Penelope Brown and Stephen Levinson's Politeness Theory

A major framework that combines these differing politeness strategies has been developed by the two linguists Penelope Brown and Stephen Levinson. They distinguish between

negative politeness strategies: strategies that are performed to avoid offense through deference


positive politeness strategies: strategies that are performed to avoid offense by emphasizing friendliness.

Their theory leads back to the term of “face” introduced by the sociologist Ervin Goffman. Face in the context of politeness describes the wish of every member of a community to guard his or her face from possible damage through social interferences (Compare: “To loose one’s face” etc.). There are two kinds of politeness strategies because there are two kinds of different faces that have to be distinguished:

negative face: the wish to be unimpeded by others in one’s actions.

positive face: the wish or desire to gain approval of others.

Speech Acts become acts of negative politeness when they match the negative face want of either the speaker or the addressee. These include emphasis of social distance, use of apologies, formal language, deference etc. Those speech acts attending to the positive face want of a member are considered to be acts of positive politeness, including offer of friendship, compliments, showing direct interest, heartily expressions etc.

Ways of being polite

Categories: Glossary