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Ashfaq Aslam

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Face-threatening acts and the politeness strategies used to address them in


light of Brown and Levinsons approach.

This study attempts to investigate the various faces threatening acts (FTA) and suggested politeness
strategies in mitigating the threat to the hearer or speakers positive and negative face. Linguists and
anthropologists have propounded a range of theories addressing politeness. However, Penelope
Brown and Stephen Levinsons theory has gained much popularity among specialists and researchers,
so much so, that opposing theories must first state how and why their framework should be
considered preferable to Brown and Levinsons theory. Therefore, special attention is paid to the
usefulness of the politeness strategies, as patterned by brown and Levinson in lieu, in redressing face
threatening acts.
Positive and negative politeness; positive and negative face
The actions taken by competent speakers in a community in order to attend possible social or
interpersonal disturbance is known as politeness. Traditionally, politeness was only seen to have one
form, namely, deference. Brown and Levinson, however, proposed a change in the framework in
which politeness was analysed. They point out that deference, in some social context, would be seen
as inappropriate and may even be impolite. Instead, use of gestures or comments that orient in group
membership may prove to be more productive.
It is also useful, here, to distinguish between two types of politeness strategies; Negative politenessthat is, strategies that avoid offence by showing deference and Positive politeness strategies- that is
avoiding offence by highlighting friendliness. Furthermore, the notion of politeness and impoliteness
relies on another key concept, called face wants. The notion of face used in the technical sense,
corresponds to its metaphorical meaning in English, for example, he lost face.
The sociologist Ervin Goffman used the concept, face, to describe a personal attribute or quality that
each of us work to protect or enhance. Brown and Levinson, however, narrowed its definition and
propounded that we guard our face against possible damage when we interact with others. Their
proposal of positive and negative politeness strategies corresponds to our desire to uphold our positive
and negative face. Negative face is the want of every competent adult member of a community that
their actions be unimpeded by others. And positive face is the want of every member that their wants
be desirable to at least some others.
Power, distance and the cost of imposition
The choice of politeness strategy employed by the speaker is dependent on many considerations.
Brown and Levinson specified three factors which ultimately determine our politeness strategies.
First, consideration is given to how great the power (p) difference is between the speaker and the
addressee. Second, we consider how great the social distance (d) is between the speaker and
addressee. Finally, we evaluate the cost of imposition, a modified term from brown and levinsons
politeness theory, which is a scalar measure of how serious a face threatening act (FTA) is in a
particular society.
It is argued that, naturally, humans have a tendency to be more polite towards those who are in greater
social power than themselves. Similarly, generally people are less polite towards their close friends
and family than to strangers. As per the popular saying in Mauritania bad manners with your close

Ashfaq Aslam

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friends is propriety. This highlights that excessive propriety between friends can be viewed
negatively. The third factor depends on the how great the social infract is when a certain strategy is
employed in lieu of another. So, for example, asking someone the time can be seen as a minor
imposition. Therefore, very little attention is paid to face wants. On Other hand, asking a stranger for
20 will be deemed a major imposition. Yet, asking ones your parents for the same amount will have a
different weighing. Therefore, it is important to analyse the cost of imposition with regards to the
power and social distance between the speaker and addressee.
Face threatening acts
Brown and Levinson suggested that there are certain conversational events which are inherently face
threatening acts. Once it is undertaken necessarily someones positive or negative face wants is
threatened (it can be either the speaker or the hearer). When this occurs in a conversational exchange,
the only choice that is available to the participants is the extent to which they will show their
politeness. This concept is closely linked to the notion of speech acts - utterances which, in saying,
perform some activity- in the field of semantics.
FTA can affect, as previously mentioned, the positive and negative face and the both the speaker and
hearer. Following table provides some examples of FTAs illustrating threats to positive and negative
face of speaker and hearer.
Whose face is threatened
Addressee

Speaker

Type of face threatened


Negative face
Positive face
Order, requests, threats or Disapproval,
criticisms,
warnings,
complements, disagreement, bringing bad
expressions of envy.
news about H or good news
about S.
Accepting an apology, saying Making an apology, showing
thank you.
lack of (physical or emotional)
control.

It is important to note that FTAs are of varying degree as to the potential damage caused either to the
speaker or hearer. Therefore, the actions required for mitigating potential damage will also, inevitably,
vary. On one end of the scale, certain FTAs do not require any, or very little, mitigating action as it
seen as a trivial act by the speaker and the addressee. Brown and Levinson term this as going on
record or doing the FTA baldly. This refers to committing a FTA without making any effort,
through the use of positive or negative politeness strategy, to soften any potential damage.
On the other end of the scale, so serious is the damage that the speaker resigns himself to silence or
self censorship as the mitigating action. In between these two extremes, there are various options
available to redress potential damage. Below is an illustration of the various options available for
undertaking to redress FTAs.
Go baldly on the record with your FTA
Take action to redress the FTA; attend
to others positive face wants
Take action to redress the FTA; attend
to others negative face wants
Go off record with the FTA (e.g. hint)

Choose not to do the FTA

Least threatening FTA (P & D are small,


C is low)

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Most threatening FTA (P & D are


great, C is high)

Criticism of Brown and Levinsons theory


The interdependence of power, distance and cost of imposition
Brown and Levinson have distinguished between power (a vertical measure- a relation on superiority
and subordination), distance (a horizontal measure- how well people know each other) and
represented them as independent factors. However, this may be misleading, as both power and
distance are heavily interrelated. The closest individuals to us- meaning, the individuals which we
have the least social distance- are, in most cases equals. When the power gap between the individuals
widen, it is also likely that, in most scenarios, the social gap will widen. Therefore, it will be possible
to determine the social distance between individuals by examining the relative power between them
(and vice versa).
The emphasis on a speakers choice
Brown and Levinsons model have, also, been criticised for its heavy focus on the speaker without
much consideration for other social factors. Sachiko Ide pinpoints that Brown and Levinsons model
is reflective of western ideals of individualism and when adopted by collectivist societies (a society
that emphasis the relationships and interdependency of the individuals it is comprised of) it misses
features organising social order, including requirements for polite behaviour. Because of the
restrictive nature of this model to individualistic societies Ide proposed wakimae (refers to the
attention paid to peoples interdependency and to the reciprocity of relationships, and, specifically, the
discernment of appropriate behaviour) as an alternative in applying politeness theory in collectivist
societies like Japan.
Mixed messages: showing attention to both positive and negative face
When attention positive and negative face is interlaced in one utterance, it is quite hazy how one
should analyse these utterances. Complexities that are manifest in individuals and groups are often
overlooked and a simplistic stereotypical categorisations are offered, like Japanese society attends
deference or negative face, whereas, Australian societies attends to positive face.
Summary
It is quite clear that Brown and Levinson have been largely successful at formalising how our
language choices correspond to the larger social framework. This is due to the clear framework which

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they provide for systematically analysing linguistic variation above the level of sounds and
inflection. Some of the criticisms that have been advance addresses the shortcomings of this theory
critically thus proving a sound alternatives or alterations which would aid in providing a more
comprehensive framework to capture the linguistic and social complexities in this subject.