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Review of  Situated Politeness

Reviewer: Gonzalo Martínez-Camino
Book Title: Situated Politeness
Book Author: Bethan L Davies Michael Haugh Andrew John Merrison
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing (formerly The Continuum International Publishing Group)
Linguistic Field(s): Pragmatics
Issue Number: 24.3335

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This volume is a collection of articles that addresses the issue of the relation between (im)politeness and context. In an introductory chapter by the editors, the main guidelines of this enterprise are set. A brief survey of the history of socio-pragmatics, since Brown & Levinson (1978, 1987) and Leech (1983), allows them to review how the concept of the contextual variable has evolved in this discipline. As socio-pragmatists have more accurately pinpointed their object of study over the years, the concept of context has evolved from a sociolinguistic variable firmly tied to social categories to something that not only influences the evaluation of (im)politeness but is, at the same time, influenced by the very same discourse that it influences.

It is through the ongoing process of this debate that the editors of this book propose that (im)politeness should be situated “(1) within discourse, (2) relative to groups and participation frameworks, and (3) in common or background knowledge” (p. 7). Culture is understood as a dynamic and complex set of values where different groups define different norms that, in turn, define what is polite: “[…] norms of politeness vary within societies or cultures, across different communities of practice (CoPs), social classes, regions, gender and age among other things. The role of the politeness researcher is to examine these situated variations in politeness norms” (pp. 8-9). On the other hand, these norms create a background knowledge which encompasses situation-specific expectations about what is a (im)polite behavior. As long as these arise within social networks across time, they form a social memory that will allow interlocutors to assess communicative behaviors as constructive, damaging or mixed. Finally, any particular discourse is developed within the affordances and constraints that are a function of its channel(s), medium, and institutional settings. The editors claim that “Im/politeness can also be situated relative to particular groups and participation frameworks, with CoPs and emergent/latent networks providing alternative models, although the latter has the advantage of being more easily generalizable across interaction and discourse types” (p. 12).

In addition to a theoretical introduction and an epilogue, this volume has 12 chapters. Each one is dedicated to the analysis of politeness in a particular setting (i.e. how politeness is situated in a context) and fits into one of three parts: I. Politeness in Institutional Settings; II. Politeness in Interpersonal Settings; III. Politeness in Public Settings. Therefore, the analyses of this book are organized taking into account three semantic continua: institutional-non institutional, interpersonal-transactional, public-private.

The first chapter of the first part is written by Janet Holmes and Meredith Marra and is titled “Relativity Rules: Politic Talk in Ethnicized Workplaces”. Using a qualitative, ethnographic analytical approach, these authors explore the distinctive features of communication in two different workplaces in New Zealand, where Māori culture predominates. This study, relying on the concept of CoP, sets out to analyze how, in these professional settings, Māori values (e.g. avoidance of boasting, concern for the interest of the addressee, etc.) play out in the form of specific communicative norms that determine what is considered appropriate, thus affecting both transactional and relational aspects of communication, and the effort that Māori interactants need to make in order to fit in. For example, using House’s (2005) dimensions of cross-cultural contrast, the authors conclude that Māori formal meetings involve more explicit, direct, addressee-oriented discourse, and ad hoc creative formulations than non-Māori ones; nevertheless, if we change the situation to an informal conversation, features such as indirectness and implicitness characterize Māori discourse. However, what the researchers find is that there is a dynamic relation between discourse and contexts: contexts shape talk as much as the interlocutors create contexts with their talk. Participants alter and adapt their ways in response to their perception of the effect their interventions are having. They consider that situated politeness offers a valuable entrée to researching all these complex levels of interactional diversity.

The second chapter, written by Gerrard Mugford, is “That’s not very polite!”. He also insists that the analysis of (im)politeness in any particular CoP needs to consider the wider socio-cultural milieu in which it is embedded. Based on questionnaire data, he analyzes how societal norms are discursively realized or abandoned in an English as a Second Language (ESL) classroom in Mexico. According to the author, “Therefore, classroom relationships should not solely be seen in terms of L1 or L2 concepts of politeness, but rather as ongoing negotiatory involvement as participants act and react in a given situational context” (p. 54). Accordingly, this author studies how Mexican students transfer norms of politic behaviour from their cultural background to the ESL classroom. These expectations can interfere with the Anglo-Saxon ones that are supposed to be acquired in this educational situation. This article analyzes how these transferences and interferences condition the ongoing negotiation of the subjects’ face in the classroom.

Sara Mills puts forward a theoretical reflection in “Communities of Practice and Politeness”. Mills’ idea is that “being polite” is an evaluation performed by other interlocutors of the communicator’s behaviour and position in the CoP; however, from her point of view, the audience does not fall back only on local norms, but rather hypothesizes “that there are certain socially-derived norms at work within the group” (p. 75). These socially wider norms and forms can come from different social groups, all of whom will use them differently; it is the job of individuals to adjust their use to the situation since CoPs have different ways to interpret norms, forms, and styles that characterize societies. Mills shows how British norms are negotiated and locally inflected by two real interlocutors -- a teacher who wants to attend a conference, and her supervisor -- in an actual exchange, according to the constraints of their CoP, an English school.

In the next chapter, “Relational Work in a Sporting Community of Practice”, Jodie Clark implements an analysis of recorded interactions and ethnographic interviews to situate local conflicts among members of a college hockey team over norms within a larger institutional framework. This pragmatist draws upon Watt’s (2003) notions of latent and emergent networks. She intends to carry out a fine-grained analysis of verbal interaction that explains the relation between objectified structures of institutionalized and institutionalizing values and the emergent processes that carry them out through relational work during concrete communicative encounters. This approach is designed to provide “serious, sustained investigation of those factors that Watts (2003) considers to be subsumed within the term ‘latent networks’, specifically institutions and institutional practices” (p. 92). Clark studies how a new member’s whimsical behavior impacts her CoP, the above-mentioned hockey team. Veteran members consider this newer person’s behavior as not fitting in with what they consider to be the latent network of their CoP; however, for others, it is acceptable. Clark’s claim is that these parties will fall back on different hierarchical institutional frameworks in order to reestablish an equilibrium. From this double-institutional frame, a new equilibrium for the team network will emerge.

The main theme of the second part of the volume is interpersonal settings. Its first chapter is Andrew Barke’s analyses of the use of honorifics in Japanese television drama. He does both a quantitative and a qualitative analysis of the use of these forms in the scripts of these dramas. The most relevant part is when, drawing upon instances in the dialogue where there are marked shifts in the relative level of honorifics in particular interactions, he demonstrates that they can be used to express impoliteness, sarcasm, annoyance and lack of intimacy, meaning their function is not just to express politeness (i.e. “[a] deliberate, situated and contextually appropriate expression of consideration for the feelings/face-needs of the addressee by the speaker” (p. 114)). Barke postulates that the basic social function of these forms is to index psychological/social distance between interactants. This distancing effect is used in order to manifest the following different purposes: impoliteness, sarcasm, annoyance and lack of intimacy.

The next chapter (“‘Do you want to do it yourself like?’ Hedging in Irish Traveler and Settled Family Discourse”) is written by Brian Clancy. He compares the use of hedges among family members in Ireland, either of mainstream Irish families or members of ethnic minority groups. He draws on the Blum-Kulka’s (1990, 1997) description of family discourse as mitigated and direct: this discursive situation is characterized by, on the one hand, an asymmetrical distribution of power and, on the other, intimacy and informality. These features create conditions for the emergence of a style that is characterized by solidarity politeness (Blum-Kulka 1997: 177). Therefore, the author predicts a low instance of hedging and his empirical study confirms this hypothesis. Nevertheless, what is more interesting is that he also found that its occurrence is conditioned not only by the asymmetrical power relationship between parents and children, but also by macro-social variables, such as ethnicity, age, and education.

Noriko Inagaki’s chapter (“Unpacking the Hearer’s Interpretation of Situated Politeness”) analyzes an intercultural dinner party where one of the interlocutors poses a question that could be understood as impolite. As a possible research method, she proposes collecting accounts of discourse events where people experience an utterance as being impolite and are then asked to reflect on what made them feel offended or uneasy. She draws on Bourdieu’s (1990) notion of habitus as an embodied sensibility that is acquired by interactants through socialization in childhood. This sensibility allows them to generate practices that imply classificatory schemes and, therefore, distinctions, assessment and taste. Therefore, the dinner guests’ evaluation of the question is conditioned by their upbringing in their respective societies. However, Inagaki finds Bourdieu’s concept insufficient because it does not allow us to explain the contingency of the hearer’s assessment. She draws on Gadamer’s (2004 [1975]) definition of understanding: the audience of a text interprets it using the situation as a standpoint that limits the possibility of vision, and therefore, each interlocutor brings his or her own horizon to the encounter. The author summarizes the central idea behind Gadamer’s book by stating, “[U]nderstanding emerges as a fusion of horizons. Gadamer claims that while diverse traditions exist, they must necessarily overlap at some points, although their points of divergence and convergence are contingently governed” (p. 156).

In the next chapter (“Humor, Face and Im/politeness in Getting Acquainted”), Michael Haugh analyzes how Australian speakers of English, who are getting acquainted, resort to teasing to produce socio-pragmatic ambivalence. Methodologically, he draws upon pragmatics and conversation analysis: on the one hand, he relies on Arundale’s Face Constituting Theory (1999, 2006, 2010), and on the other, he uses Svennevig’s (1999) analysis of self-presentation sequences. In the encounters Haugh analyzes, the speakers produce face-threatening teases. Apparently, their mocking implies that the speaker enters into the recipient’s space or territory without his or her consent; theoretically, these exchanges threaten their relational connection. Nevertheless, as long as they are situated inside a jocular frame, these dialogues “are reflective of a broader Anglo-Australian cultural ethos that emphasizes ordinariness, familiarity and friendliness, as well as not taking oneself too seriously” (p. 180). Therefore, what could be understood as impolite in this situation is actually interpreted as polite when placed inside the right frame.

The topic of the third part is public settings. Miriam Locher writes its first chapter, entitled “Situated Politeness: The Interface between Relational Work and Identity Construction”. She draws on her analysis of interactions in an online forum between volunteers who provide free aid and public computer users who need help. This author focuses on an exchange between a user in trouble and one of the volunteers. The user feels that the volunteer threatens the expert identity he claims for himself, and his reaction, in turn, aggravates the volunteer’s face. Attacks and meta-socio-pragmatic comments go explicitly on record. Locher’s analysis allows her to postulate that there is no communication that is not relational because face and identity emerge from interaction: during communicative exchanges, the interactants evaluate each other’s messages, which is possible because they frame situations with cognitive conceptualizations of what the CoP in question considers as (in)appropriate. As such, during the process of interacting, identities, norms, and expectations are discursively negotiated.

In her chapter (“Negative Politeness Forms and Impoliteness in Institutional Discourse: A Corpus-assisted Approach”), Charlotte Taylor analyses the use of negative politeness markers in the following public situations: parliamentary debates, witness interviews, and broadcast interviews. She uses a corpus analysis methodology in order to identify potential sites of impoliteness; for example, shifts from transactional to interactional modes of communication or the emergence of mock politeness. She identifies several rhetorical functions for these markers; for example, the use of the collocation “with respect” or the formal vocative in order to mark disagreement. However, most importantly, she proves that, depending on the situation, all the identified forms are used to manifest conflict in acceptable ways. For instance, when politicians resort to mock politeness, they aggravate the recipient while remaining deniable; in these cases, they achieve the transactional goal of conveying to the public information that is favorable to themselves and unfavorable to others and, at the same time, achieving the interactional goal of showing respect for norms, as well as expertise in communicative matters (i.e. “they can handle it”).

In the next chapter (“‘National Face’ and ‘National Face Threatening Acts’: Politeness and the European Constitution”), Elena Magistro expands on Brown and Levinson’s (1987) theory to account for national face threat acts (NFTA) that could endanger national face. Two booklets published in 2004, on the European Constitution, form the corpus in which she looks for NFTAs and their mitigations. Her approach is based on on the replacement of an individual’s social image by national identity, which is understood as national face: “a public national image which is commensurate to the sense of reputation that they attribute to their country and that they want others to appreciate (positive national face want) and respect (negative national face want)” (p. 234). This author posits that the European Constitution can be understood as a NFTA because, presumably, it impedes national sovereign action. Magistro finds different strategies that mitigate these NFTAs: in relation to negative politeness, she finds the use of impersonal formulae, the passive voice, explicit manifestations of respect and declarations of non-invasion and non-coercion, etc.; in relation to positive politeness, the booklets make reference to presumably shared principles and assumed wants, thus showing solidarity and understanding.

In the last chapter of the book (“Tourist Advertising of Australia: Impolite or Situation-appropriate? Or uniquely Aussie Invite Lost in Translation”), Angela Ardington analyses the pragmalinguistic and socio-pragmatic causes of the communicative failure of the advertising campaign entitled “So where the bloody hell are you?”, launched by Tourism Australia. It resorted to dry, deadpan, and understated Aussie humor as part of the irreverent, anti-authoritative, and open-minded Aussie character. The idea was to ‘sell’ Australia as an attractive place to spend vacations to an international audience. Nevertheless, the campaign misfired and achieved an expensive cross-cultural communication breakdown for two reasons: first of all, the communicators assumed that an anonymous, international, culturally diverse audience shares the above-mentioned set of ethnopragmatic values, which led to a miscalculation of the complexity of intercultural communication; and second, the unidirectional and differing nature of advertising discourse made things worse.

The books ends with an epilogue in which the editors tell us the relation between this volume and the international conference held at The University of Leeds in 2007 on the subject of the book.


The editors say that the subject of the volume was chosen because of their interest in the many micro-contexts to which politeness can be applied (p. 270). However, very different papers from a very different set of approaches (e.g. ethnography, conversation analysis, discourse analysis, etc.) “highlighted the interaction between these micro-contexts and the broader societal contexts” (p. 270). Overall, the volume makes its readers face two different tensions that dominate the field of socio-pragmatics: first, between the heterogeneity and homogeneity of cultural norms or values that support polite evaluations; and second, between structural expectations and the ongoing negotiation that takes place during the process of communication-evaluation. Since the volume covers these crucial issues for the study of interpersonal management, it is a very interesting and critically enlightening reading for a specialist who wants to be at the cutting edge of this discipline. The idea is, as the editors point out, to disentangle the relationship between pragmatic meaning, social meaning and identity. They do not achieve a final solution (which may be impossible) nor do they steer clear of the complexities of this matter. On the contrary, by drawing on empirical research, the authors present different fine-grained theoretical tools and approaches that, undoubtedly, constitute an advance in this discipline, which was clearly their objective.

A few additional points related to the volume merit a brief discussion. First, we must pay attention to the concepts of “situation” or “situated”, which are understood as the point where micro- and macro- level societal frames intersect. This idea helps to improve the constructivist models that seem to dominate our field by introducing new perspectives that balance a focused approach with broader societal categories. In order to do this, researchers rely on concepts such as “community of practice” (Lave & Wenger 1991; Eckert and McConnell-Ginet 2007) and “latent” and “emergent network” (Watts 1991 & 2003). Obviously, these are not original notions, but the empirical applications, discussions of results, and theoretical reflections that the reader encounters are enriching and improve the capacity of socio-pragmatics to describe and explain what is going on during communicative behavior. Above all, if we take into account the variety of modes of communication and data sets that are addressed in this collection of studies, we clearly see the value of this volume.

Even though the aim of this volume is not to achieve a final disentanglement of the relationship between pragmatic meaning, social meaning and identity, I would like to make a reflection on why this is not possible at present. In my opinion, one of the main problems is that we first need to clarify the relationship between abstract, culturally grounded expectations and actual evaluations of (im)politeness during the development of communicative encounters. To date, this relationship remains undertheorized. The other side of this discussion involves developing more accurate, fine-grained, well-defined methodologies. I think these are two steps we need to take before we can finally untangle the above-mentioned knot.

In sum, reading “Situated Politeness” allows for improvement in our comprehension of the above-mentioned, complicated concepts. Combining this advancement with the variety of approaches covered in the volume make it an important step forward for the field of socio-pragmatics.


Arundale, Robert B. 1999. An Alternative Model and Ideology Of Communication for an Alternative to Politeness Theory. Pragmatics 9. 119-153.

Arundale, Robert B. 2006. Face as relational and interactional: A communication framework for research on face, facework, and politeness. Journal of Politeness Research 2. 193-216.

Arundale, Robert B. 2010. Constituting face in conversation: face, facework, and intereactional achievement. Journal of Pragmatics 42: 2078-2105.

Blum-Kulka, S. 1990. ‘You don’t touch lettuce with your fingers’: Parental politeness in family discourse. Journal of Pragmatics 14. 259-288.

Blum-Kulka, S. 1997. Dinner Talk: Cultural Patterns of Sociability and Socialization in Family Discourse. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Bourdieu, P. 1990. The logic of Practice. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Brown, P. & Levinson, S. 1978. Universals in language use: Politeness phenomena. In E. Goody (ed.), Quenstions and Politeness. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 56-311.

Brown, P. & Levinson, S. 1987. Politeness: Some Universals in language usage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,

Eckert, P. and McConnell-Ginet, S. 2007. Putting communities of practice in their place. Gender and Language 1. 27-38.

Gadamer, H. G. 2004 [1975]. Truth and Method. London: continuum.

House, J. 2005. Politeness in Germany: Politeness in Germany?. in L. Hickey and M. Stewart (eds), Politeness in Europe. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters, 13-28.

Lave, J. & Wenger, E. 1991. Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Svennevig, J. 1999. Getting Acquainted in Conversation. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Watts, R. J. 2003. Politeness. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Gonzalo Martínez Camino is an Associate Professor in the Department of Modern Languages of the 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. Currently, he is also the coordinator of the program “Lengua y cultura españolas”, carried out as part of an agreement between the Universidad of Cantabria and the University of the North Carolina at Charlotte (U.S.A.). In the past, he has taught at The Ohio State University and Western Michigan University. His current research interests include advertising, Socio-Pragmatics, and Spanish as a foreign language.

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