What Philosophers say about ‘Politeness’


Politeness is understood in terms of conflict avoidance (Lakoff 1990, Brown and Levinson 1978). From a pragmatic point of view, Lakoff (1990: 34) states that politeness facilitates interaction by minimizing the potential for conflict and confrontation inherent in all human interchange.

There have been several contributions to the study of politeness in the past and recent times. Research has shown that Lakoff, Leech and Brown, and Levinson were some of the earliest linguists to study politeness.

Since then, many other theorists have either built on their ideas and principles or tried to disprove them. Many global philosophers have worked on “Politeness” but few of them will be discussed here.

Robin Lakoff

Lakoff was one of the linguists to study politeness and gave birth to the notion that politeness is an important aspect of interaction that needs to be studied.

His Theory of Politeness

Lakoff’s theory of politeness suggests that people follow a certain set of rules when they interact with each other, which prevents interaction from breaking down (Johnstone, 2008). Lakoff proposes that there are two rules of politeness, which aim to minimize conflict in an interaction, as outlined in “Politeness Theory”, 2011)

Lakoff’s Rules

Be clear

  • Maxim of Quality: This states as much information as is needed in the conversation but not more.
  • Maxim of Quality: Only say what you believe to be true based on your knowledge and evidence.
  • Maxim of Relations (be relevant)
  • Maxim of Manner: Be concise, avoid confusing, ambiguous statements

Be polite

  • Don’t impose
  • Give options

Make others feel good

This subset of “Be polite” has also been referred to as the maxim of formality or distance, the maxim of hesitancy or deference, and the maxim of equality or camaraderie (Johnstone, 2008)

Lakoff suggests that interlocutors must try to find a balance between these three maxims because they cannot all be maximized at the same time. When the balance of these three maxims is thrown off, people perceive behavior or speech to be inappropriate or impolite (2008).

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Brown and Levinson

Brown and Levinson developed a theory of politeness that drew on Goffman’s idea of facethe and expanded upon Lakoff’s rules of politeness. According to him, there are two kinds of faces, which reflect two different desires present in every interaction (Johnstone, 2008)

Negative Face

This is the ‘need to be independent to have freedom of action and to be imposed on by others. Leech (1992:62)

Positive Face

A person‘s positive face is the need to be accepted, even liked by others to be treated as a member of the same group and to know that his or her wants are shared by others.’ (Leech, 1996: 62)

Brown and Levinson theorize that the face must be continually monitored during a conversation because it is vulnerable. During a conversation, the face can be lost, maintained, or enhanced. It is important to not only maintain one’s face but also the face of others (Fraser, 1990)

Interlocutors must be able to save face when they are confronted with a “face-threatening act” (FTA), which threatens the faces of the addresses (Johnstone, 2008). Fraser (1990) outlines the four potential face-threatening acts, proposed by Brown and Levinson. There are below.

  • Acts that threaten the audience’s negative face: ordering, advising, threatening, warning
  • Acts that threaten the audience’s positive face: complaining, criticizing, disagreeing, and raising taboo topics.
  • Acts that threaten the speaker’s negative face: accepting an offer, accepting thanks, promising unwillingly.
  • Acts that threaten the speaker’s positive face: apologizing, accepting compliments, and confessing.

Brown and Levinson then propose possible strategies that interlocutors can use to deal with face-threatening acts. “Politeness Theory” (2011) outlines them below.

Bald On-record politeness

This strategy is used in situations where people know each other well or in a situation of urgency. In these instances, maintaining face is not the priority or main goal of a conversation.

A person may shout, “watch out” if they see someone is in danger or a mother may tell her son to “eat” your “peas” at supper. This strategy does not try to preserve face but can be used to threaten it if taken out of context.

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This strategy is more indirect.  The speaker does not impose on the hearer. As a result, the face is not directly threatened. This strategy often requires the hearer to interpret what the speaker is saying.

Positive Politeness

This strategy tries to minimize the threat to the audience’s positive face. This can be done by attending to the audience’s needs, invoking equality ad feelings of belonging to the group, helping or indirectness, avoiding disagreement, using humor and optimism, and, making offers and promises.

Negative Politeness

This strategy tries to minimize threats to the audience’s negative face. An example of when negative politeness would be used is when the speaker requires something from the audience but wants to maintain the audience’s right to refuse.

This can be done by being indirect, using hedges or questions, minimizing imposition, and apologizing.

Although Brown and Levinson acknowledge that what constitutes positive and negative face differs across cultures, they would agree with Lakoff that the concept of face is universal (Johnstone, 2008)


Leech’s theory approaches politeness from a more pragmatic perspective. He begins by establishing two pragmatic systems: pragmalinguistics and sociopragmatics.

Pragmalinguistics includes the speakers’ intentions and illocutionary acts. This system accounts for the more linguistics application of politeness.

Alternatively, sociopragmatics refers to how the speaker wants to be perceived socially (Politeness Theory, 2011)

Leech also introduces two rhetorics for conversation: textual and interpersonal. Interpersonal rhetoric addresses politeness and has three principles (Fraser, 1990)

The Politeness Principle

This principle addresses the relationship between the speaker and the audience. It is important to help establish and maintain feelings of belonging and unity within a group.

This principle accounts for the regulation of familiarity and allows participants to believe that their contributions to the conversation are constructive and accepted (Politeness Theory, 2011)

The Irony Principle

The principle accounts for how the speaker can be perceived as being polite even though their intentions are impolite (Politeness Theory)

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Grice’s Conversational Principle

This principle is divided into seven maxims, which attempt to maximize or minimize elements of the interaction. They are as follows:

  • The Tact Maxims: This maxim aims to minimize costs to the speaker and maximize benefits to the audience.
  • Generosity Maxims: This maxim aims to maximize the benefits for others and minimize benefits for self.
  • Approbation/Praise Maxims: This maxim aims to minimize dispraise of the audience and maximize praise/approval of the audience.
  • Modesty Maxim: This maxim aims to minimize praise of self and maximize dispraise of self.
  • The Agreement Maxim: The maxim aims to minimize disagreement with the audience and maximize agreement.
  • Sympathy Maxim: This maxim aims to minimize antipathy towards the audience and maximize sympathy.
  • Consideration Maxim: This maxim aims to minimize the hearer’s discomfort and maximize the hearer’s comfort (Fraser, 1990)

Leech’s theory of politeness also establishes scale, which is used for determining how the maxim should be used and balanced.

  • The Cost-Benefit Scale: This weighs the costs and benefits that an act will have on the speaker and the audience.
  • Optionality Scale: It weighs how many choices the goals of the speaker allow the audience.
  • Indirectness Scale: It weighs how the audience must work to understand the speaker.
  • Authority Scale: This weighs the right of the speaker to impose their ideas onto the audience.
  • Social Distance Scale: It weighs the degree of familiarity between the speaker and audience (Fraser, 1990)

According to Leech, different situations call for different degrees of politeness. He outlines four main situations, which call for politeness.

  • Competitive: The speech goal competes with the social goal. In this situation, politeness is viewed as being negative. For example: giving order
  • Convivial: The speech goal matches the social goal. In this situation, politeness is viewed as being positive. For example: thanking someone.
  • Collaborative: The speech goal is the indifferent social goal. For example: making an announcement.
  • Conflictive: The speech goal conflicts with the social goal. For example: making an accusation (Fraser, 1990)
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