Impression Management



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Contents

I.Introduction 3

0.1 Aims and objectives 6

II.Theoretical Part 7

1. Speech Acts 7

1.1 Indirect speech acts 9

2. The Concept of Politeness 10

2.1 Theories of Politeness 11

2.1.1Conversational contract view 11

2.1.2 The social-norm view 12

2.1.3 The conversational-maxim view 12

2.1.4 The face-saving view 16

3. Cultural values related to English speaking countries 19

3.1 Hofstede´s dimensions 19

3.2 Implications of individualism 20

4. Ritualization 22

4.1 Politeness strategies a la Brown and Levinson 23

4.1.1 Positive politeness strategies 23

4.1.2 Negative politeness strategies 25

4.1.3 Off-record strategies 26

5. Impression Management 29

6. The Genre: Cover Letters 31

6.1 Types of Cover Letters 31

6.2 Structure of Cover Letters 33

6.2.1 Salutations 33

6.2.2 Complimentary Close 34

6.2.3 The main body of the letter 34

6.3 Language of Cover Letters 35

III.Analysis 37

7.1 Introduction 37

7.2 Data 38

7.3 Sequencing of information 39

7.3.1 Justifying the goal 42

7.3.2 Relevancy with the position 48

7.3.3 Main body 53

7.3.4 Request 58

7.4 Sample letter 66

V. Závěr 75

VI.Works Cited 78






  1. Introduction

Communication in the most general sense is a necessary precondition for the cohesion of any society. Through its various levels and forms, interactants exchange meanings, choosing from the seemingly indefinite number of options the expressions conveying their purposes in the most appropriate way. Their choices are, however, limited – they need to consider the immediate context on one hand and the range of means at hand, the more global cultural context. It is obvious that simply the knowledge of vocabulary and grammar is not sufficient. To convey and interpret meanings fully requires also pragmatic sensitivity to implicit communicative messages.

Accordingly, the study of language in the past half a century started to be increasingly interdisciplinary, combining philosophy, psychology, sociology, anthropology and other social sciences. One of the traditional approaches is to view language as a symbolic tool, capable of “actively symboliz[ing] the social system, representing metaphorically in its patterns of variation the variation that characterizes human cultures” (Halliday, 1984: 3). It follows that language systematically reflects information about the society, its members, culture, values and the relationships among them. At the same time, as many sociological theories explain, language as one of the primary socialization means offers the prism through which its users perceive the world around them (see Berger and Luckmann: 1966; Parsons: 1967). Necessarily, all these aspects influence the choices resulting in unique preferences in the treatment of language.

The socio-pragmatic standpoint, which this thesis draws on, attempts to analyze not only what is being said but take into account how, when, by whom and to whom this is communicated. Over the years, one of the major themes in pragmatics turned out to be linguistic politeness – a concept connected with appropriate linguistic behaviour in specific social contexts aiming at easing the tensions arising from the interaction (Levinson, 1983: 12; van Dijk, 1997: 8). It is not easy to grasp as it is always connected with unwritten cultural values and is therefore taken as a matter-of-fact for anyone from within the speech community. Politeness – or, more often the lack of it – becomes apparent whenever different cultural backgrounds clash in important aspects and their corresponding realizations in language because the participants are either not aware of the differences or had chosen not to act according to them.

The reception by the audience may then reveal that some things should better not be thematized at all, or it should be done in a completely different manner. For example, what can be perceived as inappropriate boasting in one culture is an expression of one´s self-awareness. As such it is totally acceptable by its members but not necessarily by someone else. Or, while one culture permits direct request, other culture may use a variety of indirect tactics to do the same, etc. similar situations point to the existence of politeness as the preferred way of communication legitimate within a particular social system.

Possible clashes in understanding what is appropriate do not, however, occur only across languages but even across different sub-cultural backgrounds within the same language. Even within the same speech community, there are slightly different realizations of what is considered appropriate at the particular moment (see Drew and Heritage, 1992). The most apparent instances tend to be those that are ´problematic´ in some way, i.e. those which may threaten the faces of the participants – be it self-presentation or making a request as in case of cover letters. As such, they call for treatment that would make them more acceptable. In other words, they require a degree of politeness professed through a more or less limited range of language strategies.


0.1 Aims and objectives


This thesis is an application of theoretical concepts of politeness (primarily the face-saving view designed by Brown and Levinson) and it attempts to trace the functional choices of those theoretical parameters in a particular text type – cover letters.

An important aspect of this analysis stems from the relative standardization of the genre, which is simultaneously open to creativity, reflecting the individuality of the writer. In case of cover letters, it could be argued that individualization is an important part of the message and one of the decisive moments in the addressee’s evaluation process. All the while, there are aspect most of the letters share.

My main goal is to account for strategies used by native speakers of English when applying for a job. Using authentic material collected from two main sources – HR department of a university in the USA and various Czech language schools employing foreign lectors – I will analyze some of the politeness features, focusing on ritualization and specific politeness strategies used in this specific interaction in connection with their goal.

Although this study is not primarily comparative, I will be inherently using the viewpoint I could hardly ignore or pretend to be free of – my own Czech cultural background and my knowledge of Czech politeness strategies. I do not make any claims of objectivity as it is impossible to detach myself from the influences I have been socialized in. Also, I admit I am to a large extent limited by the fact that I am not a native speaker of English, which necessarily leaves many aspects of cover letters invisible to me. Nevertheless, I do hope, that what might be a handicap will from a different angle contribute to my seeing some aspects a native speaker may not be aware of due to reasons suggested above.





  1. Theoretical Part

1. Speech Acts


In the broadest sense, speech acts are social acts realized by language. As such they are oriented towards the others and aim at communicating meanings. This is possible because both parties rely on “their mutually shared background information, both linguistic and nonlinguistic, together with the general powers of rationality and inference” (Searle, 1985: 8) as the acts always take place as elements of larger structures. The ultimate criterion of success is whether the speaker is understood – that is, whether his or her intention is recognized in the way he or she had planned (Levinson, 1983: 226-230). There are, however, several aspects that may complicate the situation.

Firstly, the understanding of an utterance may be complicated by the fact that there is always some freedom of individual input within the socially prescribed. Coulmans understands creativity in language as the balance between the familiar and the novel controlled by pragmatic factors when the interactants consider the “interplay of grammatical rules, functional adequacy, situational appropriateness, stylistic preferences, and norms of use” (Coulmans, 1981: 6).

Further, the speech act theory is based on the notion that utterances tend to combine several levels of action: the act of saying something together with its determinate sense and reference (locution), the intention behind what is said (illocution), which may but does not need to be the same as the locution, and finally the effect the utterance has on the audience under specific circumstances (perlocution) (Levinson, 1983: 236). Since it is a fact that many social situations recur and so do the communicative goals, for the sake of economy standardized ways of reaching those goals have evolved in the form of speech acts (Kent and Harnish, 1979: 32, Tsui, 1994: 16).

Although the outcome of an utterance usually roughly falls within some of them, the final effect is often reached through a combination of several types of speech acts. Part of the message is also conveyed through their sequencing as well as their combination with other illocutionary acts or support of address terms or adjuncts to the head act as shown by Blum-Kulka (1984: 200).

In language, such economical behaviour is manifested in verbal routines, which are “prefabricated linguistic units in a well-known and generally accepted manner” developed as a result of limited and repeating range of communicative goals (Coulmans, 1981: 1). This means that typical situations require typical expressions.

General speech act theory presupposes “literal force hypothesis” which assumes that there is a connection between illocutionary force and sentence form. This basically means that the above mentioned acts are typically realized through typical verbs, sentence types, particles (such as ´please´) or intonation. Gazard (in Levinson, 1983: 263) defines it as follows:




  1. Explicit performatives have the force named by the performative verb in the matrix clause

  2. Otherwise, the three major sentence types in English, namely the imperative, interrogative and declarative have the forces traditionally associated with them namely ordering (pre-requesting), questioning and stating respectively (with, of course, the exception of explicit performatives which happen to be in declarative format)

If this hypothesis is true, it may be inferred that a sentence used in any other way than suggested in the above rules has some additional meaning. Its form, nevertheless, has to remain within some socially defined scope to be recognizable and use prescribed forms “which naturally tend to become conventionally polite ways” of communication (Searle, 1979: 49). Such cases are described as indirect speech acts and have become one of the main topic of pragmatics.


1.1 Indirect speech acts
Indirectness seems like the more difficult road to take, as it is costly for the speaker and the addressee alike in terms of encoding and decoding the message. At the same time, they run the danger of misunderstanding, especially if they do not share the cultural background. Despite all this, indirectness has become an integral part of languages because it is motivated by a very important aspect of interaction – politeness.

To demonstrate this, let us take two examples of asking for money as quoted by Levinson (ibid, 1983: 274):


(109) Please lend me some cash.

(110) I don’t suppose you would by any chance be able to lend me some cash, would you?


Here, the difference between what is said and what is meant points to some additional meaning which has to be inferred through the pragmatic knowledge the participants (desirably) share because it has become conventionalized – acting according to the convention then shows that consideration for the other is taken into account.

Most utterances therefore simultaneously fulfill two functions at the same time: representational function, which conveys the contents of message on the surface level. The social function derives from the orientation towards the audience and is manifested through ways the speaker modifies the utterance so that it is made more acceptable for the hearer (House and Kasper, 1981: 158). To account for ways of deviating from direct representations of human intentions, various politeness theories have been designed. The following chapters will offer some explanations of the motivation for such behavior by providing a brief insight into some of the theories.

2. The Concept of Politeness
Since politeness is a word often mentioned in everyday conversation, one would assume that the meaning is clear: in the western world, as far as non-verbal interaction is concerned, being polite means opening the door for ladies or removing ones hat in a room. On the level of language, politeness means greeting others upon entering or uttering ´thank you´ or ´excuse me´ at the right moment. Politeness is in general understanding related to appropriate behaviour; the opposite would be considered rude and elicit negative reactions (see Eelen, 2001; Watts, 2004).

These notions of politeness are, however, only commonsense terms linked to etiquette and interactional rituals. They developed as a result of the need to control group aggression and prevent significant interactional conflicts. Standardized behaviour disarms this aggression because the rituals serve as ready-made tools, easing the uncertainty of most social contacts; they provide social control in the form of guidelines and boundaries for acceptable and mutually understandable behaviour (see Brown and Levinson, 1987; Coulmans, 1981; Parsons, 1967; Švehlová, 1994; Watts, 2004).

The same holds for pragmatic linguistic behaviour. Although the manifestations are also more of less arbitrary, both are concerned with the strategic use of language in order to achieve one’s goals in a socially acceptable way and so prevent the potential threat. At the same time, the distribution of both types of politeness – who is polite to whom – is socially conditioned, reflecting more general values of a particular cultural environment (see Brown and Levinson, 1987; Watts, 2004; Wierzbicka, 1991).

An important question arises here as to what goals are followed. Are they altruistic – that is, does politeness pay attention to social equilibrium? Or are the goals egoistic and are only skilfully hidden behind a polished polite mask? Politeness may probably cover both ends of the scale as long as the manifestations are acknowledged as legitimate in a particular society (Brown and Levinson, 1987: 47). But it is beyond the aims of linguistics to decide about the psychological moves of the interactants. Instead, it focuses on its linguistic realizations and explores what makes some uses of language more appropriate than others and in what contexts.

Pragmatics and sociolinguistics have focused on politeness for over three decades. Stemming from the complexity of any social phenomenon, different kinds of theoretical models of politeness have been developed over the years. Due to this complexity, it is very difficult to give an exhausting and universal definition of what politeness is. Most researchers so far have made various assumptions about the functions of linguistic politeness, reflecting the inter-disciplinary overlap. At the same time, these theories complement and combine different aspects of one another offering still new angles from which politeness can be studied. Drawing from Fraser´s (1990) categorization, the following chapters attempt to give a basic overview of the most influential frameworks of the politeness phenomenon.



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