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Review of  Gender and Politeness

Reviewer: J. Cesar Felix-Brasdefer
Book Title: Gender and Politeness
Book Author: Sara Mills
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Sociolinguistics
Issue Number: 15.262

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Mills, Sara (2003) Gender and Politeness, Cambridge University Press.

Announced at

César Félix-Brasdefer, Indiana University, Bloomington.


This book is comprised of an introduction, five chapters, conclusions,
the bibliography, and an index. The sequential organization of the
chapters and the contents of each chapter are clearly presented. The
bibliography contains 308 references and is mostly related to the
literature in discourse analysis, interactional sociolinguistics,
politeness, impoliteness, and gender, among other related topics.

The book is very well-written and is easy to follow. Due to its level
of theoretical detail in the discussion of various politeness models,
this book would be appropriate as a complementary textbook in a
seminar on linguistic politeness or a seminar on pragmatics or
discourse analysis. Some sections of this book may also be used to
complement the politeness component in a graduate pragmatics course,
in particular, the critique of the different models of linguistic
politeness is quite useful. The examples used to illustrate various
theoretical points on politeness come from natural conversational
extracts and are often accompanied by a discussion of the
participants' perception of politeness.

The introduction presents the objective and scope of the book and
emphasizes the theoretical and methodological contributions of the
book by drawing on previous models of linguistic politeness and their
relationship to gender. The main aim of the book is 'to develop a more
community-based, discourse-level model of both gender and linguistic
politeness and the relation between them' (p. 1). Information
regarding the methodology and the data collection procedures for the
study is also presented.

In Chapter 1, Rethinking linguistic interpretation, the author
discusses four problematic aspects of linguistic interpretation: the
model speaker, the individual and the group, the model of
communication and language, and methodological aspects of data
collection. Regarding the concept of a model speaker in linguistic
research, the author suggests that utterances need to be analyzed at
the discourse level, taking into account both the speaker's and the
hearer's contributions to discourse. In particular, the notion of
intentionality is essential in conversation analysis. The author
claims that a focus on the speaker alone is not justified in
linguistic research because the connection of conversation and meaning
is always constructed by all the participants in a conversation, where
utterances are the result of longer processes of thinking, habit, and
past experience. The individual's relation to the group is important
in Mills' analysis because it draws on the notion of community of
practice, namely, a defined group of people who are mutually engaged
on a particular task and who have 'a shared repertoire of negotiable
resources accumulated over time' (Wenger, 1998: 76). With respect to
the model of communication proposed in the book, the author considers
a model of conversation in a dynamic way where interlocutors
continually try to make hypotheses about what others mean
(judgments/assessments of politeness), and to construct responses
which might be relevant to previous utterances. Finally, this chapter
discusses general methodological issues related to data analysis of
quantitative and qualitative data, data collection instruments, and
linguistic interpretation of pragmatic data. The variables of class,
gender, racial identity, power, and the importance of context in
conversation analysis are discussed and related to the study.

In chapter 2, Theorising politeness, the author critically reviews
some of the theoretical work that has been undertaken on linguistic
politeness. In particular, Brown and Levinson's (1978, 1987) work is
reviewed and discussed with respect to various problems observed in
their model of politeness (e.g., notion of politeness, speaker model,
individual strategies, appropriateness, notion of habitus) the
constituents of politeness (e.g., strategic politeness, positive and
negative politeness, face and face threatening acts), their model of
communication (e.g., reliance on speech act theory, inability to
describe politeness at the level of inference), and methodological
difficulties (e.g., data collection, interpretation, analysis of
social variables such as power, distance, and imposition). The last
part of the chapter suggests some implications for an alternative
analysis of politeness, namely, 1) politeness can only be analyzed
within particular communities of practice and should be seen as
negotiations with assumed norms; 2) politeness is a matter of judgment
and assessment; and, 3) different forms of data need to be considered.
Examples from real conversations and perceptions of politeness in
various contexts are discussed taking into account the variables of
gender, race, age, sexual orientation, and class.

In chapter 3, Politeness and impoliteness, the author examines various
ways in which politeness and impoliteness have been described in the
literature. In particular, it investigates the notion of impoliteness
and how it differs from politeness in context-specific ways. It is
argued that politeness and impoliteness should not be seen as polar
opposites, but rather as separate notions with specific
characteristics. This chapter is organized into four sections: the
first section, politeness and impoliteness, examines the role of
rudeness in conversation and shows that the politeness-impoliteness
relationship should be seen as a continuum of assessment. The next
section analyzes judgments of impoliteness and shows that this notion
can be understood and analyzed pragmatically when considered in
relation to the understanding of utterances at the discourse level.
Then, two features of impoliteness are analyzed, swearing and
directness, to show that instances of these 'stereotypical' notions
may not always yield impolite perceptions in specified
contexts. Further, after a discussion of stereotypical aspects of
politeness and impoliteness, factors of gender, class, and race are
examined in relation to (im)politeness. The chapter ends with an
analysis of various incidents which were judged to be impolite.

In chapter 4, Theorising gender, theoretical and methodological issues
in feminist linguistic analysis in relation to 'women's language' are
discussed. The author critically reviews the thinking of some feminist
linguists who examine the correlation between gender and politeness in
light of social factors such as gender, race, class, and sexual
orientation. Furthermore, it evaluates stereotypes on men's and
women's language regarding degree of (in)directness, loudness,
swearing, interruption, power, mitigation, among other factors, and
discusses the literature on gay and lesbian speech styles in relation
to gender identity and politeness. Finally, it examines the language
of strong women speakers to challenge the generalization that women's
language is powerless, indirect, and polite, and emphasizes the notion
that speech styles in relation to gender and politeness are better
understood within particular communities of practice.

In chapter 5, Gender and politeness, the author examines stereotypes
of gender and (im)politeness and discusses the view that polite
behavior, generally influenced by stereotypical norms of courtesy and
etiquette, is normally associated with prototypical descriptions of
white, middle-class women's behavior. After an examination and a
critique of well-known work on feminist linguistics regarding gender
and politeness, the author contests the stereotypical view that women
are more polite than men. The author then examines various theoretical
and methodological aspects regarding compliments and apologies which
are mostly associated with women's speech and generally analyzed at
the production level. Finally, the author provides an approach to
analyze politeness in relation to gender by means of conversational
extracts which examine the speaker's and hearer's (im)polite behavior
at both the production and perception level in order to resolve
conflicts which go on in a group and in specific communities of

Finally, in Conclusions, the author suggests some avenues for future
research regarding the role of stereotypes and social factors (e.g.,
power) in relation to politeness and gender research. In particular,
it is advocated that linguistic analysis turn to an analysis of longer
stretches of speech, taking into account elements of the social
context including the speaker's and hearer's assessments of
(im)politeness in particular communities of practice.


Overall, the book has at least the following strengths which are well
articulated and theoretically motivated along with appropriate
examples which illustrate the theoretical points in question: 1)
politeness and impoliteness are discussed at the discourse level and
examples from natural conversation are included; 2) it provides a
critical evaluation of politeness and impoliteness research in
relation to gender; 3) the role of stereotypes in relation to
(im)politeness and gender is analyzed; 4) it includes an analysis of
politeness which incorporates the variables of social class, gender,
race, sexual orientation, and contextual elements, among other
factors; 5) politeness is analyzed with respect to the participants'
assessments/perceptions of politeness during the negotiation process
in a conversation.

While the analysis presented in the book is theory- driven, for the
sake of methodological clarity, specific information regarding
subjects, data collection procedures, and data analysis could have
been described in one particular section. General information
concerning the methodology and the data used for the study is mostly
presented in the introduction and with additional information found in
subsequent chapters. Most importantly, information concerning data
collection procedures, tasks, number of hours of recorded data, number
of subjects, etc, is mentioned in footnotes (pp. 14-15) within the
introduction. Since the methods used to collect and analyze the data
may have influenced the interpretation of the results, more extensive
information on the methodological procedures used in the study,
including a description of the subjects, data collection procedures
and analysis, and a description of the specific task(s) used to
examine insights on (im)politeness would have been helpful.

Furthermore, there are some inconsistencies with several references
mentioned in the main text which do not coincide with the information
contained in the bibliography. For example, on p. 61 Lakoff, 2001 is
mentioned and this year does not coincide with the references included
for Lakoff. Other examples chosen at random include Bargiela (2000)
and Harris (2001a, 2001b) on p. 77 which do not coincide with the

Finally, in addition to the work by Eelen (2001) mentioned in Mills'
bibliography regarding a critique of politeness theories, at least
three other recent books not mentioned in Mills' book which examine
theoretical and empirical issues in politeness research in other
societies that may complement Mills' study are: Bravo (2003), Watts
(2003), and Wierzbicka (2003).

Overall, this book makes various valuable contributions to the field
of politeness and discourse analysis and may be quite useful in
graduate courses on pragmatics and discourse analysis which
investigate theoretical issues of (im)politeness and gender. In
particular, the discussion on the relationship between politeness and
gender in light of social variables (e.g., race, class, gender, and
sexual orientation), the review of the literature on (im)politeness
within particular communities of practice, and the subjects'
assessments/judgments of politeness are welcome contributions to the


Bravo, D. (Ed.) (2003). La perspectiva no etnocentrista de la
cortesía:y"dentidad sociocultural de las comunidades
hispanohablantes. Actas del Primer Coloquio del Programa
EDICE. Stockholm, Sweden: Universidad de Estocolmo.

Brown, P., and Levinson, S. (1987). Politeness: Some universals in
language use. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Brown, P., and Levinson, S. (1978). ''Universals in language usage:
politeness phenomena''. In Questions and Politeness: Strategies in
Social Interaction, E. Goody (ed.), 56- 310. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge
University Press.

Eelen, G. (2001). A critique of politeness theories. Manchester, UK:
St. Jeromes Press.

Watts, R. (2003). Politeness. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University

Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge
University Press.

Wierzbicka, A. (2003). Cross-cultural pragmatics: The semantics of
human interaction. 2nd. edition. New York, NY: Mouton de Gruyter.

César Félix-Brasdefer is an Assistant Professor of Spanish Linguistics
at Indiana University, Bloomington. His research interests include
cross-cultural pragmatics, interlanguage pragmatics, research methods
in pragmatics research, speech act theory, politeness theory, writing
in the second language classroom, and first and second language

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