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Review of  Impoliteness in Interaction

Reviewer: Hannele Nicholson
Book Title: Impoliteness in Interaction
Book Author: Derek Bousfield
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Issue Number: 22.2246

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AUTHOR: Bousfield, Derek
TITLE: Impoliteness in Interaction
SERIES TITLE: Pragmatics & Beyond New Series 167
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
YEAR: 2010

Hannele Nicholson, Department of Psychology, University of Notre Dame


'Impoliteness in Interaction' developed out of Bousfield's (2004) PhD
dissertation and is the first book of its kind on the subject of impoliteness in
face-to-face interaction. As such, it is a valuable resource while studying
pragmatics, social interaction, discourse or im/politeness. The book is
organized into nine chapters: an introductory chapter, four chapters dedicated
to defining the author's framework through a review of background literature,
three chapters in which the author presents an empirical analysis of
impoliteness at work during social interactions, and finally, a concluding chapter.

Bousfield seeks to:

- characterize impoliteness in interaction
- test previously existing models in an empirical way in order to understand how
impoliteness is realized in dialogue
- determine whether impoliteness tactics can be combined
- determine the countering strategies for impoliteness and whether they are
offensive or defensive in nature
- describe the triggers or causes for impoliteness
- show how impoliteness manifests itself dynamically within discourse

Data sets come from recordings of documentary-style television shows broadcast
on the British Broadcasting Company (BBC). We are presented with interactions
occurring between drivers and either clamping officials or council officials in
the 'The Clampers' and 'Parking Wars' data sets. Similarly, we see interactions
between a police officer and civilians in the 'Motorway Life' and 'Raw Blues'
data sets. There are examples of military discourse (e.g. a dressing down of a
recruit by an officer) in the 'Soldiers to be' and 'Redcaps' data sets. Finally,
there are employer-employee interactions in the documentary about Chef Gordon
Ramsay's kitchen in the 'Boiling Point' data set.

Chapter One is an introductory chapter that explains relevant background
literature, motivates a need for empirical studies of both impoliteness and
politeness in interaction, sets the scope of the book, and explains the data
sets analyzed throughout the book. While politeness has been the focus of a
myriad of articles, impoliteness has been largely ignored. The book proposes a
model based on empirical evidence of discourse within context, and as such,
offers much to the study of politeness and impoliteness alike. Bousfield also
suggests that the book may be of use to ''the wider world,'' as it shows the
typical patterns of impolite interactions and can prepare people for defending
themselves against any impoliteness they may encounter in daily living.

In the second chapter, the reader is introduced to the Gricean (1975) model of
implicature and conversational maxims as well as to the Sperber and Wilson
(1995) model of Relevance Theory. Relevance Theory proposes that whenever an
individual encounters an utterance, it is within some sort of context.
Furthermore, within this context, the speaker intends to convey some sort of
implicature through the utterance. Individuals come equipped with a sense of
relevance in their minds and thus are able to economically and efficiently weed
out any faulty implicatures or fill in any missing details from the context of
the utterance. Bousfield quickly discounts Relevance Theory as an applicable
model for the study of impoliteness because as a theory it over-privileges the
recipient/hearer’s interpretation over the originator/speaker’s intention. On
the other hand, the Cooperative Principle (CP), a tenet of the Gricean model, is
of particular importance when studying impolite exchanges, as such exchanges are
either highly uncooperative or the principle itself is misleading. Bousfield
shows how several prior conceptualizations of the CP proposed in Grice (1975)
have struggled with whether the principle pertains to social or linguistic
cooperation, or both. Since impolite interactions readily occur while the
channel of communication remains open, Bousfield views the CP as pertaining only
to linguistic cooperation, and from there, sets up the framework in a clear
fashion for the empirical study of impoliteness presented in the remainder of
the book.

Chapter Three explains the concept of 'face' (i.e. the positive social value an
individual claims for him or herself according to fulfillment of cultural and
societal norms), as proposed by Brown and Levinson (1987), which is centrally
used in models of politeness and impoliteness. Bousfield constructs a model
under which the Self presumes face but where face is instantiated
interactionally between the Self and the Other. Furthermore, he views face as
'continuous' in that it can be enhanced or diminished during polite or impolite
interactions and then stored in episodic memory, where it may later be built
upon in future interactions. Bousfield suggests that the notions of 'positive'
and 'negative' face are applicable to most cultures but may differ in strength
or importance. Finally, 'group face' comes to exist when people who share
mindsets and face interact.

Chapter Four provides the reader with an in-depth review of the major models of
politeness and impoliteness in order to construct a model to be implemented in
the remainder of the book. Bousfield reviews theories of social norm politeness,
conversational maxim politeness, the face management view of politeness and the
types of face threat possible during impoliteness. He argues that the face
management view is the most developed, and therefore, it is from this framework
that most of the rest of the book is based. With regards to intention, the book
is primarily concerned with impoliteness that fulfills a specific function that
was seemingly intentional. Although there is some discussion of 'mock'
impoliteness, it is not the focus of the book. Next, Bousfield compares and
contrasts the individual models of impoliteness set forth by Culpeper (1996) and
Lachenicht (1980), before finally restructuring the 5-point model of Culpeper
(2005) into a 2-point all-encompassing model of: 1) On record impoliteness, or
utterances which explicitly attack the hearer, and 2) Off record impoliteness,
which occurs mainly via implicature and can include sarcasm or withheld politeness.

In the fifth chapter, Bousfield begins his empirical analysis by first
presenting instances of impoliteness as shown in the Culpeper (1996) model:
snubbing, disassociating from the other, being uninterested, using inappropriate
identity markers, seeking disagreement/avoiding agreement, using taboo or
profane language, threatening/frightening, showing a condescending attitude or
ridiculing, and explicitly associating the Other with a negative aspect. Each
type of impoliteness is supported by at least one excerpt from his data set,
which is complemented by a clear and concise description of how each example
fits into his model. He then investigates the usage of sarcasm and instances in
which politeness has been withheld. Next, he considers utterances not covered by
the Culpeper (1996) model, such as criticism, physically hindering someone, or
conversationally blocking them from taking a turn, enforcing a role shift, and
issuing a challenge. Bousfield then goes on to provide complex examples of
impolite exchanges in order to motivate a need for a more dynamic approach. This
is namely because impoliteness strategies do not exist in isolation and can
simultaneously affect both the positive and negative face aspects of interlocutors.

Chapter Six investigates the dynamics of impoliteness from the perspective of
the utterance as it proceeds from beginning, to middle, to end. Bousfield argues
that impoliteness does not come out of nowhere, and as such, it must be
considered along with its co-text (i.e. the words immediately surrounding the
impoliteness). He adopts the notion of 'pre-sequences' from the literature on
pragmatics and conversation analysis and goes through several data examples to
suggest that there are also 'pre-impolitenesses,' or certain types of utterances
which can regularly precede impoliteness. To illustrate this, Bousfield gives
the example of a military sergeant who captures his recruits' attention by
saying, ''right you people pin your ears back and listen to me.'' (Bousfield,
2004, p. 150) Here, pre-impoliteness is not core impoliteness; rather, it serves
to capture the attention of the listener and structurally precedes the following
debasement the recruits receive for not washing their clothing properly. In the
section on 'Utterance Middles,' Bousfield shows how impolite strategies may
combine in order to enhance an outcome and boost the level of overall
impoliteness. Finally, he closes with a discussion of interrogatives, such as
''Do you understand?,'' that strengthen the attack on face after core impoliteness.

Chapter Seven continues the investigation of the dynamics of impoliteness with
focus on the discoursal level, again, from beginning, to middle, to end.
Bousfield provides examples that demonstrate how the context of the activity and
the identity and social roles of the interactants play out during the beginning
stages of an impolite utterance. Next, in the section on 'Discourse Middles,'
Bousfield shows via examples how any potentially offensive utterance can itself
trigger a new impolite utterance. This once again shows that impoliteness
strategies can be combined due to their dynamic nature. When choosing to
respond, the conversationalist may choose to accept the face attack or counter
it; countering the attack may be either offensive or defensive in nature.
Several examples are given of different subtypes of defensive strategies.
Finally, Bousfield sheds light on an often ignored area of discourse research,
the 'discourse end.' He provides a variety of strategies by which an impolite
exchange is brought to culmination. These include submission to an opponent,
intervention by a third party, compromise, a stand-off, or withdrawal.

Chapter Eight concludes the analysis of the dynamics of impoliteness by showing
how turn-taking conventions can be abused to enhance the overall level of
rudeness. Bousfield argues that the Sacks et al. (1974) 'rules' of conversation
organization may be only an expectation rather than necessarily an absolute. He
then supports this claim with instances of speakers who did not have the
conversational floor but nevertheless took a turn, thereby contributing to
impoliteness. Next, preference organization, challenging questions and
conductivity are explored via excerpts from the data set. He discusses how the
prosody used with either negative or positive tag questions can be used by
speakers to produce certain effects, such as being sarcastically suspicious or
having a scolding tone. He also discusses how these structures can produce
particular preferred or dispreferred responses in turn. Along this vein,
Bousfield demonstrates how one may circumvent impoliteness by providing
structurally preferred responses.

Chapter Nine summarizes the book, states some of its limitations and proposes
future work. Bousfield acknowledges the fact that his analysis may be limited by
relatively small data sets. He proposes that future work focus on the role of
prosody and discoursal context as a means of understanding speaker intentions.


Overall, 'Impoliteness in Interaction' is an insightful read that successfully
advocates for a dynamic study of not only impoliteness, but discourse in
general. Bousfield does an excellent job of showing how impoliteness strategies
combine via textual examples and persuasively argues that such strategies do not
occur in isolation. The data discussed are entertaining and are used in a
succinct manner to demonstrate the intended phenomenon. The book is intended
primarily as a reference for those doing research in these areas but would also
fit nicely in a graduate-level seminar on politeness, social interaction or

Perhaps the most glaring limitation in the analysis is the nature of the data
set. Bousfield argues for the superiority of such data over impoliteness in
interactions obtained in a laboratory setting by claiming that experimental data
is unethical because it coerces participants to be impolite to one another. The
sorts of documentaries chosen by Bousfield, however, are popular programs for a
reason: they showcase the type of controversy and impoliteness analyzed by
Bousfield. It is therefore possible that the individuals on the programs sought
to be as controversial as possible in order to be shown on television, and
therefore, we are not as entirely free of the observer's paradox as one might
hope. Secondly, both the analyst and the reader have no way of knowing what was
edited out of the televised conversation prior to airing. Furthermore, all of
the chosen shows involved someone who was in a position of power; there were
relatively few interactions between individuals of equal status. It would indeed
be interesting in future research to analyze impoliteness between friends,
family members, workplace colleagues of equal rank, or unacquainted individuals
in public places.

Bousfield suggests that the book is a pioneering empirical study of impoliteness
in interaction and emphasizes the dynamic nature of interaction in his
data-filled chapters. As is the trend in conversational analysis, the emphasis
is on analyzing textual examples, and while the qualitative nature of the study
is very rich indeed, there is little quantitative support for the claims made.
An interesting future study might attempt to quantify the phenomena elucidated
by Bousfield and see whether any patterns emerge out of the type of discourse
itself. Bousfield did this to some degree by pointing out that military recruits
used far fewer defensive strategies as compared to drivers in the documentaries
on trailing clamping officials. Another interesting study, albeit an ethically
difficult one, might attempt to test whether participants routinely predict or
produce impolitenesses when engaged in militaristic versus non-militaristic
dialogue. Furthermore, although he sheds light on the importance of prosody in
the realization of impoliteness, he does not discuss the equally important
aspects of eye gaze or facial and hand gestures. Future work would indeed do
well to consider these aspects as well.

Overall, I recommend 'Impoliteness in Interaction' as an illuminating,
entertaining and well-researched read that sheds light on a much ignored area of
social interaction.


Brown, Penelope and Steven Levinson. [1978] 1987. Politeness: Some Universals in
Language Usage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bousfield, Derek. 2004. Impoliteness in Interaction. Unpublished PhD thesis.
Lancaster University, UK.

Culpeper, Jonathan. 1996. ''Towards an anatomy of impoliteness.'' Journal of
Pragmatics 25: 349-367.

Culpeper, Jonathan. 2005. ''Impoliteness and 'The Weakest Link'.'' Journal of
Politeness Research 1 (1): 35-72.

Grice, Paul. 1975. ''Logic and conversation.'' In Speech Acts [Syntax and
Semantics 3], Peter Cole and Jerry Morgan (eds.), 41-58. New York: Academic Press.

Lachenicht, L. G. 1980. ''Aggravating Language: A study of abusive and insulting
language.'' International Journal of Human Communication 13 (4): 607-688.

Sacks, Harvey, Schegloff, Emanuel & Gail Jefferson. 1974 ''A simplest systematics
for the organization of turn-taking for conversation.'' Language 50: 697-735.

Hannele Nicholson completed a PhD at the University of Edinburgh on the role of disfluency in collaborative dialogue in 2007. In recent post-doctoral work at the University of Notre Dame, she researched the dynamic nature of disfluency in relation to eye gaze, facial gesture and listener feedback.