Impression Management

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Social distance indicates the closeness (or, solidarity) between participants. Its degree divides cultures roughly into predominantly collectivistic1 or individualistic. Individualism, mostly found in what is considered the ´western world´ in this sense means relatively loose ties between individuals, stressing the personal autonomy of each member as more important than his/her being part of a larger group. (Hofstede, 1991: 51; Foley, 1997: 265). Interestingly, the countries occupying the top three places are all English speaking countries (

As a vertical dimension, power distance concerns social hierarchy, forming various relationships between those who hold the power and those who are affected by it. The degree of distance is perceived as the legitimity of the hierarchical setup in the most important social institutions. Again, the research reveals that most English speaking countries rank world´s lowest in this dimension, tending more to equality than subordination among societal levels (Hofsetede, 1991: 52-3).

It should be stressed, that the collectivist-individualist dichotomy is only one of the possible approaches, which happens to match the social reality in scientific research. It has been designed as a tool to grasp the problem more easily. A fact remains that values are reflected in norms which influence the expression and degree of explicitness in specific contexts. This means that the same culture may be explicit in some and implicit in some other situations without any claims of superiority of one over another.
3.2 Implications of individualism
The above findings are further supported by Wierzbicka´s claims that the Anglo-Saxon cultural tradition is generally one which puts
special emphasis on the rights and autonomy of each individual, which abhors interference in other people´s business, [...] which is tolerant of individual idiosyncrasies and peculiarities, which respects everyone’s privacy, which approves of compromises and disapproves of dogmatism of any kind (Wierzbcka, 1991: 30).
The central importance of privacy and equality seem to be crucial to the interpretation of politeness strategies in English – not to impose or interfere with others´ precious private space calls for much more elaborate strategies to minimize the threat. At the same time, the equality between members allows for a degree of self-assertion (yet, boasting is inappropriate), legitimately manifested in relatively clear voicing of their wants and wishes (ibid: 72). Obviously, these two principles tend to clash and it is a question of a very careful weighing of words that express the right amount of both values. In English, this is to a certain extent compensated for example the generally friendly attitude to everyone, including strangers, that could be summarized as ´I want everyone to feel something good´ (ibid: 86-7). Drawing on the face-saving view of politeness used as our framework, it becomes clear that such values generate a variety of specific negative and positive politeness strategies for FTA redress.

From the preceding chapters it follows that the structure of utterances is not arbitrary, reflecting larger social structures. The universal phenomenon of politeness is then shaped by specific cultural values and further by particular context and pragmatic concerns.

4. Ritualization
Generally speaking, rituals are standardized ways of how to do something, taking away part of the burden of repeatedly having to think up new solutions. As such, they partially reduce the tension stemming from the uncertainty and unpredictability of social contact – they provide safe guidelines while leaving space for interaction in the specific context. Since they are shared, they also act as meaningful symbols, telling the interactants what social roles to take while still providing them with a degree of tolerance in the choices they make.

From the point of view of macro-organization, rituals appear as plans – global patterns hierarchically ordered as component, preparatory or auxiliary and together “leading up to an intended goal” (Tárnyiková, 2002: 59). Together with scripts – “plans specifying roles of participants and their expected actions” (ibid: 59) – they are essential because we cannot plan actions containing larger number of moves too far in advance. In more routinized cases, such as some parts of conversations or letter-writing, certain expressions are so lexicalized and grammaticalized in the specific context that they “encode certain language-specific interactional meanings“ (van Dijk, 1997: 234; Wierzbicka, 1991: 31) simply by their presence or absence.

Besides acts of what might be called social ´decorations´ or social ´wrapping´ (greetings, identification, etc.), Van Dijk (ibid: 240) identifies the steps a proper request is made of:

  1. establishing a necessary condition;

  2. motivating the request;

  3. stating a condition;

  4. request-proposition;

  5. statement of intentions with respect to the object as repeated motivation.

The patternings, together with language realization conform to the desired goal. Among others, this includes observance of the rules of politeness further specified in various strategies.

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