How ‘Politeness’ Solves Speech Conflicts


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.

 Fraser and Nolen

Fraser and Nolen define politeness as a conversational contract. According to Fraser and Nolen, a conversational contract has a set of rights and obligations that participants must adhere to and can be negotiated and readjusted during a conversation.

The conversational contract is based on the expectations of the members involved in a conversation and is determined by the participants (Fraser, 1990). Convention, social institutions, and historical terms shape the expectations that people bring to a convention.

Conventional terms are general and can be applied to any situation. Conventional terms include talking and speaking loud enough for the other person to hear you (Fraser, 1990), institutional terms address the rights and expectations dictated by society.

These include the expectation that one whispers when they are in a literary or addresses the American President as Mr. President” (Fraser, 1990). Historical terms address the fact that speakers base their expectations for a conversation based on previous conversations with the same or similar participants.

These include ideas about the power or role of other participants (Fraser, 1990). Anything within this conversational contract is considered polite, whereas anything outside of the contact is seen as impolite.

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When people adhere to the rules of the conversational contract, and politeness, participants in a conversation are unlikely to notice it. It is a deviation  from the conversational expectations that participants notice and classify as “impolite” (Fraser, 1990)

Scollon and Scollon

Scollon and scroll view politeness as a model of social interaction. They focus on how interlocutors negotiate face relations during a conversation (Felix-Brasdefer, 2007).

Scollon and Scollon distinguish between three kinds of politeness systems, which are similar to Levinson’s deference, solidarity, and hierarchy (Kamiarahman, 2011). Scollon and Scollon assert that this division explains why politeness differs across cultures. They also introduce two strategies used in politeness.


This strategy refers to the aspect of interaction that emphasizes a connection between the participants. It can be achieved by showing an interest in others, paying attention to others, displaying/claiming group membership, and, using first names (Kumiarahman, 2011)


This strategy tries to highlight the individuality of a participant. This can be achieved by making minimal assumptions, giving hearers the option not to respond, using a distinct, unique language, or using formal names and titles (Kumiarahman, 2011)

Gino Ellen

Gino Eelen argues that politeness can be divided into Politeness 1 and 2. Politeness 1 refers to how politeness is practically applied in interaction on a day-to-day basis. This includes both idea of what polite is and the action of politeness (Felix-Brasdefer, 2007). As outlined by Hamza (2000), Enlen’sEllen’s five characteristics of Politeness 1 include the following:


This includes the notion that politeness and impoliteness are connected to social values and can be evaluated by others. Impoliteness involves negative or positive evaluation.


This is based on a situation where there is a potential for interlocutors to gain or lose something.


It refers to the polite end of the polite-impolite spectrum and the idea that everyone considers themselves and their group to be polite.

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This highlights the notion that politeness is the result of social norms, which allow us to libel politeness as “appropriate”.

Modality and Reflexivity

This refers to the options available to the speaker about which strategies to use in politeness.

According to Eelen, Politeness 2 refers to the theoretical and scientific aspect of politeness. It explains how Politeness 1 works and what it accomplishes for people (Felix-Brasdefer, 2007).

Whereas Politeness 1 is restricted to the polite end of the polite-impolite spectrum, Politeness 2 covers the whole spectrum, and 1 is non-evaluative.

Eelen believes that impoliteness and politeness can both be analyzed from the same perspective. He argues that they are both co-created by the speaker’s utterances and the hearer’s interpretations of them (Hamza, 2001).

According to Eelen politeness is not universal, but is shaped by culturally specific social norms. These influence not only how politeness is produced, but also how it is evaluated(Hamza, 2001). As a result, politeness varies from culture to culture, from language to language, and from dialect to dialect.

According to Eelen, successful politeness is successful communication. It depends on the right application of the right politeness at the right time(Hamza, 2001).

Ellen’s theory places more emphasis on the hearer’s interpretation of what a speaker says and emphasizes the relationship between culture and politeness.


Watts’ theory of politeness is similar to Eelen’s in that it divides politeness into two different senses.

Politeness 1

Politeness 1 refers to our expectations about what polite and impolite behavior entails. These are highly contested and controversial because it is based on individuals’ notions of what politeness is (White, 2005).

Folk Interpretations”, the way we refer to and characterize polite behavior, varies from individual to individual and falls under this category of politeness (Watts, 2003)

Politeness 2

Politeness 2 refers to the universal claims about politeness. Watts argues that these claims are often inaccurate because politeness is constructed by social interaction and is therefore different for all cultures.

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Watts refers to behavior that falls into this category as “polite” and is based on Politeness 1 and is used to enhance others’ view of one’s self (White, 2005). Watts argues that polite behavior is constructed because it is appropriate to the conversation.

Social Interaction

Although people develop expectations about what they expect polite behavior to look like before the conversation, it is always negotiable during the conversation.

He considers politeness about the broader concept of social interaction and relational work. Relational work refers to the effort that interlocutors must invest in negotiating there with others in a conversation (Locker and Watts, 2005). Therefore, he feels it is necessary to study politeness in other aspects of relational work (Lucher and Watts, 2005)

Social and Cognitive Concept

Watts’ theory argues that politeness is both a social and cognitive concept, which is developed through our social interaction and becomes embedded in our cognitive processes (Watts, 3003).

People are not born with politeness, but learn politeness by observing how people interact in social situations. By analyzing the blending process of different individuals, Watts suggests that it is possible to see where people deviate from what is polite or impolite and what characterizes these deviations (Watts, 2003).

Like Eelen, Watts thinks that politeness is not universal but influenced and created but cultural values and that behavior ranges on a spectrum of politeness (Watts, 2003).

Behavior is seen as polite or impolite depending on whether it is seen on the positive or negative end of the politeness spectrum.

Polite behavior is behavior that is seen as being appropriate in a certain social context, whereas impolite is seen as violating those expectations.

However, according to Watts, “Polite and Impolite” are not necessarily opposites and there are no clear boundaries for what constitutes politeness or impoliteness (Locker and Watts).






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