The neglected west: first-order politeness in Britain

Teaching and Learning (Im)politeness: An International (Im)politeness Conference“, will be held at SOAS, University of London, 8-10 July. I will be giving a talk with Jim O’Driscoll (Huddersfield) on the topic below:

Almost without exception, it is scholars based in “Western” locations that have introduced the ideas with pretensions to universal application which are commonly regarded as major milestones in the field of politeness studies: face (Goffman); politeness principle (Leech); politeness as redress to face and positive & negative faces (B&L); first versus second order politeness and politic behaviour (Watts 1992ff); impoliteness (Culpeper 1996ff); discursive politeness (Eelen 2001, Watts 2003, Mills 2005ff). Typically, the role of scholars from non-western areas has been to present culture-specific evidence to challenge or tinker with these ideas. Likewise, a perusal of merely the table of contents of edited collections (e.g. Watts et al 1992, Bargiela-Chiappini & Haugh 2009, Bargiela-Chiappini & Kádár 2011) suggests that data from western environments needs no specific labelling as such, while contributions from elsewhere have to indicate geographical specificity in their titles.

This decidedly western discursive deictic centre (O’Driscoll 2009) has a distorting effect. For one thing, there is a tendency to believe that the politeness2 and face2 conceptualisations emanating from western locations are actually accounts of politeness1 and face1 in these western cultures, so that, for example, Goffman’s face (second-order) is American face (first-order) or that B&L’s politeness (second-order) reflects ‘English’ politeness (first-order) (cf. Matsumoto 1988; Ide 1989; Gu 1990; Mao 1994; Nwoye 1992; Wierzbicka 1991 [2003]). For another, it has resulted in a relative paucity of emic studies of core western cultures, leading in turn to an unwisely unexamined acceptance of certain stereotypes of these cultures.

This paper probes English people’s understandings of politeness. More specifically, it investigates their usage of the term polite. Deploying methodologies from corpus linguistics, we report results from the 500 million-word subsection of the Oxford English Corpus. These results fly in the face of the large number of studies which have found evidence that present-day English politeness – by which English English politeness is meant – is often characterised by off-record or negative politeness (e.g. Blum-Kulka 1989; Stewart 2005; Wierzbicka  2006; Ogiermann 2009). We refine these results further by looking at variation across the social categories of the British National Corpus.

Check back after the event for access to slides.