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Review of  Descortesía verbal y tertulia televisiva

Reviewer: Gonzalo Martínez-Camino
Book Title: Descortesía verbal y tertulia televisiva
Book Author: Ester Brenes Peña
Publisher: Peter Lang AG
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Linguistic Theories
Issue Number: 23.2389

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AUTHOR: Brenes Peña, Esther
TITLE: Descortesía verbal y tertulia televisiva
SUBTITLE: Análisis pragmalingüístico
SERIES TITLE: Fondo Hispánico de Lingüística y Filología
YEAR: 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 interrelation
between linguistic forms and social factors (contextual and situational). To
this end, she focuses on what she calls a pseudo TV talk-show: “a specialized
branch of journalism focusing on the private lives of persons considered famous
or well-known” (p. 14, my translation). She justifies her choice because, as
long as “television is the nerve centre of our existence […], we convert the
characters in these television programs into a standard, guide or model of our
own behaviors” (p. 14-15, my translation). It is logical, therefore, that the
author should choose this form of speech since, because it has a strong
influence on large sectors of society, it also has a major influence on verbal

The book consists of six chapters, the conclusions, and two appendices. The six
chapters form two parts: in the first three, Brenes Peña defines the main
concepts around which her study will revolve, (im)politeness and TV talk-shows;
the second part is a detailed analysis of the linguistic and rhetorical
strategies 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 observes
how 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 the
communicators during an exchange and the description of its linguistic
expressions. However, the author sees a shift in the perspective from a
predictive one in the seventies and eighties toward a descriptive one at the
start of the millennium. Taking into account her own interests, she dedicates
half 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 a
message depends on the receiver’s assessment; linguistic expressions are neither
polite nor impolite in themselves. However, the repeated use, inside a speech
community, of a linguistic expression with a social value allows this (im)polite
value to be codified. This means that any person who wants to be an operative
member of a community needs to acquire a shared socio-cultural knowledge about
which social values are associated with which expression, what effects these
expressions 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 a
specific communicative encounter. Therefore, the context is the shared
socio-cultural knowledge that surrounds the communicative encounter and its
interlocutors and it is necessary to distinguish clearly between what is
codified and what is the result of the interpretation during the interaction
(Briz Gómez 2004). Brenes Peña distinguishes four different variables that
condition how the interlocutors assess whether the communicator is being polite
or not: socio-cultural, generic, situational, and individual. The first refers
to what a particular culture understands by (im)polite, to the set of values and
social 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 discourse
where the emitter’s intention is present, either to enhance or damage the social
face of his or her receiver, and where the latter decodes this message properly.
This reminds us of the Relevance Theory definition of ostensive-inferential
communication as the communicator’s behaviour that makes manifest to her
audience her intention of making manifest a basic layer of information. In this
reviewer’s opinion, if the author thinks that (im)politeness is not coded in the
linguistic units but is rather an effect that the communicator intends to
stimulate in her audience’s mind(s) using her or his message, it would have been
better to use terms such as “interpret”, “assess”, and “react”, rather than

The social effects that result from this pragmatic function form a gradation
with two contradictory poles: the polite effect that creates a comfortable
communicative atmosphere; the impolite effect that degrades both this atmosphere
and the interlocutors’ faces; in the middle, a neutral zone. Here Brenes Peña
locates 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 that
fits in the interlocutors’ socio-cultural expectations does not produce the
social effects of polite behaviour: facework and a comfortable communicative
atmosphere. On the other hand, she thinks that politeness can enhance the
emitter’s face because she or he can be seen as a competent or considerate
interlocutor; in contrast, impoliteness makes the receiver think that the
emitter is incompetent or inconsiderate. However, the author, following Held
(2005), Hernández Flores (2005, 2006), and Bernal (2007), thinks that, in some
situations, 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 into
account three criteria: Omission/expression, directness/indirectness,
* The emitter is impolite because he or she fails to produce a speech act that
he or she is expected to produce taking into account the (in)formality of the
situation, 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 she
is not expected to produce taking into account the (in)formality of the
situation, 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 receiver
as 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 receiver
as 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 the
justification of her choice. What is the relation that she finds between this TV
genre and impoliteness? The need to have a greater share of the TV audience
makes the channels increase the level of impoliteness of these debates. This
creates what the author calls mediatic-ludic impoliteness as well as a new
genre, the pseudo TV talk-show. This is one of the situations where impolite
behavior could be assessed positively. To analyse this, Brenes Peña recorded
several broadcasts of seven programs; and she transcribed these audio-visual
texts 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 and
the persons responsible for the show, on the one hand, and the presenter’s and
the participant’s view, on the other. The latter may just utter, as
“enunciators”, the message planned by the former, who, therefore, occupy the
position of “locutors”, those who are responsible discursively and legally. The
presenter and the participants behave like “locutors” when they express their
own points of view. Brenes Peña describes the reception as a triangular
structure with a twofold disposition: on the first level, she finds that the
presenter and the participants are “allocutionary receivers” when other
participants are holding the floor. However, on a second level, she finds two
different types of “non-allocutionary receivers”: “addressees” and
“non-addressees”. The former is made up of the public that may be physically
present in the TV studio or viewing the talk-show at home. The latter receive
the message accidently. These are the discursive coordinates which, according to
Brenes 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 and
roles. The main objective of the talk-show is not the debate of an idea, but the
manifestation of conflict among the participants. Therefore, the pitiless
criticism of the romantic and sexual life of celebrities has to feed this
conflict. Consequently, the presenter is no longer a “firefighter”; rather, the
presenter’s function is “to throw gasoline on the confrontation”. If
traditionally the attending public’s role was to clap whenever the director of
the program told them to, now, the channel and the program directors try to
reduce the gap that separates these addressees from the participants in the
talk-show. The presenter and the participants address them directly and,
therefore, they become allocutionary receivers; in response, this public cheers
and may even interrupt the participants or may try to correct what has been
said. The use of SMS (texting, etc.) allows the absent public to participate
too. Finally, Brenes Peña considers as a defining feature of this genre that it
turns impolite behavior into a show.

In Chapter Four, the author identifies the impolite strategies and linguistic
expressions that the participants use in the talk-show samples that make up her
corpus. She focuses on those that are used in symmetrical relations between
participants. The methodology she uses in order to identify the particular cases
of impoliteness is to pay attention to the reactions of the receiver, whether it
be the allocutionary addressees, that is the other participants in the
talk-show, or the non-allocutionary addressees, that is the public, present or
absent. She can observe the reactions of the allocutionary addressees during the
debate, but how can she verify the reactions of the non-allocutionary
addressees? She resolves this by conducting a test of social habits; the results
of this test are found in the second appendix of the book.

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

Here the author runs into a controversial sociopragmatics dilemma: if an
impolite behavior is habitual in a situation or genre, and the interlocutors are
used to it, does this mean that it is no longer impolite? Brenes Peña observes
that the dissenting messages are not considered as what conversational analysts
call a dispreferred reply: they are expressed explicitly, without delay or
mitigation. The participants are aware that their job is to contradict each
other; therefore, they do not feel offended because the others dissent, but they
do 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 expectable
does not mean that their social effect is necessarily positive. She quotes
Bousfield (2007: 2189), when he says that just because something is more
prevalent, or more central, does not necessarily mean that it constitutes a norm
within that discourse type. However, I would observe that, in the case of
talk-shows, as in military training or parliamentary debates, the speakers are
expected to be impolite; therefore, normality and impoliteness are not

Brenes Peña uses a test of social habits based on the one used by
Hernández-Flores (2008, 2009) and Sifianou (1992) in order to determine the
opinion of the absent public: they have the same perceptions as the
participants; expressing dissent is not impolite (even when expressed in strong
terms); however, discrediting others or their opinions or interrupting them
constantly is assessed as impolite. This confirms not only what is expectable
about this genre, but what is expectable about Spanish culture where
self-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 detailed
analysis of these two impolite strategies. In Chapter Five, she addresses the
imposition of one’s opinion: she describes how the participants in the talk-show
intensify their assertions in such a way that they are presented as absolute
truths that cannot be contradicted; they also interrupt the others in order to
try to silence them or they even threaten them. In Chapter Six she addresses the
discrediting of others or others’ opinions.

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

The first is made up of the elements that mitigate or intensify the
responsibility of the emitter: modal adverbs that present what is said as
something 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 mis
fuentes” [according to my sources]); expressions that present the “dictum” as
something accepted by the interlocutor (“como tú sabes” [as you know]);
expressions that present the participant as an expert guaranteeing what she or
he has said (“yo lo he vivido en primera línea” [I have been through that
myself]); and expressions, with adverbs (“sinceramente” [sincerely]) or formulae
(“de verdad, yo soy sincera” [really, truly]), of the participant’s honest and
cooperative attitude. Other resources are used in order to manifest the
speaker’s modal attitude of security and truthfulness about her or his “dictum”;
now the communicator is not looking for support in the community or expressing
authority or honesty, she or he wants to qualify what she or he is saying as
something unquestionable or irrefutable: “seguro, las cosas son como son, te
guste o no te guste, la verdad es que…, efectivamente” [sure, that’s the way it
is, whether you like it or not, the truth is that, sure enough]. The participant
can try to establish a hierarchical organization of the information, reinforcing
her 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 tagged
sentences (“¿me estás entendiendo?, ¿vale?, ¿de acuerdo?” [do you understand?
OK? Do you see?]). The speakers can reinforce the contraargumentative function
of their message with different types of resources: emphasizing the
pronunciation, pronouncing syllables separately, lengthening the vowels,
repeating parts of the message, using rhetorical questions, or using formulae
that end the conversation (“y con esto zanjo el tema para siempre” [and that’s
the end of that]). Finally, the participant can present what she is saying as
her subjective opinion and, therefore, as irrefutable from any other subjective
position (“tú puedes decir lo que quieras que estás en tu derecho, pero yo” [you
can say whatever you want, that’s your right, but I]).

The participants can also try to impose their opinions by interrupting their
interlocutors. The author, drawing on the literature, obtains a definition that
will allow her to analyze the participants’ behavior. She considers interruption
as a transgression of the turn-taking system that is intended to remove the
current speaker from the floor; this might be accomplished with or without
overlapping. Therefore, she differentiates between this phenomenon and others
such as casual overlapping or different types of back-channelling. The author
also reflects on the relation between interruption and impoliteness. Brenes Peña
points out that the (im)polite effect of an interruption will vary according to
the culture, the type of discourse, the relation between the interlocutors, and
the function. She also identifies several elements that might help to mitigate
its impoliteness: the interrupting speakers can use mitigating expressions such
as “solamente una cosita” or “perdona que te interrumpa” [just one thing, sorry
to interrupt you]; she or he can avoid overlapping or, at least, she or he can
try to reduce the duration of the overlapping and use a low tone and a low
intensity; the less frequent the interruption, the less impolite. However, her
empirical analysis shows that the participants frequently fall back on the use
of interruptions, with frequent and long overlappings; they shout, expressing
themselves aggressively, using a high tone; when they use elements that might
mitigate the social effect of the interruption, it is often more to attract the
attention of the speaker than to mitigate.

Brenes Peña identifies another impolite behavior that the participants use in
order to impose their opinions: threatening. She points out that the effect of
this is always very negative and the emitter can intensify it by expressing it
clearly and explicitly with obscene language, using a high tone and challenging
gestures and glances. She observes that the participants threaten when, in a
burst of rage, they are incensed by the heat of the dialectical battle. They
lose their temper and any trace of a line of argumentation. They portray
themselves as lacking any arguments or any rational capacity to use them. The
social effect is devastating and it drives the exchange to the verge of
dissolution. Threatening goes beyond even the lax limits of this permissive
genre whose purpose is to use impolite behavior as a spectacle.

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

The author identifies several strategies that can be used in order to attack the
affiliative face of other participants. These strategies are attacks on the
qualities 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. For
example, 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 the
ability to make a dispassionate assessment of reality. In this sense, the
interlocutors can use insults that negate that the interlocutor qualifies as an
appropriate participant. For example, “chupacamaras” [camera-hog] - this insult
means that the interlocutor is capable of anything if this can help her or him
to become a celebrity. The participants can also use metaphors in order to
intensify 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 interlocutors
and, therefore, enhance their affiliative faces; this also allows them to
ridicule in one way or another their “allocutionary receivers”; at the same
time, they achieve the involvement of the “non-allocutionary receivers” because
they can laugh together at the expense of the other participant.

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

Finally, the participants may show that it is not worth the effort of paying
attention to what their interlocutors have said because it is false (“eso no es
verdad” [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-Peña
points out that to deny the discursive cooperation completely is the most
aggressive 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 objects
of study: facework and (im)polite linguistic behavior; the talk-show, a new TV
genre, and the society of spectacle. Obviously its first target is the talk-show
participants’ 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 impact
of sociopragmatics can be when it comes to articulating an explanation of human
nature and culture.

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

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

This book allows us to understand how a new TV genre has emerged because the
conditions of television culture demand the broadcasting of dialogues where
semiotic and linguistic instruments are used in order to develop a facework
characterized by imbalance, conflict or even hostility, just the opposite of
daily, common conversation. In this sense, a little more macroscopic perspective
would have refined Brenes Peña’s explanation of this phenomenon. Beyond this,
Brenes Peña points out how the development of this new type of interpersonal
exchange might affect suprapersonal habits and intrapersonal expectations: we
may get used to rudeness and accept it as the normal aggressive management of
communication. Sociopragmatics allows us to understand how interlocutors
construct, through communicative encounters and projects, their interpersonal
reality with deep sociological and psychological repercussions, and this book is
a 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.

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