LINGUIST List 15.262

Sat Jan 24 2004

Review: Sociolinguistics/Pragmatics: Mills (2003)

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  • C�sar F�lix-Brasdefer, Gender and Politeness

    Message 1: Gender and Politeness

    Date: Sat, 24 Jan 2004 10:32:23 -0500 (EST)
    From: C�sar F�lix-Brasdefer <>
    Subject: Gender and Politeness

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

    Announced at

    C�sar F�lix-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 practice.

    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 bibliography.

    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 field.


    Bravo, D. (Ed.) (2003). La perspectiva no etnocentrista de la cortes�a: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 Press.

    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.


    C�sar F�lix-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 acquisition.