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In our everyday lives, we may remark on someone's 'polite' behaviour when opening a door for us, or scold someone for using 'impolite' language in an argument at the pub. In linguistics, politeness has many different definitions; however, politeness research is generally concerned with looking at politeness as the way language allows us to interact with the social world around us: how do people get on (or not get on!) through language?

To help differentiate between our everyday notion of 'politeness' and the more specific linguistic conception of it, a distinction is often made between 'first-order politeness' and 'second-order politeness'. The former refers to our everyday understanding of politeness, something which varies between people, places and cultures, and across time. An example of this type of politeness might be apologising when we step in someone's foot, or saying 'thank you' when we are served at a bar. Second-order politeness involves looking at the variations in what different people, in different places and at different times, deem as polite behaviour, and bears these differences in mind when identifying the particular strategies that people employ in order to get along through language.

Just as there are many different ways of 'performing' politeness, there are many different ways of studying the phenomenon. One way in which the different approaches to second-order politeness can be summarised is in the division between studies that focus on the way we are polite in order to avoid conflict, and those that concentrate on how we are polite in order to be successful socially. Brown and Levinson (1987), for instance, emphasise the way in which speech acts threaten a recipient's sense of face and how politeness strategies are used to mitigate this threat. For example, the way we minimise the imposition of asking someone to take out the rubbish by saying things like 'It would be very kind of you to take out the bin', or 'I know it's a pain, but would you be so kind as to take out the rubbish?' In other work, the focus is on the relations between speakers and the importance of the context in which interaction is produced, as well as individuals' different characteristics: the precise type of social relationship shared by two people will affect the way in which they perform politeness when in conversation. Some studies, for example, might look at the way in which individuals' relative status affects the way that people address each other when attempting to resolve a conflict.

Much research into politeness suggests that it is in some way strategic. To this extent, and to the extent that its subject-matter is cooperative social interaction (or lack of it), the study of politeness would seem of obvious interest to research into conflict. Conflicts across cultures are often based on cultural confusion or misunderstanding, and an understanding of different models of linguistic politeness helps conflict parties and third parties to take account of differing cultural norms.

Recommended reading

Brown and Levinson's study has provided the basis for much linguistic work on politeness:

Brown, Penelope and Stephen C. Levinson. 1987. Politeness: Some Universals in Language Use. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

The essays gathered in the following collection offer examine different forms of politeness in different cultures:

Bargiela-Chiappini, Francesca and Daniel Z. Kadar. 2011. "Introduction: Politeness Research in and across Culture." In Politeness across Cultures, ed. by Bargiela-Chiappini, Francesca and Daniel Z. Kadar. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.

Watts' book draws on various linguistic models of politeness, reflecting on our notions of politeness and impoliteness:

Watts, Richard J. 2003. Politeness. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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