LINGUIST List 23.2389

Sat May 19 2012

Review: Discourse Analysis; Pragmatics; Sociolinguistics: Brenes Peña (2011)

Editor for this issue: Monica Macaulay <>

Date: 19-May-2012
From: Gonzalo Martínez-Camino <>
Subject: Descortesía verbal y tertulia televisiva
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AUTHOR: Brenes Peña, EstherTITLE: Descortesía verbal y tertulia televisivaSUBTITLE: Análisis pragmalingüísticoSERIES TITLE: Fondo Hispánico de Lingüística y FilologíaPUBLISHER: Peter LangYEAR: 2011

Gonzalo Martínez-Camino, Lengua Española, Universidad de Cantabria, Spain.


This book constitutes a solid and insightful case study of verbal impoliteness.The author sets out her aims in the introduction: the study of the interrelationbetween linguistic forms and social factors (contextual and situational). Tothis end, she focuses on what she calls a pseudo TV talk-show: “a specializedbranch of journalism focusing on the private lives of persons considered famousor well-known” (p. 14, my translation). She justifies her choice because, aslong as “television is the nerve centre of our existence […], we convert thecharacters in these television programs into a standard, guide or model of ourown behaviors” (p. 14-15, my translation). It is logical, therefore, that theauthor should choose this form of speech since, because it has a stronginfluence on large sectors of society, it also has a major influence on verbalcommunication.

The book consists of six chapters, the conclusions, and two appendices. The sixchapters form two parts: in the first three, Brenes Peña defines the mainconcepts around which her study will revolve, (im)politeness and TV talk-shows;the second part is a detailed analysis of the linguistic and rhetoricalstrategies that she finds in her corpus.

In the first two chapters, the author illustrates her position on(im)politeness. She begins with an outline of the state of the art. She observeshow the evolution of these studies, since their origins in the early seventies,has marked out a socio-pragmatic field in the larger area of Pragmatics.Nowadays, its object of study is the negotiation of the face of thecommunicators during an exchange and the description of its linguisticexpressions. However, the author sees a shift in the perspective from apredictive one in the seventies and eighties toward a descriptive one at thestart of the millennium. Taking into account her own interests, she dedicateshalf of the chapter to the concept of impoliteness and the development of its study.

In Chapter Two, the author outlines her methodology. The (im)politeness of amessage depends on the receiver’s assessment; linguistic expressions are neitherpolite nor impolite in themselves. However, the repeated use, inside a speechcommunity, of a linguistic expression with a social value allows this (im)politevalue to be codified. This means that any person who wants to be an operativemember of a community needs to acquire a shared socio-cultural knowledge aboutwhich social values are associated with which expression, what effects theseexpressions will have in which situations, and how she or he can, finally,evaluate the social effect of the message once it has been produced in aspecific communicative encounter. Therefore, the context is the sharedsocio-cultural knowledge that surrounds the communicative encounter and itsinterlocutors and it is necessary to distinguish clearly between what iscodified and what is the result of the interpretation during the interaction(Briz Gómez 2004). Brenes Peña distinguishes four different variables thatcondition how the interlocutors assess whether the communicator is being politeor not: socio-cultural, generic, situational, and individual. The first refersto what a particular culture understands by (im)polite, to the set of values andsocial roles. The second is related to the differences of the type of exchange.The third variable is the formality or informality of the situation. Finally,the fourth variable is the character of the interlocutors.

Consequently, she defines (im)politeness as a pragmatic function of a discoursewhere the emitter’s intention is present, either to enhance or damage the socialface of his or her receiver, and where the latter decodes this message properly.This reminds us of the Relevance Theory definition of ostensive-inferentialcommunication as the communicator’s behaviour that makes manifest to heraudience her intention of making manifest a basic layer of information. In thisreviewer’s opinion, if the author thinks that (im)politeness is not coded in thelinguistic units but is rather an effect that the communicator intends tostimulate in her audience’s mind(s) using her or his message, it would have beenbetter to use terms such as “interpret”, “assess”, and “react”, rather than“decode”.

The social effects that result from this pragmatic function form a gradationwith two contradictory poles: the polite effect that creates a comfortablecommunicative atmosphere; the impolite effect that degrades both this atmosphereand the interlocutors’ faces; in the middle, a neutral zone. Here Brenes Peñalocates adequate communicative behavior that fits in with the situation and,therefore, goes by unnoticed by the interlocutors; it corresponds to what Watts(2003, 2005, 2008) calls politic behavior. However, we wonder if a behavior thatfits in the interlocutors’ socio-cultural expectations does not produce thesocial effects of polite behaviour: facework and a comfortable communicativeatmosphere. On the other hand, she thinks that politeness can enhance theemitter’s face because she or he can be seen as a competent or considerateinterlocutor; in contrast, impoliteness makes the receiver think that theemitter is incompetent or inconsiderate. However, the author, following Held(2005), Hernández Flores (2005, 2006), and Bernal (2007), thinks that, in somesituations, it could be assessed positively that the speaker behaves impolitely,for example, in parliamentary debates or military training.

The author classifies the impolite strategies of the interlocutors taking intoaccount three criteria: Omission/expression, directness/indirectness,autonomy/affiliation:* The emitter is impolite because he or she fails to produce a speech act thathe or she is expected to produce taking into account the (in)formality of thesituation, his or her social role and the genre he or she is using.* The emitter is impolite because he or she produces a speech act that he or sheis not expected to produce taking into account the (in)formality of thesituation, his or her social role and the genre he or she is using.** This speech act can be assessed as an aggression to the face of the receiveras an autonomous member of the group (face of autonomy)*** and it is expressed directly*** or indirectly.** This speech act can be assessed as an aggression to the face of the receiveras an accepted member (face of affiliation)*** and it is expressed directly*** or indirectly.

In the third chapter, the author addresses the definition of her object and thejustification of her choice. What is the relation that she finds between this TVgenre and impoliteness? The need to have a greater share of the TV audiencemakes the channels increase the level of impoliteness of these debates. Thiscreates what the author calls mediatic-ludic impoliteness as well as a newgenre, the pseudo TV talk-show. This is one of the situations where impolitebehavior could be assessed positively. To analyse this, Brenes Peña recordedseveral broadcasts of seven programs; and she transcribed these audio-visualtexts using the system proposed by Grupo Val. Es. Co (2003).

In order to define this genre, Brenes-Peña draws on Ducrot’s theory of polyphony(1986). She distinguishes between the semantic point of view of the director andthe persons responsible for the show, on the one hand, and the presenter’s andthe participant’s view, on the other. The latter may just utter, as“enunciators”, the message planned by the former, who, therefore, occupy theposition of “locutors”, those who are responsible discursively and legally. Thepresenter and the participants behave like “locutors” when they express theirown points of view. Brenes Peña describes the reception as a triangularstructure with a twofold disposition: on the first level, she finds that thepresenter and the participants are “allocutionary receivers” when otherparticipants are holding the floor. However, on a second level, she finds twodifferent types of “non-allocutionary receivers”: “addressees” and“non-addressees”. The former is made up of the public that may be physicallypresent in the TV studio or viewing the talk-show at home. The latter receivethe message accidently. These are the discursive coordinates which, according toBrenes Peña, define this genre.

Nevertheless, this applies to any type of TV or radio debate. Brenes Peña,however, identifies particularities in three areas: objective, content androles. The main objective of the talk-show is not the debate of an idea, but themanifestation of conflict among the participants. Therefore, the pitilesscriticism of the romantic and sexual life of celebrities has to feed thisconflict. Consequently, the presenter is no longer a “firefighter”; rather, thepresenter’s function is “to throw gasoline on the confrontation”. Iftraditionally the attending public’s role was to clap whenever the director ofthe program told them to, now, the channel and the program directors try toreduce the gap that separates these addressees from the participants in thetalk-show. The presenter and the participants address them directly and,therefore, they become allocutionary receivers; in response, this public cheersand may even interrupt the participants or may try to correct what has beensaid. The use of SMS (texting, etc.) allows the absent public to participatetoo. Finally, Brenes Peña considers as a defining feature of this genre that itturns impolite behavior into a show.

In Chapter Four, the author identifies the impolite strategies and linguisticexpressions that the participants use in the talk-show samples that make up hercorpus. She focuses on those that are used in symmetrical relations betweenparticipants. The methodology she uses in order to identify the particular casesof impoliteness is to pay attention to the reactions of the receiver, whether itbe the allocutionary addressees, that is the other participants in thetalk-show, or the non-allocutionary addressees, that is the public, present orabsent. She can observe the reactions of the allocutionary addressees during thedebate, but how can she verify the reactions of the non-allocutionaryaddressees? She resolves this by conducting a test of social habits; the resultsof this test are found in the second appendix of the book.

She identifies two main impolite strategies: imposition and discrediting. In theformer, the participants try not just to defend their position vehemently, butto silence the other interlocutors. In the latter, they completely disqualifythe other participant’s opinion.

Here the author runs into a controversial sociopragmatics dilemma: if animpolite behavior is habitual in a situation or genre, and the interlocutors areused to it, does this mean that it is no longer impolite? Brenes Peña observesthat the dissenting messages are not considered as what conversational analystscall a dispreferred reply: they are expressed explicitly, without delay ormitigation. The participants are aware that their job is to contradict eachother; therefore, they do not feel offended because the others dissent, but theydo when this rejection is expressed discrediting their person or their opinions,or when they are repeatedly interrupted in an attempt to silence them.Therefore, she concludes that the fact that the impolite messages are expectabledoes not mean that their social effect is necessarily positive. She quotesBousfield (2007: 2189), when he says that just because something is moreprevalent, or more central, does not necessarily mean that it constitutes a normwithin that discourse type. However, I would observe that, in the case oftalk-shows, as in military training or parliamentary debates, the speakers areexpected to be impolite; therefore, normality and impoliteness are notcontradictory.

Brenes Peña uses a test of social habits based on the one used byHernández-Flores (2008, 2009) and Sifianou (1992) in order to determine theopinion of the absent public: they have the same perceptions as theparticipants; expressing dissent is not impolite (even when expressed in strongterms); however, discrediting others or their opinions or interrupting themconstantly is assessed as impolite. This confirms not only what is expectableabout this genre, but what is expectable about Spanish culture whereself-affirmation and conflict are accepted forms of interaction(Hernández-Flores, 1999, 2002; Hickey, 2004; Martínez-Camino and Dalley, 2004).

In the next two chapters, Brenes Peña carries out a thorough and detailedanalysis of these two impolite strategies. In Chapter Five, she addresses theimposition of one’s opinion: she describes how the participants in the talk-showintensify their assertions in such a way that they are presented as absolutetruths that cannot be contradicted; they also interrupt the others in order totry to silence them or they even threaten them. In Chapter Six she addresses thediscrediting of others or others’ opinions.

The author takes the position that the assertion is the enunciative commitmentof the emitter with what she or he has said (“dictum”): at one extreme, thespeaker can mitigate this commitment and express a very weak assumption; at theother, the speaker can intensify it and express a very strong assumption. Sheanalyzes the five different types of linguistic resources that the participantsuse in order to intensify the commitment of their messages when they contradicteach other.

The first is made up of the elements that mitigate or intensify theresponsibility of the emitter: modal adverbs that present what is said assomething accepted by the whole community (“logicamente, evidentemente,obviamente, claro, desde luego, por supuesto” [logically, evidently, clearly,obviously, of course]); expressions of the speaker’s “authority” (“según misfuentes” [according to my sources]); expressions that present the “dictum” assomething accepted by the interlocutor (“como tú sabes” [as you know]);expressions that present the participant as an expert guaranteeing what she orhe has said (“yo lo he vivido en primera línea” [I have been through thatmyself]); and expressions, with adverbs (“sinceramente” [sincerely]) or formulae(“de verdad, yo soy sincera” [really, truly]), of the participant’s honest andcooperative attitude. Other resources are used in order to manifest thespeaker’s modal attitude of security and truthfulness about her or his “dictum”;now the communicator is not looking for support in the community or expressingauthority or honesty, she or he wants to qualify what she or he is saying assomething unquestionable or irrefutable: “seguro, las cosas son como son, teguste o no te guste, la verdad es que…, efectivamente” [sure, that’s the way itis, whether you like it or not, the truth is that, sure enough]. The participantcan try to establish a hierarchical organization of the information, reinforcingher or his assertion; they can use a false sensorial imperative (“mira, escucha”[look, listen]), introductory formulae (“te voy a decir una cosa, que lo sepas”[let me tell you something, so that you know]); appellative appendices or taggedsentences (“¿me estás entendiendo?, ¿vale?, ¿de acuerdo?” [do you understand?OK? Do you see?]). The speakers can reinforce the contraargumentative functionof their message with different types of resources: emphasizing thepronunciation, pronouncing syllables separately, lengthening the vowels,repeating parts of the message, using rhetorical questions, or using formulaethat end the conversation (“y con esto zanjo el tema para siempre” [and that’sthe end of that]). Finally, the participant can present what she is saying asher subjective opinion and, therefore, as irrefutable from any other subjectiveposition (“tú puedes decir lo que quieras que estás en tu derecho, pero yo” [youcan say whatever you want, that’s your right, but I]).

The participants can also try to impose their opinions by interrupting theirinterlocutors. The author, drawing on the literature, obtains a definition thatwill allow her to analyze the participants’ behavior. She considers interruptionas a transgression of the turn-taking system that is intended to remove thecurrent speaker from the floor; this might be accomplished with or withoutoverlapping. Therefore, she differentiates between this phenomenon and otherssuch as casual overlapping or different types of back-channelling. The authoralso reflects on the relation between interruption and impoliteness. Brenes Peñapoints out that the (im)polite effect of an interruption will vary according tothe culture, the type of discourse, the relation between the interlocutors, andthe function. She also identifies several elements that might help to mitigateits impoliteness: the interrupting speakers can use mitigating expressions suchas “solamente una cosita” or “perdona que te interrumpa” [just one thing, sorryto interrupt you]; she or he can avoid overlapping or, at least, she or he cantry to reduce the duration of the overlapping and use a low tone and a lowintensity; the less frequent the interruption, the less impolite. However, herempirical analysis shows that the participants frequently fall back on the useof interruptions, with frequent and long overlappings; they shout, expressingthemselves aggressively, using a high tone; when they use elements that mightmitigate the social effect of the interruption, it is often more to attract theattention of the speaker than to mitigate.

Brenes Peña identifies another impolite behavior that the participants use inorder to impose their opinions: threatening. She points out that the effect ofthis is always very negative and the emitter can intensify it by expressing itclearly and explicitly with obscene language, using a high tone and challenginggestures and glances. She observes that the participants threaten when, in aburst of rage, they are incensed by the heat of the dialectical battle. Theylose their temper and any trace of a line of argumentation. They portraythemselves as lacking any arguments or any rational capacity to use them. Thesocial effect is devastating and it drives the exchange to the verge ofdissolution. Threatening goes beyond even the lax limits of this permissivegenre whose purpose is to use impolite behavior as a spectacle.

Brenes-Peña points out that when the participants lack arguments to contradicttheir interlocutors, they can also fall back on discrediting them, theiropinions, or the act of expressing them. This is a strongly impolite behavior;however, the social effect is not as devastating as with threats; on thecontrary, it portrays the participant as a controversial member that willimprove the share of the program. Consequently, these strategies fit in wellwith the rules of the talk-show.

The author identifies several strategies that can be used in order to attack theaffiliative face of other participants. These strategies are attacks on thequalities that are necessary in order to be an operative member of a talk-show,such as her or his credibility or the credibility of her or his sources. Forexample, Brenes-Peña identifies the use of the expression “eso lo dices tú”[that’s what you say] which underlines the idea that the participant lacks theability to make a dispassionate assessment of reality. In this sense, theinterlocutors can use insults that negate that the interlocutor qualifies as anappropriate participant. For example, “chupacamaras” [camera-hog] - this insultmeans that the interlocutor is capable of anything if this can help her or himto become a celebrity. The participants can also use metaphors in order tointensify their attacks on other’s faces as qualified members of the talk-show;for example, one of the participants can refer to the other as a vulture,meaning that she is ready to use anything in order to feed her fame. Finally,the participants use irony in order to present themselves as witty interlocutorsand, therefore, enhance their affiliative faces; this also allows them toridicule in one way or another their “allocutionary receivers”; at the sametime, they achieve the involvement of the “non-allocutionary receivers” becausethey can laugh together at the expense of the other participant.

On the other hand, Brenes-Peña identifies three different strategies that theparticipants use in order to discredit their interlocutor’s act of expressingopinions: they can say that she or he is violating the maxim of quality (“estásfaltando a la verdad en toda regal” [you are lying through your teeth]); theycan state that she or he does not follow the principle of non-contradiction(“pero este hombre ¿qué? ¿se contradice siempre?” [but this guy contradictshimself every time]); they can accuse them of following an inconsistent path ofbehavior (“¡ah antes lo defiendes y ahora lo puteas, ¡qué bueno eres!” [So youused to defend him and now you attack him, that’s great!]). All of this meansstrong attacks on the affiliative face of the interlocutor because it makes heror his utterances worthless.

Finally, the participants may show that it is not worth the effort of payingattention to what their interlocutors have said because it is false (“eso no esverdad” [that’s not true]), boring (“que me aburres, que me aburres, chico”[you’re boring me, son]), irrelevant (“yo creo que esto sea ahora mismo el tema,perdona que te diga” [pardon me but that’s not what we’re talking about now]),intrinsically stupid (“porque a las idioteces hay que contestar con idioteces”[because it’s not worth responding to nonsense]). Nevertheless, Brenes-Peñapoints out that to deny the discursive cooperation completely is the mostaggressive strategy against the face of the interlocutor: the speaker gives up,replying “si piensas eso…” [if that’s what you think…].


This book offers a valuable contribution to the understanding of three objectsof study: facework and (im)polite linguistic behavior; the talk-show, a new TVgenre, and the society of spectacle. Obviously its first target is the talk-showparticipants’ impolite behavior; however, since impoliteness is a social effect,the author analyzes its cultural and discursive coordinates and repercussions.For this reason, Brenes Peña’s study allows us to understand how deep the impactof sociopragmatics can be when it comes to articulating an explanation of humannature and culture.

First of all, this work is a thorough and detailed empirical study of atalk-show corpus, based on a no less thorough and detailed grasp of the tenetsof sociopragmatics. However, the author makes her own choices and articulatesher own position; therefore, we read something that is more than a solidexposition of others’ ideas: “verbal (im)politeness arises from theconfrontation of the meaning or value of an utterance with the social preceptsthat govern a specific communicative interaction” (p. 42, my translation).

Brenes Peña analyzes her audio-visual texts in order to identify theselinguistic elements and show us how they are used in order to create particularsocial effects in the communicative exchange. Consequently, she studies how theparticipants try to influence the discursive development of these programsfalling back on certain linguistic instruments. This work, then, is not justthe study of a series of verbal units: it explains how the interlocutorsenhance, attack, build or undermine their faces, constructing, discursively,their interpersonal reality. I think this is the right direction for thedevelopment of the discipline. However, her analysis at times lacks a moremacroscopic perspective, which might allow her to advance further down thisroad. Perhaps she could have included the study of some particular exchange toshow how it develops, dialogically, a communicative project. However, this isjust a minor consideration in an otherwise highly commendable work.

This book allows us to understand how a new TV genre has emerged because theconditions of television culture demand the broadcasting of dialogues wheresemiotic and linguistic instruments are used in order to develop a faceworkcharacterized by imbalance, conflict or even hostility, just the opposite ofdaily, common conversation. In this sense, a little more macroscopic perspectivewould have refined Brenes Peña’s explanation of this phenomenon. Beyond this,Brenes Peña points out how the development of this new type of interpersonalexchange might affect suprapersonal habits and intrapersonal expectations: wemay get used to rudeness and accept it as the normal aggressive management ofcommunication. Sociopragmatics allows us to understand how interlocutorsconstruct, through communicative encounters and projects, their interpersonalreality with deep sociological and psychological repercussions, and this book isa good example of how this discipline can obtain these results.


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Gonzalo Martínez-Camino is an Associate Professor at Universidad de Cantabria, Spain. He also teaches Pragmatics Applied to Second Language Teaching and Learning at The International Center for Higher Spanish Studies-Comillas Foundation. In the past, he has taught in The Ohio State University and in Western Michigan University. His current research interests include advertising, sociopragmatic aspects of the use of verbal language in advertising and in computer mediated education, theory of (im)politeness and Spanish as a foreign language.

Page Updated: 19-May-2012