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Journal of Pragmatics 25 Towards an anatomy of impoliteness. Jonathan Culpeper. Received August ; revised version January Politeness theories have focussed on how communicative strategies are employed to pro- mote or maintain social harmony in interaction. On the other hand, little work has been done.
In this paper, I consider the notions of inherent and mock impolite- ness, and discuss contextual factors associated with impoliteness. In particular, I attempt to. Finally, I demonstrate that in some contexts - specifically that of army training and literary drama - impoliteness behaviour is not a marginal activity, and that. Over the last twenty years politeness theories have concentrated on how we employ communicative strategies to maintain or promote social harmony:.
I would like to thank participants for their comments. In addition, I especially thank my sister Helen Culpeper for furnishing me with the army camp data.
I am also indebted to the comments of two anonymous reviewers. Needless to say, responsibility for the final version lies with me. All rights reserved SSDI 95 In this paper I shall investigate impoliteness, the use of strategies that are designed to have the opposite effect - that of social disruption. These strategies are oriented towards attacking face, an emotionally sensitive concept of the self Goffman, ; Brown and Levinson, The idea that the scope of a politeness theory might be extended to include antag- onistic or confrontational communication is not new.
Craig et al. In analysing American courtroom discourse, both Lakoff and Penman extended their models of politeness to include features of confrontational discourse.
Lui , investigating politeness in a Chinese novel, discussed impoliteness as an extension of Brown and Levinson's theory of politeness In this paper I shall start by considering inherent impoliteness and mock impolite- ness; I will then move on to discuss the contextual factors that are associated with impoliteness and to propose a list of impoliteness strategies.
I shall conclude my dis- cussion by focussing on the discourse of an army training camp and the discourse of drama. Here, as I will demonstrate, Leech's claim that conflictive communication tends to be "rather marginal to human linguistic behaviour in normal circumstances" does not apply. Inherent impoliteness. Leech makes a distinction between 'Relative Politeness' and 'Absolute Politeness'. Relative politeness refers to the politeness of an act relative to a partic- ular context, whereas absolute politeness refers to the politeness associated with acts independent of context.
Within absolute politeness, Leech argues, "some illocutions e. Similarly, Brown and Levinson , working within a face- oriented model of politeness, write that "it is intuitively the case that certain kinds of acts intrinsically threaten face" 65 ; in other words, they argue that certain acts e.
If one considers acts in the abstract, one might broadly concur with the idea that some acts are inherently polite, whilst others are inherently impolite. However, one. For earlier and more general research on conflict in interaction, see Brown and Levinson Fraser and Nolan make this point:. We often take certain expressions to be impolite, but it. It is not difficult to think of examples where a supposedly impolite act will be judged as polite in a particular context or as falling somewhere between the two extremes on a continuum ranging from politeness to impoliteness.
An order could be con- ceived as polite in a context where it is thought to be of benefit to the target for example, "Go on, eat up" as an order for a dinner guest to tuck in to some delicacy. However, in some instances the conjunction of act and context does give rise to impoliteness that may be said to be inherent, since it cannot be completely mitigated by any surface realisation of politeness. For instance, recently I was one of three pas- sengers in a car driven by a somewhat nervous driver who had left the windscreen wipers on even though it was not raining.
I wished to tell the driver to turn them off, but any form of request would have the unfortunate effect of drawing attention to the fact that the wipers had rather foolishly been left on, and thus damage the positive face of the driver. I was faced with a clash of goals: I wished to be polite, but no amount of politeness work could eradicate the impoliteness of the act I wished to perform.
I reached an impasse and said nothing. A fellow passenger tried "Is it rain- ing? This did achieve its goal of getting the driver to turn off the wipers, but for all its superficially polite indirectness, it still embarrassed the driver in pointing out an apparent deficit in driving ability.
The notion of inherent impoliteness irrespective of contexts only holds for a minority of acts. For example, acts which draw attention to the fact that the target is engaged in some anti-social activity e. It is difficult to think of politeness work or a change of context that can easily remove the impoliteness from an utterance such as "Do you think you could possibly not pick your nose'?
According to Brown and Levinson 1 , politeness comes about through one's orientation towards what Goffman called the 'virtual offense' Goffman, " ff. In other words, by demonstrating concern for the face-threatening potential of an act, one shows that one has the other's inter- ests at heart. An inherently impolite act does not involve virtual or potential offence; it is in its very performance offensive and thus not amenable to politeness work. In the example, "Do you think you could possibly not pick your nose?
This explanation for inherently impolite acts also applies. In the cultures I am aware of, nose picking is not acceptable. In both cases the fiction of the potential face threat is not available for politeness work. Instead, by drawing attention to an undesirable aspect of the addressee, the utterance inflicts unavoidable damage to his or her positive face.
Mock impoliteness. Mock impoliteness, or banter, is impoliteness that remains on the surface, since it is understood that it is not intended to cause offence.
For example, I once turned up late for a party, and upon explaining to the host that I had mistaken I knew that. Leech attempts to capture this kind of phenomenon. Thereforewhat s really means is polite to h and true.
Leech argues that banter reflects and fosters social intimacy i. In other words, lack of politeness is associated with intimacy, and so being superficially impolite can pro- mote intimacy. Clearly, this only works in contexts in which the impoliteness is understood to be untrue.
Leech, however, neglects to specify what these contexts might be. If lack of politeness is associated with intimacy an idea which is reflected in Brown and Levinson's model , surface impoliteness is, paradoxically, even more likely to be interpreted as banter in non-intimate contexts, where it is more clearly at odds with expectations. This can be illustrated with the advertising slogan, "Eat beef.
One may suppose that the pro- totypical customer is both socially distant from the retailer and more powerful than the retailer in so far as the customer has the power to determine the success or oth- erwise of the retailer's goals. Clearly, the retailer is not in a position to employ a derogatory term of address, and has nothing to gain from doing so: it is obviously banter.
Some support for this argument can be found in Slugoski and Tumbull's investigation of the interpretation of ironic compliments and insults. Though the power variable was not included in their model, they did examine the effect of social distance. Subjects tended to interpret an insult as polite i. More importantly, their study revealed the even stronger influence of affect liking or disliking operating as an independent variable.
Thisexample is taken from Simpson The more people like each other, the more concern they are likely to have for each other's face. Thus insults are more fikely to be interpreted as banter when directed at targets liked by the speaker.
Banter, of course, also exists in a more ritualised form as a kind of language game. In America this is known variously as 'sounding', 'playing the dozens' or 'signify- ing', and takes place particularly amongst black adolescents.
Labov's work has been influential in revealing the complexity of the insults used and the well- organised nature of this speech event. Typically, these insults are sexual, directed at a third person related to the target, and couched in rhyming couplets.
For example:. Iron is iron, and steel don't rust, But your momma got a pussy like a Greyhound Bus. Labov, The key to 'sounding' is that the insult is understood to be untrue, an interpretation that comes about on the basis of shared knowledge within the group.
The effect is to reinforce in-group solidarity. There is a competitive element to 'sounding'; the win- ner is the one who has the widest range of ritual insults to hand and can use them most appropriately. Real time improvisation in the creation of ritual insults tends not to occur. A result of the formulaic nature of the insults is that it is easier to recognise that one is engaged in 'sounding' rather than personal insult. Labov also points out that 'weak' insults, ones that are not outrageously bizarre and so obviously untrue, are more dangerous in that they are.
Thompson found 'organised' swearing amongst the aborigines of Northern Queensland, and Montagu observed that a similar form of swearing is found amongst the Eskimos. Hughes points out that 'sounding' is similar to 'flyting'. This was a kind of competitive ritual insult that was common in Old Norse. With the Scandinavian settlement of England it made its way into English literature, but gradually died out. Vestiges of 'flyting' can be found in Shakespeare's plays e. Romeo and Juliet II.
In all these cases ritualized banter seems to act as a societal safety-valve. It is a place where we can be impolite with impunity, since "in ritual we are freed from personal responsibility for the acts we are engaged in" Labov, In order to begin to answer the question when are we genuinely impolite, it is use- ful to consider the assumptions behind the presence of polite behaviour.
Brown and Levinson put it thus:. That is, normally everyone's face depends on everyone else's being maintained, and since people can be expected to defend their faces if.
Culpeper (1996) - Towards an Anatomy of Impoliteness
What do I mean by strategy? I take strategies to be ways of getting things done in interaction that are conventional for a particular community. Impoliteness strategies regularly occur in specific contexts, and those specific contexts are associated with offence. Calling somebody names, such as "you bastard", is not simply what a speaker does; it is recognised in a particular community as something that routinely causes offence. Of course, not every strategy is equally frequent and well-known as a routine. Some, to use Karen Tracy's term, are "context-spanning" — they have a particular impoliteness value across a range of contexts, whilst others are much more restricted. For example, "you fucking cunt" is likely to be highly offensive across a wider range of contexts than "you bastard", though not necessarily all contexts I have examples in my data where it is used in the context of friendly banter.