments.

"Oh, you played this word wrong. Don't worry, I spell things wrong all the time! " - Finding common ground.

The positives of this strategy include: an increased sense of solidarity between the speaker and the listener; decreased social distance.

Negative politeness

Negative politeness strategies are aimed at the listener's negative face and are meant to avoid any imposition on the listener. We use negative politeness strategies when we presume that our speech will impose on the listener in some way and wish to avoid feelings of awkwardness or embarrassment. Such strategies include hedging (a word or phrase that makes a statement less forceful or assertive), minimizing the imposition, apologizing, being indirect, and using questions rather than commands.

"I don't suppose you know where the toilets are, do you? " - Being indirect and hedging.

Could you print this off for me? It's only a few pages and won't take long! " - Minimizing the imposition.

"I'm so sorry, but could you help me?" - Being apologetic.

Off-record (indirect)

Brown and Levinson's final politeness strategy is the off-record or indirect strategy. This strategy involves some serious indirectness; the speaker typically avoids saying the potentially face-threatening act altogether.

Instead, the speakers' intentions are implied, and it is up to the listener to interpret them. In this situation, the speaker can get credit for not imposing on the listener, and the listener is given a chance to present themselves as helpful or generous. However, this strategy relies heavily on pragmatics to convey the intended meaning.

Speaker: "Is there a free chair over there?"

Listener: "Yes, here you go." (They give the speaker a chair).

Speaker: "I have a headache."

Listener “Oh dear. Here, take some of my painkillers."

In both situations, the speaker never actually asks for anything and therefore the imposition on the listener is reduced.

The positives of this strategy include: getting credit for being tactful and avoiding responsibility for a potentially face-threatening act.

Sociological variables

Brown and Levinson list three sociological variables which determine the degree of politeness to use. These variables are: the social distance between speaker and listener; the relative power difference between the speaker and listener; and the level of the seriousness of the potential face threat.

Generally speaking, degrees of politeness can vary in the following three situations:

  • The greater the social distance between the speaker and the listener, the more politeness is expected.
  • The greater the listener's perceived relative power over the speaker, the more politeness is recommended.
  • The greater the imposition on the listener, the higher level of politeness is required.

What are some examples of politeness theory in practice?

Let's compare two sentences that have the same meaning but use different politeness strategies.

  1. "Stop talking"

compared with,

  1. "I'm sorry, but I don't suppose you'd mind being a bit quieter?"

Here the intended meaning is pretty clear; the speaker wants the listener to be quiet! However, in the second example, the speaker has implemented several negative politeness strategies to minimize the face-threatening act. In the second sentence, the speaker apologizes, uses indirect language, and turns a command into a question.

Take a look at the following example. What strategies do you think the speaker has used in the second sentence to minimize a potentially face-threatening act?

  1. "I need to borrow some money."

Compared with

  1. “Hi mate! You look well. Hey, would it be okay if I borrowed some money? "

Answer: The speaker has used the positive politeness strategies of giving a compliment and using statements of friendship.

Politeness theory Man asking for money StudySmarterFig. 2 - Giving compliments and using statements of friendship are positive politeness strategies.

What are some criticisms of Politeness Theory?

Politeness theory has been accused of being ethnocentric in its approach as it fails to recognize that politeness can vary around the world. Brown and Levinson based their own definition of politeness on Goffman's face theory (1967)A major criticism of the face-saving model is that it invokes a Western-centric bias and it has been suggested that 'Different cultural backgrounds may lead to different productions of the level of politeness' (Chang, 2008).²

Ethnocentric = To apply one's own culture or ethnicity as a frame of reference to judge other cultures and beliefs.

Politeness Theory - key takeaways

  • Politeness theory was introduced by Penelope Brown and Stephen Levinson in the 1970s. The theory is based on Goffman's concept of face theory and focuses on how and why we are polite to others.
  • Politeness theory works on the assumption that we each have two different types of face: Positive face and Negative face. When we appeal to a person's positive face, we want to make them feel good about themselves. When we appeal to a person's negative face, we want to make them feel they haven't been imposed upon.
  • A face-threatening act is when communication damages a person's sense of face or affects the needs and desires of someone's positive or negative face. Face-threatening acts can be verbal, paraverbal, or non-verbal.
  • We can use four strategies to limit the threat to the listener's face when face-threatening acts are inevitable. We usually use these strategies to avoid embarrassing someone or making them feel uncomfortable. Brown and Levinson outline the four politeness strategies as follows: Bald on-record, Positive politeness, Negative politeness, and Off-record (indirect).
  • There are three sociological variables to consider when calculating the appropriate amount of politeness to use. These are: the social distance between speaker and listener; the relative power difference between the speaker and listener; and the ranking of the seriousness of the face threat.

¹ Erving Goffman, Interaction Ritual: Essays on Face-to-Face Behavior (1967).

² Wei Lin Chang, Australian and Chinese perceptions of (im) politeness in an intercultural apology (2008).

Frequently Asked Questions about Politeness Theory

Politeness theory, developed by Penelope Brown and Stephen Levinson, is centered on the idea of appealing to a person's positive or negative face by being polite.

According to Brown and Levinson, there are two main types of politeness: one that appeals to the listener's positive face and one that appeals to the listener's negative face. When we appeal to a person's positive face, we want to make them feel good about themselves. When we appeal to a person's negative face, we want to make them feel they haven't been imposed upon.

The four politeness strategies proposed by Brown and Levinson are: 

  • Bald on-record
  • Positive politeness
  • Negative politeness
  • Off-record (indirect)


Politeness theory is important because it helps maintain good relationships and helps individuals meet their negative and positive face needs.

Politeness theory has been accused of being ethnocentric in its approach as it fails to recognize that the concept of 'being polite' can vary around the world.

Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

What politeness strategy has been applied in the following sentence?“ Your writing is great. It's so clear and relatable, but I'm not sure about this paragraph. "

What politeness strategy has been applied in the following sentence?“Can you pick these things up for me at the store? There are only a few bits, I promise it won't take you long! "

What are you doing when being rude to someone?

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