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5. The Theoretical Foundation for the GEBCom Reception Test Critique of Brown & Levinson’s theory of politeness


make under the circumstances” (Brown & Levinson, 1987, p. 71). In other words, although there may be (and most likely will be) cultural differences as to what constitutes a FTA, the hierarchy of strategies for dealing with this is the same across cultures. This is quite an interesting claim, especially since many empirical studies report great variation (Eelen, 2001, pp. 131-141). As an example, my GEBCom colleague reported great variability in the linguistic strategies of her respondents even though the closed roleplay setup of her test ensured that the conditions they were under were in fact the same (see Ibsen, 2016). In fact, in the same fictive scenario of producing a permission in a formal context in which you would expect politeness to be an issue, the participants (all British native speakers) divided almost equally between imperative, declarative and interrogative sentence forms (Ibsen, 2016, p. 112). You might say that they simply interpreted the scenario and its context differently, hence the different sentence forms, but if everything is an (individual) interpretation, would it ever be possible to speak of being under the same conditions?


distance’ (D), and the ‘ranking of the imposition’ (R) (Brown & Levinson, 1987, pp. 74-84), are assessed but also in the more overall definition of face as highly individual wants. The criticism from Matsumoto (1988) points to exactly this idea, arguing that the central notion of Brown &

Levinson’s conceptualisations of face and politeness, i.e. the need to be free from imposition from others and the need to have individual wants acknowledged and accepted as similar to those of others, is based on a strong emphasis on the individual and his/her rights to be an individual, a notion central to the European and American cultures, but not to the Japanese: “what is of paramount concern to a Japanese is not his/her own territory, but the position in relation to the others in the group and his/her acceptance by those others” (Matsumoto, 1988, p. 405). And not only is the adherence to the group and the definition of oneself according to the group or in relation to the group what makes the Japanese culture different from the European and American cultures and thus incompatible with Brown & Levinson’s notions of face, but the way that politeness is expressed linguistically is also fundamentally different in Japanese.

Along the same lines, Gu (1990) argues that Brown & Levinson’s understanding of politeness and its relationship with face cannot account for how politeness works in modern Chinese for several reasons. Firstly, Brown & Levinson’s conceptualisation of the negative face as the want to be free from imposition is not consistent with the Chinese conceptualisation of the negative face as being:

“threatened when self cannot live up to what s/he has claimed” (Gu, 1990, p. 242). As an example, Gu suggests the repeated dinner invitation, which, he argues, will no doubt seem like a threat to the hearer’s negative face in a European context, but on the contrary seems polite to a Chinese hearer (Gu, 1990, p. 242). Secondly, Gu argues that Brown & Levinson’s claim that (their model of) politeness is not prescriptive or normative as face is not a normative aspect but a basic want of every member of society (Brown & Levinson, 1987, p. 62) does not hold for the Chinese context. Politeness in a Chinese context is not just instrumental but also highly normative in

“constraining individual speech acts as well as the sequence of talk exchanges”. He bases this argument on the distinction between individual and society, and the focus of Brown & Levinson on the individual, in the sense that: “politeness is a phenomenon belonging to the level of society, which endorses its normative constraints on each individual” (Gu, 1990, p. 242).

Instead Gu (1990, pp. 245-255) proposes his own account of politeness through the Politeness Principle with its various maxims, all based on Gricean accounts. His concluding remarks echo those of Matsumoto (1988, p. 424-425) in highlighting that speaking of politeness as a universal


phenomenon is only possible at a very abstract level, and what actually constitutes politeness and polite behaviour will be highly culture and language specific (Gu, 1990, 256). This resonates with Haugh’s (2004) argument that politeness strategies and forms differ across languages and cultures because the very way politeness is conceptualised differs as well. Through an in-depth investigation of how politeness is conceptualised in English and Japanese, respectively, he argues for fundamental differences but also for certain similarities or commonalities only at a more abstract level.

Gu’s (1990) initial critique of the universal definition of (negative) face is shared by Bargiela-Chiappini (2003), who argues that Brown & Levinson’s definition of face is in fact weaker than Goffmann’s original definition with respect to cross-cultural validity even though the former was designed to accommodate cross-cultural variation and the latter was intended for intra-cultural application only (Bargiela-Chiappini, 2003, p. 1462). Bargiela-Chiappini (2003) reassesses the notion of face and face-work by returning to Goffman’s (1967) original definitions, arguing that face-work is central to communication in general and should thus be distinguished from politeness (Bargiela-Chiappini, 2003, p. 1464). Politeness should be understood as polite behaviour and separated from linguistic strategies, being “a multi-facetted social phenomenon that originates within the moral order” (Bargiela-Chiappini, 2003, p. 1465).

Along the same lines, Pizziconi (2003) also questions the relationship between face-work and politeness, especially in relation to positive politeness. Pizziconi (2003), although agreeing to parts of Brown & Levinson’s theory, argues that positive politeness, i.e. attending to the hearer’s positive face, does not occur only as a redressive action in relation to face threatening acts, but is in fact in play all the time as “face respecting act [… and] face enhancing act” (Pizziconi, 2003, p. 1486). As a consequence, positive politeness is not reserved for communication between intimates as Brown & Levinson state (1987, p. 103), but is a general characteristic of communication, and, argues Pizziconi, should be viewed more along the lines of being appropriate than being polite (Pizziconi, 2003, pp. 1486-1487). This view alters the relationship between negative and positive face so that the positive face is of most importance and the maintenance of this is not restricted to redressive actions against potential threats but is in play all the time (Pizziconi, 2003, pp. 1486-1487, 1499).


Eelen (2001) raises a critique against Brown & Levinson (as well as a number of other theories of politeness) on a number of different points all of which I shall not go through here. Of special interest to my project is his claim that Brown & Levinson’s theory of politeness is strongly biased in favour of the speaker in the sense that politeness is described solely as a strategy from the speaker, and there is no real elaboration of the actual role of the hearer. The only thing for the hearer to do in order to understand politeness is to reverse the reasoning to arrive at the intention behind the speaker’s utterance (Eelen, 2001, pp. 96-97). Eelen argues that: “the hearer is absent from the theoretical models in the sense that politeness is always seen as a behavioural practice with which the speaker tries to achieve something, rather than as a behavioural practice with which the hearer tries to achieve something” (Eelen, 2001, p. 104, author’s emphasis). This is problematic because it means that the researcher rather than analysing the entire communication situation ends up analysing only part of it, i.e. that related to the speaker.

Another interesting point of critique relates to the relationship between the individual and a given culture, or the notion of politeness based on what Eelen refers to as sharedness (Eelen, 2001, pp.

129-138). Theories on politeness, including Brown & Levinson’s, build on an assumption of some shared norms or rules, be these cultural or social, which set the standard for appropriate interaction between the members of the given culture (or society), but none of the theories specifically address how these cultural rules become internalised. How can you explain a change in individual behaviour through a change in culture without explaining the link between the individual and the culture? According to Eelen (2001, pp.131-141) the theories explain this link through the notion of sharedness. The norms or rules work because they are shared by all individual members of society. This notion of sharedness is explicit for some theories of politeness, whereas for others, such as for example Brown & Levinson, sharedness is more implicit. Even though, Brown &

Levinson focuses on the individual, their model would not work in a given culture, Eelen (ibid) argues, if not its concepts of face, power, distance and rank of imposition were shared by all individuals of that culture. Brown & Levinson’s Model Person, i.e. a “fluent speaker of a natural language […] endowed with […] rationality and face” (Brown & Levinson, 1987, p. 58), thus becomes the “embodiment of sharedness” (Eelen, 2001, p. 132) because all individuals are expected to share this understanding of appropriate behaviour.

This touches upon the previous discussion that under the same conditions any rational agent would be expected to choose the same strategy. Yet claiming that the norms and rules of a certain culture


become the norms and rules of the individuals of that culture simply because they are shared by them makes little sense. It still does not answer the question of how they become shared, how the individual internalises the cultural. In other words, what seems to be Eelen’s (2001, p.131-141) point with all of this is that the notion of sharedness is a theoretical assumption rather than an empirical observation, and this is – assumingly – problematic. Especially, he argues, since many empirical studies report great variability in evaluations of politeness. Since sharedness is an underlying theoretical assumption, even variability is explained through it, i.e. as systematic deviations from a shared norm.

The notion of sharedness and the relationship between individual and culture is of course relevant in a cross-cultural perspective, but perhaps even more so in an intercultural one. If theories of politeness, including Brown & Levinson’s, build on the implicit notion that for politeness to work it must be a shared norm by members of a culture, the question necessarily arises of what happens to sharedness in an intercultural or and ELF setting. If we follow the culture relativistic perspective that politeness both as a theoretical and empirical concept should only be conceptualised within a specific cultural and linguistic frame, what happens when we transcend that frame and move into another language at the same time foreign and common? And likewise, even if we maintain a universalistic approach but with cultural adaptations, is there a core to politeness universal enough to handle a shift from mother tongue to a foreign, but common, language?

Kecskes (2015) investigates impoliteness in an intercultural setting and raises the question of what is shared in an intercultural encounter: “when a Spanish person is speaking with a Chinese person in English, whose norms will define what is considered im/polite?” (Kecskes, 2015, p. 46). He argues that impoliteness works differently in intercultural communication than in native language communication because it is characterised by much less regularity and much more variety, and as a consequence individual factors take precedence over social factors (ibid). Kecskes (2015, pp.

46-47) states that familiarity with impoliteness formulae in the foreign language and the individual evaluation are the two main factors in the evaluation of impoliteness in an intercultural setting emphasising that some research indicates that non-native speakers make a more literal interpretation of an utterance (i.e. overriding contextual clues) than a native speaker does.