Politeness theory

The Politeness theory is a theory that appeared within the framework of pragmatic approach in linguistics. According to this theory the interlocutors use particular strategies in order to achieve successful communication. These strategies enable to create maximally comfortable environment for communication.

The key ideas of politeness theory were offered in the works by P. Brown and S. Levinson “Politeness: some universals on language usage”. Relying on the works by American sociologist Erving Goffmann [Goffman 1967], the authors chose the notion of “face” as the basis of their theory. It reflects two opposite needs of a human: on the one hand, a desire to be approved of and appreciated by the interlocutor («positive face»), on the other hand, to have his/her independent point of view and relative freedom of opinion («negative face»). Therefore, politeness is understood as the ability of people to use interactive strategies depending on communicative situation. By their means the communicator is capable of making a good impression on the interlocutor and creating a positive self-image or, on the contrary, expanding his/her personal space [Holmes J. 2006].

Brown and Levinson gradually develop their concept considering every action of the communicants from a perspective of a potential threat to an individual face. According to the authors’ position, a person tends to protect their own face in the communication process thus deviating from clear and direct communication. On this basis we can distinguish the strategies of positive politeness (for instance, demonstration of interest, sympathy) and negative politeness (for example, expressing pessimism, apologizing). Moreover, estimating face threatening acts three basic socio-cultural variables are taken into consideration: social distance between interlocutors, the degree of power on each other and ranking. [Holmes J. 2006].

The comprehensive theory offered by the researchers became the centre of attention of scholars from different fields of science: the concept was used for cross-cultural comparison of speech acts, in gender research, in social psychology etc. However, despite the obvious contribution of the scientists into … formation and development of politeness theory, Brown and Levinson’s research got a whole range of critical remarks and, thus, new approaches to studying this phenomenon were outlined (see Hymes (1986); Bordieu (1990, 1991); Watts (2003); Elen (2011), Ларина (2009) and others).

In particular, the universal application of Grice’s Maxims (Grice 1975) and static perception of the process of interference were negatively received by some scientists. As a result, in response to such remarks the Relevance theory [Sperber, Wilson 1995] appears that tries to overcome the drawbacks of the previous theory. [Pizziconi 2006].

Despite the fact that the basic ideas of the study of politeness were formed within the framework of the pragmatic approach it does not cover all the aspects of this particular phenomenon. Nowadays, the issue remains quite relevant. It is essential not only to specify the notion of politeness but also to consider the appearance and distribution of this speech norm and the boundaries of its variability within the context of different cultures. Further work on the issue of politeness is continued from the perspective of critical discourse analysis, Relevance theory; the analysis of empirical data also reveals new prospects for further researches [Pizziconi 2006].


Brown P. Politeness: Some Universals in Language Usage / P. Brown, S. Levinson. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987. 345 p.

Goffman E. On Face Work: an Analysis of Ritual Elements in Social Interaction // Communication in Face-to Face Interaction. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972. P.319-346.

Grice H. P. Logic and Conversation. In Cole P & Morgan J (eds.) Syntax and semantics, 3: speech acts. New York: Academic Press. 1975. P. 41-58

Holmes J. Politeness Strategies as Linguistic Variables.Victoria University of Wellington, Wellington, New Zeland: Elsevier Ltd, 2006.

Pizziconi B. Politeness, University of London, SOAS, London, UK: Elsevier Ltd, 2006.

Natalia Alekseyenko (Ph.D. student)

Translated by Shklyarchuk Elizaveta