Impression Management

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2.1 Theories of Politeness
Fraser categorizes the politeness canon into the following: the “conversational contract” view, the “social norm” view, the “conversational-maxim” view and the “face-saving” view, briefly explained below.

      1. Conversational contract view

Represented by Fraser and Nolen, this view is based on their belief that each conversational participant enters the encounter with a set of rights and obligations that determine their behaviour. Like most theories based on symbolic interaction, the rules are open to change and redefinition so as to be always relevant in the context. The participants only need to close another “conversational contract” (Fraser, 1990: 221). Politeness in this view “[...] simply involves getting on with the task at hand in light of the terms and conditions of the conversational contract” (ibid: 223).

In such a quickly changing environment, politeness is never an intrinsic feature of utterances. Instead, what is polite is redefined over and over again for every single utterance. Similar views are especially useful for cross-cultural analyses as they support the importance of unique understanding of cultural contexts (see Eelen, 2004).
2.1.2 The social-norm view
Since “social norms are bound to affect the relevant linguistic system from the outside and thus leave behind traces in its lexicon and grammar”, this approach associates politeness with speech style (Held in Watts, 2004: 136). Here, language is deeply affected by the social norms and corresponding rules as prescriptions for behaviour expected in particular contexts. Actions labeled as appropriate are polite, variants that do not fit the rule are impolite and rude. The degree of imposition is, however, always scalar and very situation-specific as proved by now classical Garfinkel´s 1970s experiments with students and their families: formal behaviour in situations where it is not expected is perceived not as more but less polite and even disrespectful or arrogant (Fraser, 1990: 225).

Again, this notion may be especially useful in cross-cultural research – norms do vary across cultures. At the same time, even within a particular culture, the norms determine what can be thematized and how. But since the rules cannot be as explicit as to cover each particular conversation it means that there is always something that is prescribed and something which is left up to the user.

2.1.3 The conversational-maxim view
Grice argues that people involved in a conversation are rational individuals who cooperate only in order to reach their goals. To do so by means of language, they should communicate the message as effectively as possible – “such as is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange” (qtf. Levinson, 1983: 101). In other words, to produce meaningful messages they need to understand each other in particular situation using the most appropriate resources. Grice formulated this in the Cooperative Principle (CP), specified in a set of maxims and sub-maxims that represent universal principles of language use (Grice, adapted from Leech, 1975: 8).
1) quantity: give the right amount of information

  • Make your contribution as informative as is required.

  • Do not make your contribution more informative than is required.

2) quality: try to make your contribution one that is true

  • Do not say what you believe to be false.

  • Do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence.

    1. relation: be relevant [in terms of means-ends analysis]

    1. manner: be perspicuous

  • Avoid obscurity of expression.

  • Avoid ambiguity.

  • Be brief (avoid unnecessary prolixity).

  • Be orderly.

Obviously, not all the maxims are always observed in communication. In fact, as a part of shared knowledge, they are more of underlying assumptions that give each communication a structure. Measured against it, new meanings may be inferred if the maxims are not observed because flouting them triggers special interpretative processes that uncover the implicatures in the conversation. The basic assumption may then read “´no deviation from rational efficiency without a reason´” (Brown and Levinson, 1987: 58). It is these mechanisms that are involved in all indirect speech acts.

Inspired by Grice´s CP, Lakoff develops the maxims in new directions by bringing the notion of well-formedness to pragmatics. Her main contribution lies in her move from efficient delivery of information to broader social context and interactants as complex individuals in social network. Instead, Lakoff defines politeness as “a system of interpersonal relations designed to facilitate interaction by minimizing the potential for conflict and confrontation inherent in all human interchange” (Eelen 2001: 2). Her view of politeness therefore accounts also for social relations, focusing on the avoidance of offence to other.

Of interest of special interest are three of them (with varying cultural emphasis on each). Respectively, they are: Distance – strategy of impersonality, prevailing in European cultures, Deference – strategy of hesitancy, important especially in Asian cultures and Camaraderie – strategy of informality, demonstrated especially in modern America (Eelen, 2001: 3).

Complementing Grice´s PP by postulating Politeness Principle (PP), also Leech stresses not only purely illocutionary goals of conversation but also its social aspects. It is politeness that “rescues the CP from serious trouble”... because it serves as “strategic conflict avoidance” (1983: 80). As such, it explains why people sometimes deliberately flout the maxims and fail to be informative – they do so in order to maintain friendly relations and social balance and provide the basis for any further communication (ibid: 79-84).

Analogically to Grice´s conversational maxims, Leech introduces a set of politeness maxims. Each takes into account the ´self´ and the ´other´ and at the same time expresses two ends of a “cost/benefit scale” – “the scale which specifies how much the act referred to in the propositional content of the speech act is judged to coast or benefit the speaker or the addressee” (House and Kasper, 1981: 158). The maxims are as follows:

Figure: 2-1. Politeness Maxims (adapted from Leech: 1983, 131-2)


a) minimize cost to other

b) maximize benefit to other


a) minimize benefit to self

b) maximize cost to self


a) minimize dispraise of other

b) maximize praise of other


a) minimize praise of self

b) maximize dispraise of self


a) minimize disagreement between self and other

b) maximize agreement between self and other


a) minimize antipathy between self and other

b) maximize sympathy between self and other

According to Leech, to maintain social equilibrium consideration for ´other´ is more important than for the ´self´. For this reason, the Tact and Approbation maxims should be paid most attention to. Likewise, avoiding imposition is a weightier factor than maximizing the positive attitudes (ibid: 133). As Leech himself admits, however, the importance given to each maxim and the relationship between the CP and PP maxims varies among cultures and he does not make any claims for their universality (ibid: 80).

At the same time, Leech introduces the “optionality scale”, representing the degree to which the linguistic choice depends on the participants or is subject to the maxims. In terms of this theory, the lower the imposition and higher the benefit to the addressee combined with a high factor of optionality, the more polite the speech act is. What is therefore considered as polite and tactful is manifested through indirectness in speech (House and Kasper: 158).

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