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Review of  Politeness

Reviewer: Michael Haugh
Book Title: Politeness
Book Author: Richard J. Watts
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Sociolinguistics
Issue Number: 15.3065

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Date: Fri, 29 Oct 2004 09:23:37 +1000
From: Michael Haugh
Subject: Politeness

AUTHOR: Watts, Richard J.
TITLE: Politeness
SERIES: Key Topics in Sociolinguistics
PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press
YEAR: 2003

Michael Haugh, School of Languages and Linguistics, Griffith University.

Politeness by Richard J. Watts is the first book in a new series entitled Key
Topics in Sociolinguistics being published by Cambridge University Press. It
presents an alternative approach to politeness based on the notion
that 'politeness' is contested discursively in interactions. It is, therefore, not
so much an introductory textbook as an attempt to continue the theoretical
dialogue stimulated by Eelen's (2001) radical appraisal of current models of
politeness. The first half of this book is an introduction to the field of
politeness research and a critical overview of various theories of politeness.
In the second half of the book, the discursive model of politeness proposed
by Watts is outlined in greater detail.

In Chapter One, Watts begins with the issue of what constitutes politeness.
He frames this question in terms of the distinction between first-order and
second-order politeness. Watts argues that first-order politeness (or
politeness1) is that subject of discursive dispute (p.9), a theme that
becomes increasingly important during the course of this book. The way in
which the lexemes 'polite' and 'politeness' are open to negotiation is
demonstrated by Watts in his discussion of the various ways in which
politeness is defined by native (and non-native) speakers of English. He
then goes on to show how equivalent terms in other languages such as
Greek ('Evgenia'), Russian ('vezhlivost'), Chinese ('limao'), Hebrew
('nimus', 'adivut'), and Japanese ('teinei') are also the subject of discursive
dispute amongst speakers of those languages. A second theme introduced
in this chapter is the distinction between 'politic behaviour', defined
as "linguistic behaviour which is perceived to be appropriate to the social
constraints of the ongoing interaction" (p.19), and 'politeness', defined
as "linguistic behaviour which is perceived to be beyond what is expectable"
(p.19). This distinction proves crucial in later chapters of this book.

In Chapter Two, the way in which the term politeness has evolved to
encompass different understandings over the past five hundred years is
discussed. Watts begins with an outline of the etymological origins of the
terms 'polite' and 'politeness' (which is the past participle form of the Latin
verb 'polir', to polish), before discussing how politeness was associated with
the nobility, and later the ruling gentry of Britain until quite recently. This
discussion demonstrates that lay evaluations of politeness (that is, first-
order politeness) need to be taken seriously, since the terms 'polite'
and 'politeness' involve an enormous amount of relativity, both cultural and

Chapter Three gives an overview of some of the more widely known models
of politeness in the field, but rather than simply describing these models,
this chapter also involves a fairly critical appraisal of current approaches to
politeness. In this chapter, Watts shows that these models fail to give a
comprehensive account of the second-order concept of politeness.
However, rather than modifying these theories in an attempt to address this
issue, it later becomes clear that Watts proposes abandoning these theories
altogether in favour of his discursive model.

In Chapter Four, Brown and Levinson's (1987) face-saving model of
politeness is discussed in detail, since it still remains the dominant theory in
politeness research to date. As pointed out by Watts, attempts to develop
new approaches to politeness have been only sporadic, with the vast
majority of politeness research focused on either applying Brown and
Levinson's model to empirical studies (of particular speech acts or across
cultures), or criticising it (pp.98-99). After giving a brief overview of the
major tenets of Brown and Levinson's model, Watts goes on to consider
some of the major criticisms of their model. Two key areas that emerge for
further consideration are the need to revise Brown and Levinson's notion
of 'face' (which is addressed further in Chapter Five), and the useful analogy
that can be drawn between the power of politeness in society and the power
of money in the economy (which is elaborated upon further in Chapter Six).

In Chapter Five, the assumption that facework underlies politeness is
challenged by Watts. He gives a number of examples to show that while
facework in some form or other is fairly pervasive in social interaction,
facework is not always associated with politeness. The move to make a clear
distinction between facework and politeness is based on the argument that
should acknowledge the terms 'polite' and 'impolite' have meanings in their
own right, which are ignored if one equates politeness with facework. Watts
also suggests in this chapter that the dual notions of positive and negative
face proposed by Brown and Levinson be abandoned in favour of Goffman's
original conceptualisation of face as "the socially attributed aspect of self
that is temporarily on loan for the duration of the interaction in accordance
with the line or lines that the individual has adopted" (p.125), something
that has also been recently proposed by Bargiela-Chiappini (2003).

In Chapter Six, Watts begins the task of introducing his discursive model of
politeness in more detail. He starts his exposition with two very important
caveats: a discursive model of politeness is neither a predictive nor a
descriptive approach to politeness (p.142). Instead, this approach
proposes "ways to recognise when a linguistic utterance might be open to
interpretation by interactants as (im)polite", and thus "allows us to see how
social members themselves define the term [politeness]" (p.143). Politeness
is defined as behaviour in excess of 'politic behaviour', thereby promoting
the latter notion to a key position in politeness theory. Bordieu's theory of
practice forms the springboard for Watts' theorizing, as he draws upon
Bordieu's concepts of 'habitus' and 'capital', in addition to the notions of
power and 'emergent networks'. Politeness is viewed as a kind of "payment"
in excess of what is ordinarily required by the politic behaviour of a social
interaction (p.152). In this approach, then, evaluations of politeness depend
crucially on the linguistic habitus of the interactant and the linguistic capital
s/he is able to manipulate (p.160). There are two main implications of this
approach for the theorizing of politeness. First, the evaluation of linguistic
structures as politic or polite behaviour is a subjective process and cannot
be objectively verified. In other words, individuals do not always agree on
what counts as polite behaviour (a key claim of the discursive model of
politeness). Second, politeness can be evaluated both positively ('genuine'
politeness) and negatively ('insincere'/'ironic' politeness or 'abusive'

Chapter Seven examines linguistic structures that are often considered to
be typical examples of politeness in the literature. The key claim made in
this chapter is that no linguistic structures can be considered to be
inherently polite. There are, of course, certain structures that are more
open to interpretation as indicators of politeness, such as various formulaic
utterances (for example, 'please', 'thank you') or particular semi-formulaic
indirect speech acts (for example, 'Would you mind...?', 'I couldn't...could I?'),
but none of these structures can be said to automatically convey politeness
in all contexts. Watts goes on to review various taxonomies or politeness
structures and illustrates that these taxonomies are inevitably
heterogeneous in nature, meaning that the categorisation of polite
structures in an ordered manner is an almost impossible task. He thus
proposes so-called polite linguistic structures are actually pragmaticalised
expressions of procedural meaning (EPMs) that indicate how the
propositions in an utterance are to be interpreted (p.174), as opposed to
conveying propositional or ideational meaning.

In Chapter Eight, Watts argues that the Gricean approach to pragmatics
underlying Brown and Levinson's theory is problematic as it is not able to
adequately account for the on-line negotiation of meaning and
appropriateness occurring in real-life interactions (p.207). This stems partly
from the fact that the Gricean approach, and consequently Brown and
Levinson's model of politeness, is focused on how the speaker frames an
utterance, with less attention paid to how the addressee interprets that
utterance. Watts proposes that Relevance Theory constitutes a useful
alternative, although he stresses that Relevance Theory does not, and
indeed cannot, underlie a theory of first-order politeness (p.203). In
essence, Watts uses Relevance Theory as a tool to analyse instances of
politeness. The notion of 'power' is also explicated in this chapter, as it
prominently features in the analysis of examples of politeness in discourse
in the following chapter.

Chapter Nine features an analysis of two fairly extended pieces of naturally
occurring discourse, one involving a fairly confrontational verbal interaction
(a televised debate between politicians lead by an interviewer), and the
other being an example of public, cooperative discourse (a radio talkback
broadcast). Unsurprisingly, there are more instances of politeness1 to be
found in the later interaction, although a small number of examples of
politeness1 are found in the confrontational discourse. Through this
analysis Watts shows how the discursive approach can be applied to
explicating examples of politeness1, how these are often related to the
negotiation of power, and the ways in which politeness can be seen to be
quite distinct from face-work in interactions.

Chapter Ten reviews the discursive theory of politeness, and explains how it
offers a real alternative to current theories of politeness, the most
prominent of these being, of course Brown and Levinson's model. Watts
then goes on to suggest possible future lines of inquiry, while at the same
time placing the discursive theory of politeness into the wider context of a
general theory of social behaviour. The book concludes with a restatement
of its central thesis, namely that there needs to be a radical re-thinking of
our approach to research about politeness, and a shift towards seeing that
what counts as polite is something that is almost always negotiated by

At first glance this book might appear to be an introductory textbook to a
field of a research that has been rapidly expanding over the past twenty-
five years. However, Watts' book goes beyond an overview of current
politeness research, in proposing a new approach to theorizing politeness.
This discursive approach to politeness theory represents a significant
challenge to the current theoretical hegemony of Brown and Levinson's
(1987) model of politeness. This book thus stimulates theoretical debate in
a field where the dominant model has been repeatedly criticised, and even
rejected, but where no practical successor has yet emerged.

The distinction between first-order and second-order politeness is indeed
a very important one, as convincingly argued first by Eelen (2001), and now
by Watts (2003). As briefly illustrated by Watts in Chapter One, and as can
be seen in greater detail in Haugh (2004), there are indeed significant
differences in the way in which people from different cultures conceptualise
politeness, and these differences impinge upon the way in which politeness
arises in each culture. If these distinctions are not acknowledged, then
theories lose much of their power to explain politeness across cultures.

However, while the discursive theory of politeness involves the assumption
that politeness is conceptualized differently, not only across cultures, but
also between individuals within that culture, it is not made clear that it can
provide a solid framework in which to undertake cross-cultural research.
This weakness stems from the fact that no cross-cultural comparisons are
made within this book, despite so much of the research to date on
politeness being cross-cultural in nature, or at least in intent. Indeed, it
would be fair to note that this book is not really about politeness in general
(that is, across cultures), but is in fact an exposition about 'politeness' in
English. The focus of the book is thus somewhat narrower than its title
might suggest.

In addition, while the focus of the book is almost exclusively on politeness
in English, there is little reference made to the fact that there are now a
number of different varieties of English that exist throughout the world (the
exact number depending upon how one wishes to count them), and that
these different varieties of English are important elements of arguably quite
different cultures. Any detailed exposition of politeness in English must
therefore include at least some acknowledgement of possible differences
between the politeness systems of different varieties of English. The notion
of shared 'habitus' would, of course, be useful in explicating those

A further possible weakness of this book is that Watts focuses almost
exclusively on linguistic forms in his discussion of various examples of
politeness1, with little mention of pragmatic strategies. One of the most
significant achievements of Brown and Levinson's work was to bring
politeness strategies to the forefront of research on politeness, as studies
prior to Brown and Levinson tended to be more focused on polite forms.
Watts analysis thus suffers from an undue focus on linguistic forms, and
neglects to explain how the discursive approach could be applied to the
analysis of politeness strategies. While he states quite explicitly that he
focuses upon linguistic politeness in his book, this does not necessarily
preclude discussion of politeness strategies (since they are clearly not non-
verbal aspects of politeness). This focus upon linguistic forms is thus
another example of how the focus of this book is somewhat narrower than
its title might suggest.

There are other issues touched upon in this book that perhaps require
further explanation, such as the implied categorization of different types of
politeness1, which included 'genuine' politeness, 'insincere/ironic'
politeness, and 'abusive' politeness. This is certainly an area that has
received little attention thus far, and Watts provides new insights, but he
does not, unfortunately, develop this categorization in any great detail.
There is also little consideration of the distinction between politeness and
implicature, despite the notion of implicature being discussed in some
detail in Chapter Eight, although it can perhaps be inferred that Watts
adheres to the view that politeness is not an implicature, as he argues it
arises from procedural rather than conceptual meaning.

In the discursive model of politeness there are no inherently polite
utterances, only utterances that are more open to interpretation as polite
than others. Although, to be fair, Brown and Levinson most likely did not
intend their taxonomy of politeness strategies to be used to label certain
structures or strategies as polite, it has often been the case that the
inherently contextual nature of politeness has been brushed over, or even
ignored, in studies of politeness. Watts' book is thus a timely reminder of
the fact politeness is not attached to particular forms or strategies, but
rather is something that emerges from evaluations of particular behaviour
as 'polite' by interactants.

"Politeness" is an extremely important contribution to the field of politeness
research. It not only gives a measured overview of theoretical work thus far,
but also proposes a plausible starting point for the development of a
genuine alternative to Brown and Levinson's model of politeness. It is,
therefore, a book that all who are studying or researching about politeness
would benefit from reading.

Bargiela-Chiappini, Francesca (2003). 'Face and politeness' new (insights)
for old (concepts),' "Journal of Pragmatics" 35: 1453-1469.

Brown, Penelope and Stephen Levinson (1987). "Politeness. Some Universals
in Language Usage." Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Eelen, Gino (2001). "A Critique of Politeness Theories." St. Jerome,

Haugh, Michael (2004). 'Revisiting the conceptualization of politeness in
English and Japanese,' "Multilingua" 23: 85-109.


Michael Haugh is a lecturer in the School of Languages and Linguistics at
Griffith University. He is currently teaching English as a Second Language as
well as Japanese. His main research interests include pragmatics,
intercultural communication, and the relationship between language and

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