Week 9: Comparing dimensions of culture – politeness

What resonated with me most from this lecture was the emphasis it had on cultural differences in communication. Firstly, we had to discuss what we deemed universal functions in communication and culture specific feature in communication. With the person sat next to me we produced this list of what we thought:

Universal functions in communication:

Greetings and partings


Agreeing and disagreement



Accepting and declining

Culture specific features in communication:

Shaking hands or kissing

direct disagreement

The amount of overlapping speech that is acceptable

The amount of time between one speaker stopping and the next speaking beginning

Specific gender differences in communication

While I completed this task quite well, I had never thought about how different the concept of politeness was in different culture and what is deemed polite by me may be deemed unacceptable or inappropriate to others- making me more aware and intuitive in my communication with others.

Secondly, we considered Social Interaction and Face. I learnt that the origins of politeness in all societies reside in the notion of face (from Goffman, 1967). It is roughly analogous to the English expressions ‘to save face’ and ‘to lose face’ relating to individual’s self-esteem and respect in relation to others. Moreover, there is what is known as positive and negative face.

All adult members of a society have ‘face’ and this face is seen by Brown and Levinson to be divided into two types – positive face and negative face.

Positive face

The want of every member that his wants be desirable to at least some others(1). This involves such areas as wanting to be liked, wanting others to like the same things as you like, agreeing with others, expressing solidarity and equality with others.

Negative face

The want of every ‘competent adult member’ that his actions be unimpeded by others (Brown and Levinson, 1987). This involves such areas as avoiding imposing on others, wanting to complete actions without interference from others, expressing deference to others and expecting respect from others.

To me, this explains why politeness is such an important and integral notion in any culture, and is essentially used in order to ‘save face’;  Brown and Levinson believe that face and politeness strategies are universal, that is they occur in all cultures and societies, although how they are manifested will vary. In conclusion:

All societies have a concept of face.

All societies base social interaction on the preservation of individual face.

There are linguistic equivalents for the different politeness strategies in all societies

I found this idea of ‘face’ incredibly interested and engaging in terms of sociology, but agree with our guest lecturer that it has weaknesses. For example:

In multilingual and multicultural communication it may not be clear which norms of politeness should be referred to or compared.

Comparing ideas of politeness based on an interlocutors nationality may lead to stereotyping.

People do not behave in the same manner in intercultural communication as in intracultural communication

All in all, this lecture made me reflect on my perception of politeness and how this differs from other cultures. I feel that it made me a more conscientious and sensitive individual and engaged my interest in researching forms of politeness in other cultures.

“It’s common for people to exchange compliments both in English speaking countries and in China. Expressions such as “hen hao, bu cuo, hen bang” in Chinese are often used, which mean “great, good, terrific” in English. However, there do exist some cultural differences in compliments between English and Chinese. One difference lies in who can be complimented. It is usual for an American woman to praise her husband, talking about how hard he works and how well he has done. She might do the same about a son or a daughter of hers. In the English-speaking countries, one can praise one’s family members. But we Chinese people seldom compliment our family members in front of others. The Chinese are polite rather than honest while the westerners tend to be frank and direct. The other difference lies in what can be complimented. It is quite common for a male English speaker to compliment females on her good looks. But in China, praising a man on his wife’s looks will be regarded as indecent, and even a taboo.” Cultural Differences of Politeness in English and Chinese, Lu Yin. <http://www.ccsenet.org/journal/index.php/ass/article/download/2492/2338‎>

(1) Brown, P. and S. Levinson. 1987. Politeness. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


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