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Review of  Politeness in Language

Reviewer: Michael Haugh
Book Title: Politeness in Language
Book Author: Richard J. Watts Sachiko Ide Konrad Ehlich
Publisher: De Gruyter Mouton
Linguistic Field(s): Linguistic Theories
Anthropological Linguistics
Issue Number: 17.1897

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EDITORS: Watts, Richard; Ide, Sachiko; Ehlich, Konrad
TITLE: Politeness in Language (Revised and expanded second edition)
SUBTITLE: Studies in its History, Theory and Practice
PUBLISHER: Mouton de Gruyter
YEAR: 2005

Michael Haugh, School of Languages and Linguistics, Griffith University

This edited volume is a re-publication of a collection of papers on
politeness originally published in 1992, with the addition of a new
introductory chapter written by one of the original editors, Richard Watts,
and an expanded bibliography, which also includes selected (and presumably
significant) works on politeness published since 1992. The original impetus
for this volume lay in a workshop on linguistic politeness held in 1988,
and this date is a crucial in that this collection is in many respects a
critical reaction to the rationalist, modernist approach to politeness
represented in Brown and Levinson's theory of politeness (which itself was
re-published in 1987). Watts argues in the new introductory chapter that
this collection also marked the beginnings of the postmodern or discursive
approach to politeness (p.xiii), and the major concerns raised in the
various chapters in the book are indeed ones that could be construed as
falling into the postmodernist programme. While the move towards discursive
approaches to politeness has really only gained momentum in the past five
years, with Eelen's (2001) penetrating critique of politeness theory often
being credited for this kick-starting this movement, Watts is perhaps
justified in claiming the roots of this movement really lie in this
collection of papers published more than ten years ago. For this reason,
among others, the republication of this collection is indeed a welcome move.

The contents of the original edition have been published in this edition
without any significant changes apart from the addition of a new
introductory chapter written by one of the original editors, Richard Watts,
entitled ''Linguistic politeness research: Quo vadis?'' In this chapter,
Watts argues why a second edition of ''Politeness in Language'' is necessary,
and summarises some of the main tenets of the discursive or postmodern
approach to politeness, carefully showing how these principles can be
related to various papers in the original collection. However, as Jucker
(1994) pointed out in his review of the first edition of ''Politeness in
Language'', despite the emergence of common themes that hint at a postmodern
approach to politeness, this is really quite a heterogeneous book where
''there is very little agreement as to what politeness is'' (p.329). This
makes a step-by-step summary of this book rather unwieldy. Moreover, having
already been reviewed and digested by the academic community over the past
ten years or so, one might question whether it is really necessary for
another review to be written, at least for the original articles. For these
reasons, the summary of the chapters in this book will be somewhat brief.
There is a need, however, for a considered evaluation of the place of this
collection in relation to current trends in politeness research, and so the
present review of this second edition seems warranted.

Politeness in Language consists of thirteen chapters divided in to three
sections, theoretical and historical perspectives, empirical studies, and
studies of politeness in non-Western settings. These chapters are preceded
by the original introduction written by Watts, Ide and Ehlich, and a new
introduction written by Watts specifically for this second edition.

Each of these three sections reflects a number of different concerns of the
postmodern approach to politeness. A number of key themes emerge from the
first section which has six papers focusing on theoretical and historical
dimensions of linguistic politeness. These themes are nicely summarized by
Watts when he claims that ''politeness will always be a slippery, ultimately
indefinable quality of interaction which is subject to change through time
and across cultural space'' (p.xiii). The historical relativity of
politeness is emphasized by Ehlich ('On the historicity of politeness') and
Sell ('Literary texts and diachronic aspects of politeness'), while the
problems we have in satisfactorily defining politeness are related back to
the fact that evaluations of politeness are hearer-based and thus
subjective in Watts ('Linguistic politeness and politic verbal behaviour:
reconsidering claims for universality') and Held ('Politeness in linguistic
research'). The distinction between unmarked behaviour, which is
appropriate to the extent it is not impolite, and marked behaviour, where
the speaker's behaviour is perceived as achieving some ends beyond the
maintenance of the social equilibrium (Jucker 1994: 330), also emerges in
various guises (although unfortunately with different terminology) in a
number of papers in this section including Werkhofer ('Traditional and
modern views: the social constitution and power of politeness'), Janney and
Arndt ('Intracultural tact versus intercultural tact') as well as in the
chapters mentioned above. The fact that there are no objective criteria
with which to make this distinction, since politeness arises from the
hearer's subjective evaluations in particular contexts (or what Watts, Ide
and Ehlich (p.3) label ''first-order politeness'') is what makes politeness a
''slippery, ultimately indefinable quality of interaction'' (p.xiii).

In the second part, one of the key principles of the discursive approach,
that empirical studies of politeness should be grounded in analyses of
actual interactional data, is apparent. Two of the chapters, Knapp-Potthoff
('Secondhand politeness') and Stalpers ('Between matter-of-factness and
politeness') rely on the analysis of recorded spoken data, which is taken
to be crucial to a discursive approach, while the other chapter, Walper and
Valtin ('Children's understanding of white lies'), relies on an analysis of
interviews with subjects investigating their reactions to what are commonly
termed 'white lies'.

The third part gathers together four papers investigating politeness in
non-Western languages, including Hebrew (Blum-Kulka: 'The metapragmatics of
politeness in Israeli society'), Japanese (Ide et al: 'The concept of
politeness: an empirical study of American English and Japanese'; Coulmas:
'Linguistic etiquette in Japanese society'), and Thai (Kummer: 'Politeness
in Thai'). The key theme here is that politeness cannot be defined in the
same way across ''cultural spaces.'' This poses a challenge to the claim of
universality made by Brown and Levinson (1987), although the issue of
universality seems to have become of less importance in the field at
present, as the difficulties - or perhaps even impossibility- of
constructing a grand theory of politeness that can adequately encompass
politeness phenomena across all cultures still remain unresolved to a large
extent (although see Leech (2005) for some recent work on a universal
theory of politeness). It also raises the issue of whether ''politeness''
itself is often evaluated positively (as in the Japanese context, for
example) or negatively (as in the Israeli and British English context, for
example), another concern of the discursive approach to politeness.

It is difficult to do real justice to the breadth and depth of the
individual contributions in this collection within the space of a review
such as this. There can be no doubting that these chapters, particularly
those in parts one and three, first brought to light important notions that
foreshadowed many of the issues currently being contested in the field of
politeness research today. But there are also many subtleties in the ways
these ideas were originally presented that need further teasing out, as it
is fairly apparent that while Watts links all these papers to the emergence
of a postmodern approach to politeness, not all of the contributors would
consider themselves postmodernists. In particular, Ide's later work on
politeness is predicated on a decidedly ''modernist'' stance, as can be
witnessed in her latest collection of papers on politeness, co-edited with
Robin Lakoff, which was also published recently (Lakoff and Ide 2005; for a
full review see: However,
since such an endeavour would require considerably more space than
available here, this evaluation will focus primarily on the discursive
approach to politeness outlined by Watts in the new introduction, and the
value of the republication of this collection to current debates in
politeness theory.

The 2005 introduction to ''Politeness in Language'' draws out the major
themes of the postmodern approach to politeness with the aim, it would
appear from the title of this introduction, of establishing a program for
future politeness research. It is therefore worth considering what these
themes entail for politeness researchers today. One highly controversial
theme that has emerged from the postmodern approach, as represented by
Watts (2003; cf. Locher and Watts 2005) at least, is a shift away from the
notion of politeness to other terms such as ''politic'' or ''relational work.''
This shift is perhaps a natural consequence of an approach that regards
politeness as ''a slippery, ultimately indefinable quality of interaction''
(p.xiii), and leads to a fairly clear hint of the ultimate consequence of
adopting a postmodern approach to politeness, namely ''giving up the idea of
a Theory of Politeness altogether'' (p.xlii). One could interpret this
statement in a number of different ways, but in light of what Watts has
previously written, particularly in his 2003 book ''Politeness'' (for a full
review see:, it appears
that Watts is claiming that in relation to politeness neither a predictive
nor descriptive theory is possible (p.xix; cf. Watts 2003: 142). In other
words, a postmodern approach to politeness abandons the pursuit of both an
a priori predictive theory of politeness (''used to predict when polite
behaviour can be expected'', p.xix) and a post-facto descriptive theory of
politeness (''used to explain post-factum why [politeness] has been
produced'', p.xix). Instead, he argues that analysts need to ''pay closer
attention to how participants in social interaction perceive politeness''
(p.xix). But if one follows this train of thought what is left for
politeness researchers to do? Inevitably, the postmodern approach leads to
the analysis of politeness only being possible within the framework of a
wider theory of interpersonal interaction or communication that is not
predicated on rationalistic or objectivist assumptions about language and
communication. This is indeed an important, and necessary, move in
politeness research, to which closer examination of many of the papers in
this collection lends significant support. It is perhaps here that the
value of republishing this collection really lies: in developing a true
alternative to the objectivist (or modernist) approach to politeness
represented most famously in Brown and Levinson's (1987) theory of
politeness. It is perhaps reflective of the lack of progress in politeness
research during the 1990s, at least before the publication of another
significant work, the special issue on politeness published in ''Pragmatics''
(Kienpointner1999), and the emergence of the discursive approach in the
past five years (in particular, Eelen 2001; Mills 2003), that a collection
of papers originally published in 1992 can still have so much to offer
politeness researchers today.

However, while the discursive approach as outlined by Watts in the new
introduction, and foreshadowed in this collection of papers, has
contributed immeasurably to real progress being made in the field of
politeness research, there remains much to be resolved within the field.
One continuing dilemma as to just how we should define politeness, or least
delimit the range of allowable phenomena analysts should study, which has
resulted in incoherence in the field of politeness research to some extent,
as Jucker (1994: 334) pointed out more than ten years ago. Another issue
that is far from being resolved either is within which more general theory
of interpersonal/social interaction or communication politeness might be
best analysed. A number of alternatives exist at present, including
Arundale's (1999, 2006) Face Constituting Theory which is framed within an
emergent and interactive view of communication (Arundale 2004),
Terkourafi's (2005a, b) frame-based approach, which is framed within a
neo-Gricean view of communication, and Watts' (2003) own discursive
approach to politeness, which has been framed within a Relevance theoretic
view of communication to date (although there is perhaps some doubt as to
just how consistent the discursive approach is with Relevance Theory as
Terkourafi (2006) has recently pointed out). Moreover, since the discursive
approach is focused on how interactants themselves perceive politeness in
interactions, the implications of more ethnographically-focused studies
should not be neglected. Nevertheless, while it remains to be seen which
alternative might finally emerge as dominant within the field, if indeed
such an approach will emerge, in the meantime there is much to be gained
from revisiting this founding work of the discursive approach to politeness
in pursuit of a more coherent approach in the field of politeness research.

Arundale, Robert (1999). An alternative model and ideology of communication
for an alternative to politeness theory. Pragmatics 9, 1: 119-153.
Arundale, Robert (2004). Co-constituting face in conversation: An
alternative to Brown & Levinson's politeness theory. Paper presented to the
National Communication Association, Chicago, IL.
Arundale, Robert (2006). Face as relational and interactional: A
communication framework for research on face, facework, and politeness.
Journal of Politeness Research 2, 2.
Brown, Penelope & Stephen Levinson (1987). Politeness. Some Universals in
Language Usage. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Eelen, Gino (2001). A Critique of Politeness Theories. St. Jerome, Manchester.
Jucker, Andreas (1994). Review of Richard J. Watts, Sachiko Ide and Konrad
Ehlich (eds.), Politeness in Language. Multilingua 13, 3: 329-334.
Keinpointner (1999). Special issue on Ideologies of Politeness. Pragmatics
9, 1.
Leech, Geoffrey (2005). Politeness: Is there an East-West divide? Journal
of Foreign Languages (Shanghai International Studies University) 6: 3-30.
Lakoff, Robin & Sachiko Ide, eds. (2005). Broadening the Horizons of
Linguistic Politeness. John Benjamins, Amsterdam.
Locher, Miriam & Richard Watts (2005). Politeness theory and relational
work. Journal of Politeness Research 1, 1: 9-33.
Mills, Sara (2003). Politeness and Gender. Cambridge University Press,
Terkourafi, Marina (2005a). An argument for a frame-based approach to
politeness: Evidence from the use of the imperative in Cypriot Greek. In
Lakoff & Ide (eds.), 99-116.
Terkourafi, Marina (2005b). Beyond the micro-level in politeness research.
Journal of Politeness Research 1, 2: 237-262.
Terkourafi, Marina (2006). Review of Politeness. Journal of Pragmatics 38:
Michael Haugh is a lecturer teaching English as an International Language
as well as Linguistics in the School of Languages and Linguistics at
Griffith University. His main research interests include pragmatics,
sociolinguistics, intercultural communication, and the relationship between
language and identity. He has published work on politeness and implicature
in a number of journals including the Journal of Pragmatics, Multilingua,
Pragmatics and Intercultural Pragmatics, as well as a chapter on face in
the recently edited volume "Asian Business Discourse(s)." His most recent
work is an article on "The co-constitution of politeness implicature in
conversation" to be published in the Journal of Pragmatics.

Format: Hardback
ISBN: 3110185490
ISBN-13: N/A
Pages: xlvii, 404
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