Review of Culpeper, Jonathan, Michael Haugh and Dániel Z. Kádár (eds.). 2017. The Palgrave Handbook of Linguistic (Im)politeness. London: Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 978-1-137-37507-0

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Any linguistic field desires a complementary relationship between theory and application. The two aims have relatively autonomous research methods, and while the results of theoretical studies supply perspectives for the analysis of linguistic data, the analyses of linguistic data provide input for theoretical developments. Diversity is another desired trait: a wide range of linguistic phenomena and communicative acts explained by a coherent theory enrich language analysis. The book ‘The Palgrave Handbook of Linguistic (Im)politeness’ demonstrates that the field of (im)politeness research excels in terms of both complementarity and diversity.

The book is composed of four parts. The first two parts, ‘Foundations’ and ‘Developments’ concern theoretical aspects of the research. Seven chapters in ‘Foundations’ show how researchers who are inspired by Brown and Levinson (1978/1987), who were in turn inspired by Goffman (1967), as well as Lakoff (1973) and Leech (1983), have been cultivating the research field of (im)politeness for more than 20 years. They have focused on the issues of face, power, ideology, indexicality and convention, and have contributed to pragmatic theory and sociocultural studies. Eight chapters in the second part, ‘Developments’ introduce how Brown and Levinson’s politeness theory has been examined critically, and how (im)politeness research has extended its domain to compensate for weaknesses of the original theory. As discussed in detail below, the concept of impoliteness (Culpeper 1996, 2005, 2011) has brought a new perspective to the (im)politeness research: impoliteness as well as politeness manifests as facework strategies achieved discursively. The topics in this part vary from impoliteness, identity, rationality and emotion to prosody, gesture and methodology.

The remaining two parts focus on (im)politeness in context. The third part, ‘(Im)politeness and variation’ examines the classical aspects of variation across gender, region and culture, as well as diachronic variation. The last part, ‘(Im)politeness in specific contexts’ include studies of (im)politeness in institutional encounters such as workplace, service, healthcare, legal and political exchanges, as well as studies of (im)politeness in fictional texts and digital communication.

Chapters in these four parts are overviewed in the following paragraphs.

The first chapter of the section of ‘Foundations,’ ‘Pragmatic Approaches (Im)politeness’ (Jonathan Culpeper and Marina Terkourafi) describes the pragmatic character of the classic theory of politeness. The concept of Face Threating Acts (FTA) (Brown and Levinson 1978/1987) is based on the speech act theory (Austin [1962]1975, Searle 1969): FTAs are speech acts that threaten the face of the speaker or the hearer. Politeness is explained as the principle (Lakoff 1973, Brown and Levinson 1978/1987 and Leech 1983) by which the conversational maxims (Grice 1975) are ratified.

‘Sociocultural Approaches to (Im)politeness’ (Sara Mills) introduces an interactive sociocultural model of (im)politeness. Brown and Levinson (1978/1987) developed a model of politeness which focuses on the individual speaker who aims to achieve her/his goal in a conversation. Sociocultural approaches, on the other hand, concern the role that society and social norms play in the production and understanding of politeness. In these approaches, politeness is constructed jointly by individuals in groups, informed as they are about wider social norms relating to politeness.[1]

‘Ideology and (Im)politeness’ (Manfred Kienpointner and Maria Stopfner) defines the concept of ‘ideology’ as a general perspective organizing our attitudes and beliefs in relation to the (social) world. The chapter adopts the distinction between politeness 1 (the common-sense notions of politeness) and politeness 2 (a term within a theory of social behaviour and language use) (Watts et al. 1992) and describes ideologies of (im)politeness 1, which concerns class, gender, ethnicity and age, and ideologies of (im)politeness 2, which is rationalistic, homogenising, code-based or inference-based ideologies.

‘Face and (Im)politeness’ (Jim O’Driscoll) takes a historical approach to the use of face in politeness studies. In Brown and Levinson (1978/1987) face is the public-image that every member of a society wants to claim for her/himself. In Goffman (1967), on the other hand, face is a phenomenon involving interactions. The two sides of face that Brown and Levinson (1978/1987) distinguish as positive and negative face are described as connection and separation face (Arundale 2006), approach and withdrawal (Terkourafi 2007) and interpersonal and personal face (Janney and Arndt 1992) among others.

‘Power, Solidarity and (Im)politeness’ (Helen Spencer-Oatey and Vladimir Žegarac) explores the concepts of power (P) and solidarity/distance (D) and demonstrate that P and D play the major role in the performance, interpretation and negotiation of linguistic (im)politeness. P and D are key variables in Brown and Levinson (1978/1987) and Leech (1983). According to them, the greater the weight of P and D the greater politeness that is required. This idea is challenged by Wolfson (1988), who claims greater politeness is shown to those who are neither intimate nor distant.

An index stands for its object by virtue of a real connection with it (Peirce 1901), and Lyons (1977) interprets one sense of ‘index’ as signs that reveal personal characteristics of the writer and speaker. ‘Indexicality and (Im)politeness’ (Barbara Pizziconi and Chris Christie) introduces studies of (im)politeness as an indexical phenomenon. They analyse authentic, situational data about (im)polite behaviours, and account for the cultural and historical background against which they occur.

‘Convention and Ritual (Im)politeness’ (Marina Terkourafi and Dániel Z. Kádár) discusses the characteristics of the philosophical concept of ‘convention’ and ‘ritual’ as they apply to (im)politeness phenomena. The concept of ‘convention’ advocated by Grice (1975), Strawson (1964) and Lewis (1969), and in particular, the convention of usage can account for (im)politeness. The chapter describes the situational nature of ritual (Goffman 1967 and Brown and Levinson 1978/1987), arguing that ritual politeness encompasses a variety of ‘local’ ritual practices, which are not ‘transparent’ from the outsiders’ perspective.

The first chapter of the section of ‘Developments,’ ‘Impoliteness’ (Jonathan Culpeper and Claire Hardaker) describes impoliteness not only as a research target (equivalent to rudeness) but also in terms of research principles and methodology. Linguistic impoliteness is not a simple mirror image of linguistic politeness, which is extensively studied by Brown and Levinson (1978/1987); they focus on mitigating threat to face, and ignore impoliteness. Impoliteness research emphasises how lay-person’s conception of impoliteness is revealed in their discourse, and how impoliteness is constructed in the ebb and flow of interaction. Studies of impoliteness lie in a middle ground between the classic and the discursive approach, as shown also in relational approaches (e.g. Spencer-Oatey 2001 and 2008) and the frame-based approach to politeness (Terkourafi 2001).

‘(Im)politeness and Identity’ (Pilar Garcés-Conejos Blitvich and Maria Sifianou) presents the view that face and identity are intrinsically related and co-constitute each other. Solidarity/deference and verbal aggression, which are broadly related to (im)politeness, can be tied to process of identity construction. The authors claim that the intrinsic relation between face and identity is evident in Goffman (1967), who conceptualises face as being tied to a line (a role, an identity) (Garcés-Conejos Blitvich 2013), while Brown and Levinson (1978/1987) alter the essence of this construct, and present face as a cognitive construct possessed by a rational person.

‘(Im)politeness and Relationality’ (Jun Ohashi and Wei-Lin Melody Chang) explores the sociocognitive construct of face-as-relationship, which is based on Goffman’s (1967: 5) original sense of face: ‘the positive social value a person effectively claims for himself(sic) by the line others assume he has taken during a particular contact.’ They maintain that a person who claims the social value in open negotiation is conceptualised dialectically through relationships.

‘(Im)politeness and Emotion’ (Andreas Langlotz and Miriam A. Locher) puts forward the idea that emotions are intricately tied to the concept of face and identity construction. Emotions are both personal and social phenomena (Planalp 1999). Emotional communication can be taken as an ontologically basic form of intersubjective engagement (Foolen et al. 2012). Emotions are directly linked to sociality and relationship building and function as the glue for social bonding, giving the edge to acts of social sanctioning (Boxer and Cortés-Conde 1997).

Mixed messages are messages which contain features that point towards a polite interpretation mixed with features that point towards an impolite interpretation (Culpaper 2011, Rockwell 2006). ‘(Im)politeness and Mixed Messages’ (Jonathan Culpeper, Michael Haugh and Valeria Sinkeviciute) discusses mismatching interpersonal messages in interaction that are incongruous on at least one level of interpretation or generate a sense of interpretive or evaluative dissonance. Examples include irony, ritualised banter and teasing. Mixed messages can involve a complex interplay of polite and impolite attitudes, and are very often designed to be ambivalent as to the producer’s ‘genuine’ intentions. As a result, they often give rise to a range of different evaluation on the part of participants.

‘(Im)politeness: Prosody and Gesture’ (Lucien Brown and Pilar Prieto) asserts that (im)politeness resides not just in what you say, but also how you say it, and, therefore, multimodal approaches are required for (im)politeness research. The chapter examines prosody (fundamental frequency parameters, duration, intensity, voice quality) and gesture, and demonstrates that prosody and gesture play crucial roles in the way that politeness is negotiated in context.

‘Experimental Approaches to Linguistic (Im)politeness’ (Thomas Holtgraves and Jean-François Bonnefon) overviews experimental research on linguistic politeness. Experimental approaches to politeness can provide important information regarding the processing of politeness and hence address theoretically important issues such as relationship between politeness and indirectness.[2] Another important development is the use of electrophysiological techniques to examine politeness in real time.

‘(Im)politeness and Developments in Methodology’ (Andreas H. Jucker and Larssyn Staley) surveys data collection methods in a large range of research that uses the term ‘politeness’ or ‘impoliteness,’ or focuses on specific speech acts that are considered to be polite or impolite. Those methods are classified into (i) armchair approaches (those of philosophers such as Austin and Searle, in which the work was entirely based on their own intuition and critical thinking), (ii) laboratory approaches (experimental approaches), (iii) field approaches (based on the empirical observation of naturally occurring data), (iv) diary studies (researchers collect specific instances of verbal behaviour as they encounter them in their daily life), (v) interactional approaches (researchers analyse the function of utterances in both their discourse and social context), (vi) philological approaches (fictional texts, e.g. movie scripts, plays or novels are analysed) and (vii) corpus-based studies.

As the first chapter of the part of ‘(Im)politeness and Variation,’ ‘Historical (Im)politeness’ (Andreas H. Jucker and Joanna Kopaczyk) focuses on the variation of (im)politeness across time and overviews the research in this field. The major research includes Brown and Gilman (1989), who use William Shakespeare’s tragedies to test Brown and Levinson’s (1978/1987) politeness theory, and Culpeper (1996), who uses an extract from Macbeth to show how impoliteness can play an important role in the development of character and plot. Research on historical (im)politeness examines forms and functions of address terms such as thou and ye (Bunrnley 2003), and the diachronic development of ‘polite’ pronouns such as French vous and German Sie. Face-threatening or face-enhancing speech acts are investigated, and Kohnen (2008), for example, focuses on directives in Anglo-Saxon England. Busse (2002) describes the politeness effect produced by the diachronic shift form requests with pray to requests with please.

‘(Im)politeness: Language Socialization’ (Haruko M. Cook and Matthew Burdelski) discusses language socialization in relation to (im)politeness. Language socialization theory considers language as embedded in cultural practice and acquired together with sociocultural knowledge. The process of language socialization involves learning to understand and use language as an index of politeness in relation to identities, actions, and activities, among others. The research focuses on interactional routines, and examines requests and directives as well as honorifics.

According to ‘(Im)politeness: Learning and Teaching’ (J. César Félix-Brasdefer and Gerrard Mugford), research into interlanguage pragmatics (ILP) has demonstrated that various aspects of pragmatics can be taught in the classroom from beginning levels of language instruction. Some studies in ILP focus on the teaching and learning of L2 politeness and processes of socialisation, and the chapter introduces three approaches. In the teaching conformity approach, the target language (TL) politeness models are adhered to by imitating native speakers’ interactional norms and practices, or by following conventional speech act patterns. Discursive approaches are based on the premise that (im)politeness is enacted and achieved interactionally between participants, and foreign language (FL) users decide how to engage in (im)politeness practices and negotiate their identities. Face approaches to researching the teaching and learning of (im)politeness emphasise how FL interactants wish to come across and interact with other participants, and researchers examine what interactants are trying to achieve individually, collectively, culturally and socially with other interactants.

‘(Im)politeness and Gender’ (Malgorzata Chalupnik, Christine Christie and Louise Mullany) highlights the significant role that gender has played in politeness research. Lakoff (1975) explains gendered differences in linguistic behaviour, and argues that differences are both a symptom and a cause of social inequalities between men and women. Brown (1980) aims to show how the specific features that distinguish the speech of men and women are related in a specifiable way to the social-structural pressures and constraints on their behaviour. Homes (1988, 1993, 1995) adopts Brown and Levinson’s (1978/1987) framework, and assumes that politeness behaviour is strategic. In Butler’s (1990) theorisation of gender performativity, gender is described as a verb, as something that people do rather than something that they inherently possess. She argues that specific reiterative discursive practices have the power to shape social reality. From the 1990s, scholarship on gender and language increasingly regards gender as an unstable construct that speakers achieve through their use of linguistic resources.

‘(Im)politeness and Regional Variation’ (Klaus P. Schneider and María Elena Placencia) examines how notions of (im)politeness and appropriate behavior vary across countries sharing the same language. Traditional dialectology has predominantly concentrated on regional variation within one country. There is a more recent tradition of investigating regional variation at the national level. Examples include French (spoken in France, Belgium, Switzerland and Canada) and German (spoken in Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Belgium). Five types of regional variation are distinguished: supranational, national, subnational, local and sublocal. Among those studies with an explicit (im)politeness focus, some draw on Brown and Levinson’s (1978/1987) face theory and its variations such as Scollon and Scollon (2001), while others draw on Leech’s (1983) Politeness Principal and maxims or Spencer-Oatey’s (2000, 2008) rapport management framework.

‘(Im)politeness and Cultural Variation’ (Maria Sifianou and Garcés-Conejos Blitvich) overviews arguments relating to the universality and inter- and intracultural variation of politeness, while discussing the issues of cultural variation. The most influential early politeness theories (Lakoff 1973; Brown and Levinson 1978/1987; Leech 1983) were basically universalistic assuming that the rules, strategies and maxims presented were of universal application. Soon after, substantial criticism of the assumed universal applicability of these early politeness models came initially from non-Western scholars. However, the early politeness theorists would agree that no society is completely uniform in its politeness orientation, and Brown and Levinson (1978/1987), for example, allow for a certain degree of cross-cultural variation. New ways of looking at politeness phenomena and their relationship to ‘culture’ were initiated by Eelen (2001). The so-called ‘discursive’ approach to politeness emerged as prominent and highly influential (Haugh 2007; Kádár 2011; Mills 2011). Discursive researchers place emphasis on the need to explore lay understanding of politeness, and the hearer’s subjective evaluation of the politeness exhibited by the speaker. It has been argued that, instead of making overgeneralization about cultural linguistic norms of a language community as a whole, politeness and impoliteness should be seen as resources available to interlocutors within specific subcultures and genre practices and the resources which different groups will view in different ways.

‘Intercultural (Im)politeness’ (Michael Haugh and Dániel Z. Kádár) observes that the bulk of studies of im(politeness) have been cross-cultural rather than intercultural. Cross-cultural studies have analysed im(politeness) in intracultural settings and compared cases across cultural groups. Intercultural studies, on the other hand, analyse im(politeness) in encounters between interactants with different cultural backgrounds, and this area is relatively understudied. The complication in the case of intercultural encounters is that the moral grounds for evaluations of ‘polite,’ ‘impolite,’ ‘appropriate’ and ‘inappropriate’ cannot be readily presumed by participants, but must inevitably be negotiated across multiple perspectives. Researchers in intercultural communication assume that, because participants are from different national or ethnic backgrounds, an intercultural interaction ensues. Van der Bom and Mills (2015), for example, have argued that cultural norms in intercultural interactions are ‘discursively negotiated.’ While it is clear that evaluations of im(politeness) are discursively accomplished, it is not so clear what makes sequences of interaction intercultural as opposed to simply interpersonal. Intercultural encounters represent the perspective of the cultural ‘other’, which is an etic perspective.[3]

As the first chapter of the final part, ‘(Im)politeness in Specific Contexts,’ ‘(Im)politeness in the Workplace’ (Janet Holmes and Stephanie Schnurr) focuses on (im)politeness in workplace interaction. Linguistic politeness is defined as discursively strategic interaction intended and perceived as having been used to maintain harmonious relations and avoid conflict with others. Analysing (im)politeness in workplace discourse is located within a social realist framework. Early research focused on the analysis of written texts, but more recently the research has shifted its focus to spoken interaction. This focus has been extended beyond corporate white-collar environments to (im)politeness phenomena in a wider range of different sociocultural contexts. The research on (im)politeness in workplace interaction provides in-depth analyses of how specific, often potentially face threatening, speech acts are performed by members of specific workplaces in a chosen sociocultural context. Requests, directives, disagreements, complaints and refusals are speech acts frequently scrutinized in workplace contexts. Humour is another discursive strategy which (im)politeness researchers have investigated.

‘(Im)politeness in Service Encounters’ (Rosina Márquez Reiter and Patricia Bou-Franch) describes studies of (im)politeness and service encounters (SEs). Early studies in service encounters brought to light the repetitions and predictabilities of such mundane social interactions and the communicative subtleties embedded within the genre. The bulk of research on (im)politeness in SEs concern dyadic, face-to-face interaction, and they have been characterized by features like brevity, explicitness, limited range of speech acts (e.g. requests) and stability in participants’ roles, rights and obligations. The advent of the digital revolution has transformed the world of SEs. Consumers who have access to product information can challenge the knowledge and authority that has traditionally been within the sole purview of service providers.

‘(Im)politeness in Health Settings’ (Miriam A. Locher and Stephanie Schnurr) describes studies of (im)politeness in health care communication, which are diverse and varied. They have examined (im)politeness in different healthcare contexts, and the different types and forms of communication and participants involved in the interactions that characterise these contexts. In addition to traditional institutionalised contexts (such as hospitals or general practices), (im)politeness research is increasingly conducted in medical environments such as social care settings, counselling services, and educational settings. Research on internet-related healthcare environments, such as emails and postings on online discussion boards, and a range of healthcare-related websites, is on the rise. Another topical strand that runs through the research on (im)politeness in healthcare settings is that of culture.

‘(Im)politeness in Legal Settings’ (Dawn Archer) reviews studies relating legal settings, and the key ideas, concepts and theories in respect to (im)politeness. Those studies describe politeness and/or its absence in legal settings, such as courtroom interaction, appellate court opinions, judicial hearings and police interaction. The range of possible face-work strategies within legal settings traverses everything from face enhancement to face aggravation. Several researchers argue against assigning the evaluation impoliteness to institutionally sanctioned aggressive facework, when it is contextually ‘legitimate and desirable’ without being ‘centrally intended as face attack’ (Tracy 2008: 175). For example, cross-examining lawyers are able to use ‘linguistically aggressive behaviour’ (Archer 2011: 3220-21) to undermine the (counter-)crime narrative of the opposition, as part of their role.

‘Facework and (Im)politeness In Political Exchanges’ (Karen Tracy) defines political discourse as talk or writing which involves at least one government official in communication with others about matters of public concern (Ädel 2010). Facework in political exchanges regularly involves positive and negative linguistic politeness forms mixed with self-face enhancing formulations and other face-attacking moves. People’s evaluations of rudeness and reasonableness are not consistent but are linked to the political groups with which they affiliate and the positions they hold on issues of dispute.

‘(Im)politeness in Fictional Texts’ (Dan McIntyre and Derek Bousfield) shows how fiction can provide useful data for the analysis of (im)politeness. The application of theories, models and frameworks for the analysis of (im)politeness can be revealing of process of characterization, and can also assist analysis in uncovering the locus of plot developments. One advantage of fiction as data is that fiction constitutes a limited data set, and another is that it has discourse structures that are more complex than those found in naturally occurring conversation. Short (1996) identifies three levels of discourse in prototypical prose fiction: (i) discursive communication between the author of the text and the reader, (ii) the communication between the narrator of the text and the narratee, and (iii) the discourse level in which characters interact with each other.

According to ‘(Im)politeness in Digital Communication’ (Sage L. Graham and Claire Hardaker), the research on (im)politeness in computer-mediated communication (CMC) is complicated by the characteristics of the media and platform involved. Some platforms such as Skype are highly synchronous, while others such as email and blogs can be asynchronous. Graham (2007) notes that the more asynchronous an environment is, the more likely it is that any perception of impoliteness will expand and multiply within a community. Perceptions of impoliteness in CMC are also affected by the participation structures in different media. In private short-form messages such as SMS (text messages) or IM (instant messages), users select recipients, while writers of a blog do not have a real sense of who is reading their blogs. Other factors that affect (im)politeness in CMC include anonymity and longevity.


[1] Tzanne and Sifianou (2019) also focus on societal (im)politeness. They identified two emerging social identities, those of ‘polite’ and ‘impolite citizen’, dynamically co-constructed as binary opposites by the journalist and posters involved.

[2] Terkourafi (2014) proposes a view of the function of indirect speech, which emphasizes the role of the addressee and the importance of network ties. Terkourafi (2019) argues that processes of urbanization and globalization produces a need for increased explicitness, which drives speaker (and listeners) away from indirectness.

[3] Haugh and Chang (2019) examine the role of emic or cultural members’ understandings in studies of (im)politeness across language and culture. They analyze criticisms, specifically other-criticisms, in initial interactions in which participants are getting acquainted.

About the authors

Oishi Etsuko

Tokyo University of Science

Author for correspondence.
Tokyo, Japan

professor of linguistics


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