- Politeness

Politeness is one of the central features of human communication. It is a human phenomenon, yet expressed differently in different cultures. Politeness is communicated both verbally and nonverbally. One of the well-know classifications of linguistic politeness is that of Brown and Levinson (1978). They talk about positive and negative politeness.

Positive politeness refers to an atmosphere of inclusion and mutuality created by linguistic means such as compliments, encouragement, joking, even the use of "white lies." Small talk is one expression of positive politeness; that is, creating linguistically a connection to other people.

Negative politeness involves respecting the privacy of other people and leaving a "back door" open, that is, showing some reservation. The use of distance-creating linguistic devices (e.g., passive forms), irony, or general vagueness is characteristic for this kind of linguistic politeness.

Developing the concept of politeness further, Scollon & Scollon (1995) distinguish two kinds of linguistic politeness strategies: involvement strategies and independency strategies. These strategies reflect the general human social needs to be connected to other people, yet to be independent and unique.

Some examples of involvement strategies include

  • Paying attention to the other person or taking care of him/her (e.g., "You have a beautiful dress"; "Are you feeling better today?").
  • Being optimistic ("I believe that we will make it").
  • Being voluble (speaking as such already indicates a willingness to participate).
  • Using the other person´s language or dialect.


Some examples of independency strategies include

  • Giving the other person the possibility to retreat ("It would have been nice to have a cup of coffee together but you must be busy").
  • Speaking in general terms ("The rules of the company require…...").
  • Not speaking much.
  • Using your own language or dialect.


The core of politeness, in all cultures, is to take other people into consideration, to take care. This can, however, be done in different ways. In the Finnish social context, leaving somebody in peace, respecting his/her privacy, may be considered as polite in certain contexts (e.g., in times of sorrow or illness). In some other cultures, this kind of behaviour could be judged as impolite, or even rude. Politeness norms and behaviours are culturally and socially learned, and misunderstandings are therefore interculturally common.


© Liisa Salo-Lee, 2006



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