LINGUIST List 32.2056

Tue Jun 15 2021

Review: Discourse Analysis; Pragmatics: Archer, Grainger, Jagodziński (2020)

Editor for this issue: Jeremy Coburn <>

Date: 20-Feb-2021
From: Nicolas Ruytenbeek <>
Subject: Politeness in Professional Contexts
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Book announced at

EDITOR: Dawn Archer
EDITOR: Karen Grainger
EDITOR: Piotr Jagodziński
TITLE: Politeness in Professional Contexts
SERIES TITLE: Pragmatics & Beyond New Series 311
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
YEAR: 2020

REVIEWER: Nicolas Ruytenbeek, Ghent University


In Chapter 1, “Introduction: Politeness in professional contexts”, the editors Dawn Archer, Karen Grainger, and Piotr Jagodziński outline the content of Politeness in Professional Contexts (PPC). They aim to fill a research gap, as, to date, few studies have explored how politeness theory can be applied to professional contexts, especially when it comes to the operationalization of face-related concepts in real world situations. The editors explain their division of PPC into three parts, and they provide a summary of the chapters including the background against which each of them situates itself. Part I is devoted to (im)politeness in medical contexts (Chapters 2, 3, 4, and 5). In Part II (Chapters 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10), the focus is on business and workplace settings. Part III approaches face-threat and facework in legal and security contexts (Chapters 11, 12, and 13). The editors also present key distinctions, such as personal vs. professional face, transactional vs. relational speech, and the general theoretical framework of rapport management (Spencer-Oatey 2008) assumed in most contributions, and they put some emphasis on the importance of context, e.g., medical vs. business, and digital vs. face-to-face, for the study of politeness in professional settings. Finally, the bi-directional connection between politeness research and professional practices is presented as a common thread of the volume. One of the editors’ goals is that the research reported on in PPC will inform the work of practitioners and the content of their communication training.

Chapter 2, “Learning to manage rapport in GP trainee encounters: A discursive politeness approach”, explores the rapport management strategies used by UK trainee General Practitioners (GPs) in simulated interactions. The authors, Tristan Emerson, Leigh Harrington, Louise Mullany, Sarah Atkins, Dick Churchill, Rachel Winter and Rakesh Patel pay special attention to the relationship between rapport management and the (un)successful delivery of medical a diagnosis by the junior GPs. The authors assume Spencer-Oatey and Franklin’s (2009) model of rapport management; the data they report on consist in 60 simulated patient-doctor interactions originally intended to assess the assessment, clinical management and interpersonal skills of the future GPs. Their analysis indicates that patient-doctor conversations often start with a rapport-building strategy: an “invitation to input” (ITI) from the doctor, such as “What do you want us to do” and “what’s going through your mind […]?”. Even though the patient-doctor relationship is asymmetric both in terms of power and agency, there is nowadays an increased relevance of the “expert patient” who has a higher degree of agency, which is visible in the interactions examined in this chapter. This contribution also shows that power and politeness are flexible and dynamic concepts, co-constructed in interaction. The examples of interactions discussed also reveal the difficulty that some GPs experience with respect to achieving a balance between transactional speech (delivery of a diagnosis) and relational speech (small talk), as too much small talk and the use of vague language (e.g., too much mitigation to defer the delivery of bad news) can have damaging consequences for the patient. This issue also reflects a tension between a GP’s personal and professional faces. The authors conclude their chapter with an invitation to incorporate linguistic toolkits based on their observations for an effective rapport management in GP trainings.

Chapter 3, “Team interactions in healthcare settings: Leadership, rapport-building and clinical outcomes in ad hoc medical team”, by Małgorzata Chałupnik and Sarah Atkins, examines team interactions in the context of emergency medicine training in a large hospital in the UK, based on video recordings, field notes and training materials. The video recordings consist in trauma simulations in which a trainee has to lead a medical team to carry out specific tasks within an allotted time of 14 minutes. The authors show that, with their requests for action, the trainees delegated tasks to their co-workers (the form of these requests is coded according to Blum-Kulka et al. (1989) CCSARP coding scheme). They also pay special attention to markers of active listenership, such as backchannel (mhm, yeah, headnod), eye gaze and body orientation. A tendency they found is that, when power is exercised in less coercive ways, i.e., when the requests are more indirect and/or include mitigating devices, trainees are perceived as better leaders. Markers of active listenership are also more frequent in the speech of trainees who are assessed more positively.

In Chapter 4, “Take care of yourself: Negotiating moral and professional face in stroke rehabilitation”, Karen Grainger examines conversations between two stroke patients and their therapist; her data consists in field notes and audio recorded interviews with UK patients. The extracts analysed reveal some ambiguity in the interactions between the patient and the doctor: while the doctor is a medical authority, s/he has to show empathy too; the patient, on the other hand, may be described as a “good patient”, an expert about her own health, which gives the person a sort of “authority” in that respect. Grainger’s analysis shows that the speech of stroke rehabilitation is characterized by an ethos of motivation, optimism, and self-help. This is evident in the extract where the patient interacts with an occupational therapist, and both agents are involved in the discussion about the patient’s progress. The optimistic theme also surfaces when the patient contrasts her current positive attitude with her past desperate state of mind. In some cases, however, the doctor increases the threat to the personal face of the patient by insisting on the ethos of optimism, thereby re-establishing her/his own professional face of a moral authority.

Chapter 5, “Politeness and relational work in novel digital contexts of healthcare communication”, by Olga Zayts and Fefei Zhou, addresses the use of humour in medical advice giving via a mobile app (the Health App) in Mainland China. The articles available via the App are written by professionals in a variety of medical fields. As the authors remark, the unlimited size of message buffer facilitates the use of creative language. The discussion of their examples confirms the multifunctionality of humour evidenced by previous studies. For example, articles concerning the practice of “sitting out a month” give rise to a humorous criticism of traditional cultural practices; the use of humour enables face-threat mitigation with respect to the App users. Humour in these articles has the effect of establishing rapport between the App authors and the users, with an appeal to their commonsensical knowledge. Changes in register (medical jargon vs. informal speech) also have a rapport management function.

In Chapter 6, “Managing rapport in team conflicts: Dealing with the elephant in the room”, Carolin Debray explores rapport management and relational work in project teams, against the background assumption that relational conflict is pervasive in daily professional life. The data she analyses consist in interactional data collected during the meetings of a team of MBA students collaborating on four projects over a period of eight months, complemented by informal interviews with the participants. These data reveal that the conflict experienced by the participants is centred on two of them, a particularly quiet individual, and David, who was perceived as too directive and even disrespectful. Interestingly, while in the interviews the other participants all acknowledged the existence of a conflict involving David, they carried out relational work to keep the conflict covert during the interactions. Face-threat therefore tended to be ignored by the participants. For example, when a participant threatened the rapport between team members, especially with respect to David, the other participants disaffiliated with him/her to avoid the conflict surfacing. Debray’s findings are in line with the observation that open conflict is a more productive relational strategy compared to conflict avoidance. In the present case, the latter strategy even caused the relationship with David to deteriate.

Chapter 7, “Intercultural (im)politeness: Influences on the way professional British Sign Language/English interpreters mediate im/polite language”, by Rachel Mapson, deals with rapport management in liaison interpreting, that is, cases where the interpreting process is bi-directional and the interpreter has to take into consideration possible differences between the socio-pragmatic norms of each language. The data reported on are video-recorded semi-structured discussions on the topic of (im)politeness in interpreting among a group of four interpreters with British Sign Language (BSL) as mother tongue and another group with four interpreters having English as mother tongue. Mapson finds that the interpreters’ interpretation of (im)politeness is shaped by seven dynamically related parameters: the setting where the interaction takes place, the possible consequences of the interpretation for the interactants, the different levels of sophistication of the speakers, the intentions of the speakers, the interpreter’s own face needs, and whether the speakers can see one another and the transparency of their decisions. On the top of these, the degree of familiarity between the interpreter and the speakers has an underpinning influence. In general, this chapter demonstrates that interpreters do not merely “translate utterances”, but also have an active role as they shape the meaning of interpreting interactions.

In Chapter 8, “Towards a folk pragmatics of call centre service encounters”, Piotr Jagodziński presents his ethnographic fieldwork in an airline call centre, paying attention both to the textual materials available for employees in the call centre and on authentic call centre interactions. He first contextualizes his analysis of interactional data by showing that the customer service training course in the call centre has three pillars, i.e., a version of the “code” model of communication, linguistic accommodation based on customer typology, and the call centre agent’s requirement to control the conversation with the customer. One of the interactions he discusses involves a “perfectionist” type of customer in an “objection handling call”. It is shown that, despite the presence of accommodating moves in the employee’s speech to adapt to the type of customer, over the course of the conversation the customer gets emotional and the employee is not able to take control of the situation.

Chapter 9, “ ’I always use the word please’: The production and perception of English and Spanish workplace emails”, by Vera Freytag, offers a cross-cultural pragmatic analysis of English and Spanish request emails both with a qualitative and quantitative dimension. Assuming an approach in terms of “speech act events”, she explores a corpus of 600 email requests, half of them written by native speakers of Spanish and the other half by native speakers of British English (BE). She demonstrates that both Spanish and BE requests are strongly oriented towards positive politeness; the same set of strategies, and a similar degree of directness, is used by the writers in both languages. However, subtle differences among the two languages are found, such as the preference for preparatory interrogatives (“Could you…?”) and for the second person perspective in BE. The author also comments on the interesting finding that the use not only of downgraders, such as “it would be perfect”, “we would appreciate”, but also of upgraders (emphasis on urgency), increases in emails to socially distant individuals. She complements her analysis of emails with a perception study consisting in an online questionnaire administered to the email writers; these questionnaire data confirm the view that there is no linear relationship between degrees of indirectness and degrees of politeness.

In Chapter 10, “ “Music for your breakfast” relational work in a sole trader’s intercultural business emails, Elizabeth Marsden explores the use of self-disclosure, homophily, and computer-mediated communication (CMC) cues in a corpus of more than a thousand emails between herself (as a sole trader carrying out proofreading and transcription work) and her academic clients. She examines, in particular, how relational work contributes to a gradual change in the relationship between the sole trader and the client. For instance, the sharing of a media (e.g., a video) enables the discovering of points of similarity between them, as do reciprocal self-disclosures often occurring in chains (apologize for a delay, discuss family issues). As the author points out, self-disclosure can elicit positive relational work, as it provides an opportunity to attend the positive face of the person and to build trust. In the same vein, paralinguistic CMC elements such as exclamation marks and positive emoticons are part of the relational work, as they serve to mitigate the face-threat associated with the speech acts performed.

Chapter 11, “Judicial questioning: How context shapes facework strategies”, by Karen Tracy, addresses facework and the speech act of questioning in oral arguments (appellate courts) and small claims civil trials in the USA. In a first case study devoted to the practice of appellate judge questioning in oral arguments about marriage between same-sex partners, Tracy illustrates the interactional style routinely used in these settings, i.e., minimal politeness with the prevalence of an impersonal professional identity. The judges’ speech is very rarely mitigated by uncertainty modals or downtoners, and their interruptions of attorneys are frequent. In her second case study addressing small claims, she observes a higher inter-individual variability in the way judges ask their questions. In addition, the use of politeness devices such as “please” and “thank you” in questions was more frequent in small claims than in appellate judges’ speech. This comparison indicates that the speech act of questioning has a different face-threatening potential and participants react differently to it in the two types of contexts.

In Chapter 12, “Keeping airports safe: The value of small talk”, Dawn Archer, Cliff Lansley, and Aaron Garner investigate the extraction of information in a covert manner by Air Marshals (AMs) and Behavioural Detection Officers (BDOs), with key attention to the face-work accomplished by the use of small talk. The data analysed in this chapter originates from fictionalized interactions between AMs/BDOs and strangers in airports. The face-work strategies typically used by these officers include complaining (e.g., about delays) and self-disclosure, thereby inviting the addressee to reciprocate, and more generally paying attention to the person of interest’s positive and negative face wants. Building on their research findings, the authors have contributed to the development of a programme designed to train AMs so that they are better equipped to detect inconsistencies in a person of interest’s behaviour. They also briefly compare the covert elicitation techniques examined in this chapter with social engineering techniques used in the same purposes.

The final contribution, Chapter 13, is entitled “The value of facework in crisis negotiation: With a focus on barricade situation”. Dawn Archer analyses the conversational interactions between a negotiator and a 20-year old man in an authentic barricade incident that occurred in 2016 in the USA. Her discussions highlight the presence of facework strategies at each stage of the negotiation; these mostly consist in compliments, displays of similarity, and promises. The negotiator both attends the young man’s positive and negative faces, develops a more personal relationship with him and increases his likeability (they both play baseball); he also uses the speech act of promise to signal mutual cooperation (“[…] I promise you that you me and her [his ex-girlfriend] can sit in the back of a wagon and we can talk about what our next steps are”). The mental flexibility of the negotiator enables him to end the incident in a satisfactory manner, as he demonstrates his sensitivity to the young man’s personal situation, is able to respond to his distress and to persuade him to change his mind.


One of the goals of PPC is to inform professional practices in medical, business, and legal settings by giving special attention to rapport management and facework in these contexts. This volume can be considered as a milestone at the interface of pragmatics and communication studies, acknowledging a growing interest in face-related considerations in settings that are not limited to daily informal interactions. This approach is clearly stimulated by the discursive turn in the history of politeness research. Accordingly, (im)politeness no longer refers to the categorization of linguistic expressions; rather, it is a dynamic notion that is about how different types of participants interact in specific settings.

This volume is also innovative in the sense that it complements available theoretical approaches. For instance, Mapson’s Chapter 7 devoted to liaison interpreting builds on, and goes beyond Spencer-Oatey’s (2008) rapport management theory. Another interesting aspect of the volume is that it both reflects current professionals’ activities and helps improve the quality of the training materials used in these settings. A common thread of this volume is the authors’ commitment to inform practitioners via the development of a linguistic toolkit consisting in rapport management techniques (Chapters 1, 2, 3, 4, and 8) or influencing strategies (Chapters 12 and 13).

From a methodological perspective, the contributions combine qualitative discussions based on authentic example’s (often transcribed according to the CA coding scheme) with quantitative analyses. These insightful qualitative analyses are excellent, clearly presented and well-illustrated with authentic examples, and they make the volume cohere. However, quantitative analyses are only present in a few chapters, and they are not homogenous, especially with respect to the statistical methods. For example, in Chapter 3, alongside the qualitative analysis of interactional data, the authors propose a “quantitative analysis” but no statistical analysis. Questions such as the following remain unanswered: is there a significant positive correlation between the use of indirectness and/or mitigation and the scores obtained by the trainees? Among the tendencies reported on, which ones are statistically significant?

Chapter 3 also raises a concern about the data collection. As only one out of the seven trainees was less well assessed, the representativeness of the data is difficult to ascertain. In addition, the reader might wonder how these data were selected, as the distribution of the trainees’ performance in the situation test appears to be skewed (the assessments are clearly positive, with one “outlier”). In the same vein, in Chapter 2, it is unclear to what extent the patient-doctor interactions discussed are representative of the whole data set compiled by the authors. It would also have been interesting to see a quantitative overview of the frequency of use of different rapport building strategies. Furthermore, despite the authors’ mentioning that “invitations to input” are a recurring strategy, it is not specified what exactly in their linguistic realizations makes them more or less face-threatening or ambiguous.

Another limitation of the volume is its treatment of “indirectness”, which is not consistent across the individual contributions. The relationship between degrees of (in)directness, (im)politeness and face-threat is not sufficiently addressed; this is somewhat surprising, as indirectness and mitigation are given considerable attention to in several chapters. In Chapter 3 in particular, it is unclear how the authors operationalized the degree of indirectness associated with the requests performed by the trainees. On the one hand, they explain that they used the CCSARP framework, according to which obligation statements and want statements are “direct” strategies. On the other hand, they refer to Searle’s (1975) definition of indirectness, but, for Searle, these two strategies should be considered as “indirect”. In addition, in Chapter 9, the application of the notion of (in)directness, which is relevant for individual utterances, to “speech act events” or “speech act sets” is not properly addressed (one such application is offered by Decock & Depraetere 2018).

Despite these minor shortcomings, “Politeness in Professional Contexts” stands out as a sample of pioneering research at the interface of politeness research and business communication. It contains corpus-based research, ethnographic studies, and a combination of qualitative and quantitative analyses also taking into account participant’s impressions. As a result, it achieves a rich picture of facework and rapport management in different professional contexts. This is a completely coherent volume that provides new insights into face work strategies and (im)politeness-related issues in a variety of professional settings. There is also a clear continuity between this volume and recent publications in the Pragmatics & Beyond New Series, such as Freytag (2019) devoted to business communication, and Ogiermann & Garcés-Conejos Blitvich’s (2019) edited volume that gives a central place to participants’ conceptions and co-construction of (im)politeness. Finally, this volume invites follow-up research on the role played by interpersonal variables in facework strategies, and on the intercultural dimension of professional interactions. I have no doubt that it will appeal to politeness scholars, of course, but also to researchers in business communication and (intercultural) pragmatics.


Blum-Kulka, Shoshana & Elite Olshtain. 1984. Requests and apologies: A cross cultural study of speech act realization patterns (CCSARP). Applied Linguistics 5 (3). 196-213.

Brown, Penelope & Stephen Levinson. 1987. Politeness: Some Universals in Language Usage. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press.

Decock, Sofie & Ilse Depraetere. 2018. (In)directness and complaints: A reassessment. Journal of Pragmatics 132. 33-46.

Freytag, Vera. 2019. Exploring Politeness in Business Emails: A Mixed-Methods Analysis. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Ogiermann, Eva & Pilar Garcés-Conejos Blitvich (eds.). 2019. From Speech Acts to Lay Understandings of Politeness: Multilingual and Multicultural Perspectives. Cambridge: CUP.

Searle, John. 1975. Indirect Speech Acts. In Syntax and Semantics. Vol. 3, Speech Acts, edited by Peter Cole & Jerry L. Morgan (pp. 59-82). New York: Academic Press.

Spencer-Oatey, Helen. 2008. Face, (im)politeness and rapport. In Culturally Speaking. Culture, Communication and Politeness Theory, edited by Helen Spencer-Oatey (pp. 11-47). London: Continuum.

Spencer-Oatey, Helen & Paul Franklin. 2009. Intercultural Pragmatics: A Multidisciplinary Approach to Intercultural Communication. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.


Nicolas Ruytenbeek is a Postdoctoral researcher in Linguistics at the Department for Translation, Interpreting and Communication at Ghent University. He is a member of the research group MULTIPLES – Research Centre for Multilingual Practices and Language Learning in Society. His main research interests are experimental approaches to politeness, speech act comprehension and production and, more generally, issues bearing on the semantics/pragmatics interface.

Page Updated: 15-Jun-2021