Politeness Maxim

Topics: Politeness theory, Politeness maxims, Pragmatics Pages: 6 (1098 words) Published: April 30, 2011

Besides cooperation, most interactions are governed by politeness, that is to say by what is considered a “polite social behaviour” within a certain culture.

The Politeness Principle is a series of maxims, which Geoffrey Leech has proposed as a way of explaining how politeness operates in conversational exchanges.


Leech defines politeness as a type of behaviour that allows the participants to engage in a social interaction in an atmosphere of relative harmony. In stating his maxims Leech uses his own terms for two kinds of illocutionary acts. He calls representatives “assertives”, and calls directives “impositives”.

Each maxim is accompanied by a sub-maxim, which is of less importance. They all support the idea that negative politeness (avoidance of discord) is more important than positive politeness (seeking concord).

Not all of the maxims are equally important. For instance, tact influences what we say more powerfully than does generosity, while approbation is more important than modesty.

Speakers may adhere to more than one maxim of politeness at the same time. Often one maxim is on the forefront of the utterance, while a second maxim is implied.


“Face” (as in “lose face”) refers to a speaker's sense of social identity. Any speech act may impose on this sense, and be therefore face threatening.

Speakers have strategies for lessening the threat.

Positive politeness means being complimentary and gracious to the addressee (but if this is overdone, the speaker may alienate the other party). Negative politeness is found in the various ways of mitigating an imposition.

Negative politeness can take the form of:

Hedging: Er, could you, er, perhaps, close the, um , window?

Pessimism: I don't suppose you could close the window, could you?

Indicating deference: Excuse me, sir, would you mind if I asked you to close the window?

Apologizing: I'm terribly sorry to disturb you, but could you close the window?

Impersonalizing: The management requires all windows to be closed.


Tact maxim (in directives [or impositives] and commissives): minimize cost to other; [maximize benefit to other]

Generosity maxim (in directives and commissives): minimize benefit to self; [maximize cost to self]

Approbation maxim (in expressives and representatives [assertives]): minimize dispraise of other; [maximize praise of other]

Modesty maxim (in expressives and representatives): minimize praise of self; [maximize dispraise of self]

Agreement maxim (in representatives): minimize disagreement between self and other; [maximize agreement between self and other]

Sympathy maxim (in representatives): minimize antipathy between self and other; [maximize sympathy between self and other]


Perhaps the most thorough treatment of the concept of politeness is that of Penelope Brown and Stephen Levinson, which was first published in 1978 and then reissued, with a long introduction, in 1987. In their model, politeness is defined as redressive action taken to counter-balance the disruptive effect of face-threatening acts (FTAs).

In their theory, communication is seen as potentially dangerous and antagonistic.

The basic notion of their model is “face”. This is defined as “the public self-image that every member of society wants to claim for himself”. In their framework, face consists of two related aspects.

One is negative face, or the rights to territories, freedom of action and freedom from imposition - wanting your actions not to be constrained or inhibited by others.

The other is positive face, the positive consistent self-image that people have and their desire to be appreciated and approved of by at least some other people.

The rational actions people take to preserve both kinds of face,...
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