Many of the classic and
postmodern approaches to politeness and impoliteness are centered around the
concept of ‘face’. Therefore, to be able to present a comprehensive overview of
the concept of ‘impoliteness’, it’s necessary to briefly define the concepts of
‘face’ and ‘politeness’ first.
One of the earliest
definitions of face was provided by Goffman (1967) as “the positive social
value a person effectively claims for himself by the line others assume he has
taken during a particular contact”. Goffman (1967) also states that “Face is an
image of self delineated in terms of approved social attributes – albeit an
image that others may share, as when a person makes a good showing for his
profession or religion by making a good showing for himself” (p. 5).
A briefer explanation of
‘face’ was made by Thomas (1995) as “an individual’s feeling of self-worth or
self image, which can be damaged, maintained or enhanced through interaction
with others” (p. 169).
According to Brown and Levinson
(1987), ‘face’, the public self-image that every member wants to claim for himself,
consists of two related aspects, ‘Positive Face’ and ‘Negative Face’, which can
be summarised as follows:
Negative face: the want of every
‘competent adult member’ that his/her actions
unimpeded by others.
Positive face: the want of every
member that his/her wants be desirable to at
least some others.
A brief definition and the
main aspects of face are provided above. However, this section does not aim to answer
all concerns or satisfy all critics of research conducted on face. It only
presents the most salient issues related to face in order to provide a thorough
definition of the concept of ‘impoliteness’.
Politeness has been
defined by a number of researchers. Lakoff (1989) described politeness as “a
means of minimizing the risk of confrontation in discourse—both the possibility
of confrontation occurring at all, and the possibility that a confrontation
will be perceived as threatening” (p. 102) He also identified the politeness
principle, which was later developed by Leech (1983) and Brown and Levinson
Another definition of politeness
was provided by Leech (1983), who considered politeness a principle “to
maintain the social equilibrium and the friendly relations which enable us to
assume that our interlocutors are being cooperative in the first place” (p.
Later, Brown and
Levinson (1987) explained the concept of polititenes as follows, “politeness,
like formal diplomatic protocol (for which it must surely be the model),
presupposes that potential for aggression as it seeks to disarm it, and makes
possible communication between potentially aggressive parties” (p. 1). Brown
and Levinson’s (1987) view has been the most influential view among the
politeness theories, and for that reason, it has also been commented on and criticized
for various aspects. They also
proposed a classification of politeness, which comprises five superstrategies
for performing a face threatenig act (FTA). These superstrategies are
systematically related to the degree of face threat. Briefly summarized below,
the first superstrategy is associated with least face threat, and the last with
1. Bald on record.
The FTA is performed “in the most direct, clear, unambiguous
and concise way possible” (Brown and Levinson, 1987:
politeness. The use of strategies designed to redress the addressee’s positive
face wants. It is “oriented toward the positive face of addressee, the positive
self-image that he claims for himself” (Brown and Levinson, 1987: 70).
politeness. The use of strategies designed to redress the addressee’s negative
face wants. It is “oriented mainly toward adresseee’s basic want to maintain claims
of territory and self-determination” (Brown and Levinson, 1987: 70).
The FTA is performed in such a way that “there is more than one unambiguously
attributable intention so that the actor cannot be held to have committed himself
to one particular intent” (Brown and Levinson, 1987: 69).
5. Withhold. The
FTA is not performed.
As it is seen, all of the
definitions provided above emphasized the social aspects of politeness. However,
politeness has been explained from a behavioral perpesctive as well. For
instance, Elen (2001) suggested that “politeness should first and foremost be regarded
and studied as a practice” (p. 248).
claims that politeness consists of polite behaviors. He also explains several
topics in politeness, including the linguistic and non-linguistic behaviors
that can be classified under the category of politeness and why they are
categorized as polite behaviors.
In this section,
different perspectives on the concept of politeness, which is closely related
to impoliteness, have been discussed briefly. Next section will focus on ‘impoliteness
Due to its complex
nature, impoliteness has been defined by many researchers. As Watts (2003) also
argues, “It is a term that is struggled over at present, has been struggled
over in the past and will, in all probability, continue to be struggled in the
future” (p. 9). The concept of impoliteness is closely related to politeness.
However, despite this close relation, Brown and Levinson (1987) mainly focused on
politeness, considering impoliteness an absence of politeness, and for that
reason, they did not provide a comprehensive analysis of what exactly impoliteness
is. Eelen (2001) argues that impoliteness should be approached in its own terms
and not as an absence of politeness. He also claims that most approaches to
politeness are biased. Furthermore, he states:
The concepts involved can never explain
impoliteness in the same way or to the same extent as they explain politeness.
So the polite bias is not just a matter of differential attention, it goes far
deeper than that: it is a conceptual, theoretical, structural matter.
In most general
terms, impoliteness is considered as an act that is intentionally planned to attack
others’ face (Archer, 2008; Bousfield, 2008; Limberg, 2009). According to Culpeper,
Bousfield, and Wichmann (2003), when speakers engage in impolite acts, instead
of maintaining or enhancing the hearers’ face, they intentionally choose to use
offensive language to attack their face. Moreover, Bousfield (2007) suggests
that “impoliteness constitutes the communication of intentionally gratuitous
and conflictive verbal face-threatening acts (FTAs) which are purposefully delivered”
While some of the
previous researchers suggest that the intentionality of speakers is crucial in
impoliteness, others advocate that both speakers’ intentionality and listeners’
reception are necessary. For instance, Bousfield (2007, p. 72) also states that
impoliteness can only be considered successful if the intention of the speaker
(or ‘author’) to ‘offend’ (threaten/damage face) is understood by those in the
There has been a
surge in research conducted on the concept of impoliteness in the last two decades.
Research studies in this area are usually supported by theoretical frameworks based
on classical theories of politeness, such as “verbal aggressions”, which was introduced
by Lachenicht (1980) and “face attacks”, which was introduced by Culpeper (1996).
These two theoretical frameworks were built depending on Brown and Levinson’s
(1978) politeness in which the concept of face is dominant. As previosuly
mentioned in more detail above in the ‘face’ section, Brown and Levinson
classified two types of face as ‘negative’ and ‘positive’. In relation to these
two concepts, Lachenicht’s verbal aggressions refer to acts that are
intentionally used to damage others’ positive face (positive aggravations) or
negative face (negative aggravations), while Culpeper’s (1996) face attacks
refer to communicative strategies to attack both positive and negative face.
As a reversal
system of Brown and Levinson’ s (1987) politeness superstrategies, Culpeper
proposed a classification of impoliteness, which consists of five superstrategies.
These superstrategies are opposite of politeness superstrategies in terms of
orientation to face. Unlike politeness superstrategies, impoliteness
superstrategies are a means of attacking face instead of enhancing or supporting
1. Bald on record impoliteness. It is different
from Brown and Levinson’s (1987) and Lachenicht’s (1980) ‘bald on record’. According
to Culpeper (1996), Brown and Levinson’s (1987) bald on record superstrategy is
deployed for polite purposes, where there is little face at stake. In contrast,
Culpeper’s (1996) bald on record impoliteness superstrategy is typically
deployed “where there is much face at stake, and where there is an intention on
the part of the speaker to attack the face of the hearer”.
2. Positive impoliteness. Culpeper (1996)
argues that this superstrategy exists “for the use of strategies that are designed
to damage the addressee’s positive face wants”.
3. Negative impoliteness. According to
Culpeper (1996), this superstrategy exists for the use of strategies that are designed
to damage the addressee’s negative face wants.
4. Sarcasm or mock politeness. FTAs are
performed with the use of politeness strategies that are obviously insincere,
and thus remain surface realizations. Sarcasm (mock politeness for social
disharmony) is the opposite of banter (mock impoliteness for social harmony)
5. Withhold politeness. Keep silent or fail
to act where politeness work is expected, necessary
or ‘mandatory’ and
as a result, damage the addressee’s face (Culpeper 1996).
lists the following output strategies under positive impoliteness:
1. Ignore, snub,
fail to attend addressee’s interests, wants, needs, goods, etc.
2. Exclude the
other from the activity.
from the other. Deny common ground, or association.
disinterested, unconcerned, unsympathetic.
inappropriate identity markers.
6. Use obscure or
disagreement. – sensitive topics or just disagree outright (act as ‘Devil’s
agreement. – avoid agreeing with addressee’s position (whether the speaker
actually does or not).
9. Make the other
10. Use taboo
language-swear, be abusive, express strong views opposed to addressee’s.
11. Call the addressee
names – use derogatory nominations.
impoliteness, Culpeper (1996) lists the following output strategies:
a belief that action detrimental to other will occur.
scorn or ridicule-emphasize own power, use diminutives to other (or other’s
position), be contemptuous, belittle, do not take the addressee seriously.
3. Invade the
other’s space-literally (positioning closer than relationship permits) or
metaphorically ask for intimate information given the relationship)…
associate the addressee with negative aspect- personalize, use pronouns, I and
5. Put the
addressee’s indebtedness on record.
6. Hinder –
physically (block passage), conversationally deny turn, interrupt)
Even though Culpeper
(1996) proposed similar superstrategies to the ones in Brown and Levinson’s
(1987) politeness model, he also explained that impoliteness causes disharmony
and social disruption since it is defined as the use of utterances that are
designed to damage the addressee’s face. Later, Culpeper et al. (2003) argue
that all theories concerning politeness allude to impoliteness but given the
complicated nature of it, all of those theroies fall short in explaining the
intricacies of impoliteness. For that reason, Culpeper (2005) revised the five
superstrategies and replaced his “Sarcasm or mock politeness” with “Off-record
impoliteness” as a result of the shift in his focus of intentional, impolite
face-attack to a more contextually and culturally sensitive model (Culpeper,