1. Gino Eelen, A Critique of Politeness Theories, reviewed by Abdurrahman Hamza

2. Ann Bayraktaroglu and Maria Sifianou, eds., Linguistic Politeness across Boundaries: The Case of Greek and Turkish, reviewed by Corinne Boz

3. Saeko Fukushima, Requests and Culture: Politeness in British English and Japanese, reviewed by Andrew Merrison

4. Helen Spencer-Oatey, ed., Culturally Speaking: Managing Rapport through Talk across Cultures, reviewed by Sara Mills


1. Gino Eelen, A Critique of Politeness Theories, Manchester: St. Jerome's Press, 2001, ISBN: 1-9006-5040-1, 280 pp., £17.99.

Reviewed by Abdurrahman Hamza

For about more than fifteen years, politeness has been one of the most important and productive areas of research in pragmatics and sociolinguistics. Its importance in cross-cultural communication is obvious, and comparative studies of the conceptualisation and manifestations of politeness in different cultures must therefore be regarded as vital in an era of growing internationalisation.

Gino Eelen, in his critique of politeness theories is very critical of the theoretical assumptions of the major politeness theorists, Brown and Levinson, and that of many other theorists influenced by their work, for example, Gu, Lakoff, Leech, Blum Kulka, Fraser and Nolen, Ide, and Arndt and Janney. He is critical of them on a number of counts: because of their reliance on Speech Act theory, they all focus too closely on the speaker, at the expense of the hearer; they also assume that all politeness is strategic. For him, these theorists reify politeness, characterising it as something which hearer and speaker can unproblematically recognise. He discusses two perspectives on politeness which he argues most theorists of politeness confuse: politeness1 (the common-sense notion of politeness) and politeness2 (the scientific conceptualisation of politeness). He argues for the importance of the distinction between the two perspectives on politeness in research: ‘politeness 2 concepts should not just be different from politeness 1 concepts, or given different names, but rather the relationship between both notions should be carefully monitored throughout the entire analytical process-not only at the input stage.' (Eelen 2001:31). He discusses politeness1 and classifies it to include two aspects: the action-related side which refers to the way politeness actually manifests itself in communicative behaviour; and the conceptual side which refers to common-sense ideologies of politeness. He extends the discussion to involve, as characteristics of politeness1 a) evaluativity, where he argues that politeness and impoliteness are connected to social values and always evaluative in nature; b) argumentativity, where it is always associated with situations where there is something to lose or gain; c) ‘polite’-ness, where each individual considers themselves and their cultural group as polite, where only others are impolite; d)- normativity, where politeness is the result of the pressure of social norms; and e) modality and reflexivity, which refers to optionality of polite interactional strategies for the actor. For him, politeness2 is the scientific conceptualisation of the social phenomena of politeness; in that sense it is the theory of politeness1. Politeness2, he argues, describes how politeness1 works, and also what it does for people. He argues unlike politeness1 which is restricted to the polite end of the polite-impolite continuum, politeness2 should cover the whole range of the continuum. Eelen claims that the core politeness theories fail to distinguish between what he calls politeness one and politeness two because of the normative nature of most of the theories. He argues that impoliteness becomes not only a matter of speakers' producing behaviour, but also of hearers' evaluating that behaviour. He argues that the norms that govern appropriateness are social norms. They are not individual norms held only by the hearer, but rather pertain to situations and cultures, and norms are not individual but shared by all.

In sum, for Eelen, his critique of the theoretical frameworks are: (1) that they involve a conceptual bias towards the polite end of the polite-impolite distinction: (2) that they conceptualise politeness and impoliteness as opposites; and (3) that their conceptualisations of politeness are biased towards the production of behaviour, or towards the speaker in the interactional dyad.

Eelen’s critique is based on the work of Pierre Bourdieu which involves a different way of looking at politeness. On the basis of Bourdieu' s sociological thinking, Eelen suggests a possible alternative conceptualization of politeness. Bourdieu’s notion of 'habitus' is used as a guide in the development of such a theoretical framework where the social-cultural is the result of human interaction rather than the opposite.. Depending on Bourdieu, Eelen considers the issue of culture as the core issue in the field of politeness. Eelen asks the question ‘how do these theories handle the normativity of commonsense politeness and the situation of culture?" He argues that politeness is subject to cultural expectations arising from cultural norms.

Eelen considers the notion of politeness differs from culture to culture and that cultural norms reflected in speech acts differ not only from one language to another, but also from one regional and social variety to another. Probably this is why he chooses to base his critique on a sociological theory, even though culture is not explicitly theoretically defined in terms of its particular social characteristics. (Eelen 2001:164) He claims that his approach inspired by Bourdieu’s notion of ‘habitus’, takes full account of the hearer’s position and the evaluative moment; deals with both politeness and impoliteness; and provides a more dynamic, bi-directional view of the social-individual relationship. He believes that the driving force behind the system of politeness is the socioculturally shared norms. He considers that norms belong to the level of culture and part of the sociolinguistic system of which politeness is subsystem: ‘communicative success depends on the right amount and kind of politeness applied at the right time to the right speech act, as determined by social norms that stipulate what is appropriate for a specific interactional situation" (Eelen, 2001:128)

Eelen considers the aspects politeness and impoliteness on the same level, and claims that they are captured by the same concept: the empowerment of the hearer and of individual in general in spite of the belief that only polite behaviour can ever be culturally appropriate, while impoliteness is somehow non-cultural in nature. ‘The most important characteristics of the notion of 'culture' as employed in theories of politeness are its vagueness and its transformation form an observational into an explanatory notion". (Eelen 2001:169)

However, although this book is an excellent and provocative critique of politeness theory, it does not offer us a workable model of analysis. There are still some issues insufficiently investigated, in spite of his criticism of previous theories for failing to provide adequate explanation for them, for example, he does not give a clear definition of politeness on which we could base future analysis. He also claims that the core theories of the book fail to make a clear distinction between what he calls politeness one and politeness two, but his model is not clearly identifying its principles and leaves many elements vague and ill-defined, for example the definition of the terms `norm’ and `culture’. However, this book provides a thorough critique of the main theories of politeness and their major findings. Whilst not providing a clear theoretical framework for the analysis of politeness, he does provide suggestions for further discussion and research in the field. This book then will prove to be a of value to social scientists and linguists and for those interested in understanding the relationship between language culture and society.


2. Bayraktaroglu, Arin and Maria Sifianou, eds. (2001) Linguistic Politeness Across Boundaries: The case of Greek and Turkish. John Benjamins Publishing Company, hardback ISBN 90 272 5107 X (Eur.) / 1 58811 040 0 (US), xiv + 435 pp., Pragmatics and Beyond Series, 114$.

Reviewed by Corinne Boz

This collection of articles on various aspects of politeness comes at a time when interest in linguistic politeness is very much on the increase. Once a topic for discussion on purely theoretical linguistic grounds, politeness is now a topic of interest in all fields where intra-cultural and inter-cultural communication are an issue. The importance of face to face contact in our shrinking world due to an increase in international travel, business, education etc. means that more and more people are finding themselves compelled to take an interest in issues surrounding communication and particularly in understanding and avoiding the problems caused by miscommunication.

This collection of articles, edited by Bayraktaroglu and Sifianou, is an extremely important contribution to the literature on linguistic politeness as it provides us with empirically based articles rather than another theoretical discussion of problematic definitions of politeness. This collection concentrates on specific discourse situations in Greek and Turkish in order to provide important empirical data to raise issues for further research. A second, possibly more significant, purpose of the book is to concentrate on examining politeness in a context other than English. As the editors state in the introduction, ‘definitions of the term "politeness" reflect northern European norms, where politeness is primarily conceptualised as a means of avoiding conflict in interactions’ (p.3). This book is an attempt to redress the balance and examine the phenomenon of politeness in a different cultural context, at the point where East meets West, and to highlight the fact that in other cultures politeness can be ‘face-boosting’ (Bayraktaroglu) or ‘face-enhancing’ (Sifianou) and where ‘sociability overpowers respectability at times’ (p.4). Essentially, they are attempting to move the emphasis away from the Western perspective that dominates the field and test politeness in areas other than English.

The book has been structured so that the articles fall into pairs. The first pair of articles provides a general ethnographic picture of the two societies under examination. The first, Renée Hirschon’s ‘Freedom, solidarity and obligation: The socio-cultural context of Greek politeness’, takes an anthropological approach to the analysis of politeness in the Greek context. The writer explores certain key concepts and uses them to draw conclusions about verbal conduct. It is pointed out that key values can be interpreted as markers of the particular ethos of a culture and that in Greece some of these key values are ‘freedom’ and ‘sociability’, ‘honour’ and ‘obligation’. In this article Hirschon claims that as ‘face’ and ‘honour’ have considerable overlap they can be considered conceptual equivalents. Hirschon’s article goes on to examine the way that linguistic realisations of politeness can be attributed to the contradictions that occur between the key values of freedom, personal autonomy and maintaining one’s social position and the concept of sociability or being socially involved. Hirschon examines the idea of non-accountability or ‘verbal laxity’ in Greek linguistic expression. She demonstrates this concept with an interesting comparison of the use of insults in Greek and Turkish societies, revealing that insults are more commonly used in Greek and can be used for the purpose of creating solidarity whereas this is not so much the case in Turkish.

The second article, Deniz Zeyrek’s ‘Politeness in Turkish and its linguistic manifestations’, offers an ethnographic analysis of Turkish culture, examines the influence of social factors like power, distance and gender on linguistic practice in Turkish, and discusses the use of formulaic expressions. Zeyrek highlights the importance of relatedness, group-consciousness or collectivism in Turkish culture and uses examples like the family structure, neighbourliness, etc. to illustrate this point in detail. The writer provides an interesting background which will give those readers not familiar with Turkish culture a perspective from which to approach the rest of the articles.

The second pair of articles concentrates on power and status in the context of the classroom. Seren Dogançay-Aktuna and Sibel Kamisli, in ‘Linguistics of power and politeness in Turkish: Revelations from speech acts’, use Brown and Levinson’s framework of politeness to examine how Turkish people satisfy the face-needs of interlocuters of both higher and lower status in two particular face-threatening encounters. They focus on the speech acts of correction and disagreement and find that professors, in an academic context, are much more direct with their students than bosses are in the workplace with their assistants. The writers theorise that this may be to do with the fact that professors are expected to ‘correct’ students as part of the job and so contextual factors are highly significant. As their findings conflict with earlier data e.g. Wolfson (1989), the writers emphasise the problematic nature of generalisations stating, ‘We would thus like to call for a movement away from Anglo-Saxon, especially English language orientation, in politeness research to a truly cross cultural one to clarify conflicts in existing data’ (p.96).

Theodossia-Soula Pavlidou in ‘Politeness in the classroom? Evidence from a Greek high school’, also emphasises the need for intra-cultural, contextualized research before making generalisations about inter-cultural politeness. This article concentrates on empirical data collected in a Greek high school. The writer investigates the politeness strategies that are employed by students talking to teachers and vice versa, and questions whether there are differences in polite behaviour between students and teachers or between girls and boys in the classroom context. The data shows that the teacher seems to concentrate more on satisfying students positive face wants whereas as students tend to neglect the positive face wants of the teacher. The writer also points out that the data from the classroom is in fact characterized overall by minimal politeness investments.

The next pair of articles focuses on the expression of approbation and praise and advice giving. Marianthi Makri-Tsilipakou’s Congratulations and bravo! discusses the two approbatory terms ‘bravo’ and ‘congratulations’. The writer provides information on their dictionary meanings, syntax, collocations etc. in order to illustrate their semantic meaning. The two terms are then analysed in appropriate and inappropriate situated applications. The writer emphasizes that the terms are both aimed towards positive politeness but there is potential for them to be reshaped or ‘abused’ (170).

In ‘Advice-giving in Turkish: "Superiority" or "solidarity"?’, Arin Bayraktaroglu demonstrates that advice-giving in Turkish may not have the same negative connotation that it does in English. Rather than placing the advice-giver in a position of superiority, giving advice in Turkish is in fact used to consolidate solidarity as it is a sign of concern, willingness to help and relatedness. Bayraktaroglu demonstrates that reactions to advice are governed by social distance i.e. newly acquainted speakers would not develop a long conversation around advice whereas speakers who are closer may extend the sequence of advice-giving. The writer provides several case studies to illustrate strategies that are used in Turkish for both giving and rejecting advice. The main point of the article is to emphasise the differences between American/British English and Turkish in terms of giving and receiving advice.

Service encounters and gender difference provide the focal points for the next set of articles. Yasemin Bayyurt and Arın Bayraktaroğlu in ‘The use of pronouns and terms of address in Turkish service encounters’, concentrate on the way that pronominal and nominal use is affected by the economic prestige attached to a particular service encounter setting, the familiarity between the interlocuters and the gender of the participants. Their data shows that where females tend to use the ‘V’ form in most settings, males tended to use the ‘T’ form. When they are in a setting that is markedly affluent both males and females tend to use the more formal ‘V’ form. The writers also point out that the ‘V’ form is more frequently used in both the highest i.e. economically strong and lowest i.e economically less strong service encounters, illustrating that use of the ‘V’ form is determined by social distance.

A similar study by Eleni Antonopoulou, ‘Brief service encounters: Gender and politeness’, uses data collected from service encounters in a small newsagent’s in Athens. The data reveals that males and females appear to have a different perception of the service encounter where men perceive the encounter as purely transactional with no requirement for unnecessary politeness strategies, and women perceive it as a tri-partite event with an initial greeting phase, a medial transactional phase and a final thanking or leave-taking phase. Antonopoulou emphasises that these results may be explained away for different reasons than those reasons given for the difference between male and female linguistic politeness in current Western literature.

The next pair of articles concentrates on interruptions in television talk in both Greece and Turkey. The first, ‘"What you’re saying sounds very nice and I’m delighted to hear it": Some considerations on the functions of presenter-initiated simultaneous speech in Greek panel discussions’ by Angeliki Tzanne, analyses instances of simultaneous talk by panel discussion presenters. Tzanne employs Goldberg’s (1990) categorization of interruptions into ‘power-related’, ‘rapport-related’ and ‘neutral’ and states that apart from very few exceptions, presenter-initiated simultaneities are ‘relationally neutral’, i.e. they are not considered to be face threatening by the panel members as the presenter has specific rights as a presenter in running the programme. Tzanne also highlights the presenters’ use of face-boosting simultaneities, which are unconnected to his rights as a presenter but serve to satisfy the positive face needs of both himself and his guests. This concentration on positive politeness strategies seems to contradict previous research done in similar contexts where the concentration is often on aggressive, impolite interruptions. Tzanne attributes this to cultural difference.

A very different picture of political discussions is presented in Alev Yemenici’s ‘Analysis of the use of politeness maxims in interruptions in Turkish political debates’. Yemenici analyses both interviewer (IR) interruptions on interviewees (IE) and interviewee interruptions on other interviewees. She finds that because of the pressure on IRs to compete for ratings with the numerous other private channels on Turkish television they will try to create a heated debate and this can be achieved by sacrificing positive politeness strategies for aggressive interruptions. The IE politicians will also do everything possible to keep the floor in the discussion as they are competing for votes. Both parties are therefore trying to achieve their own aims, which often mean sacrificing politeness maxims.

The final pairing is concerned with the use of compliments. In ‘Relevance theory and compliments as phatic communication: The case of Turkish’, Sükriye Ruhi and Gürkan Dogan focus on complimenting in Turkish by discussing the phenomenon within the framework of Relevance Theory. Their discussion establishes complimenting as phatic and polite communication and goes on to look at the location of compliments in conversation as well as preferred compliment topics. Their data shows that compliments occur mostly in equal status, friendly relationships and that the use of compliments varies widely according to age and gender factors. More specifically, men compliment women more, women compliment other women more than they do men and men compliment each other as much as women compliment men. It is assumed that this may be due to cultural perceptions about gender roles.

The final article, Maria Sifianou’s ‘"Oh! How appropriate!" Compliments and politeness’, investigates the extent to which compliments are formulaic in Greek. Sifianou concludes that giving compliments is closely related to the giving of gifts and that they primarily function as face-enhancing positive politeness strategies. She points out that this fits in with the general interpretation of Greek culture as positive politeness oriented. Sifianou also analyses the formulaicity of compliments and finds that, contrary to previous research in compliments, Greek compliments are highly creative and adapted to particular contexts.

This collection of articles makes a welcome contribution to the literature on politeness. The most satisfying aspect of the collection is that it consists of linguistic analysis of politeness behaviour in a non-English language context. More studies of this kind are needed to ensure that, as several of the contributors to the collection remind us, we are not continuously making ethnocentric generalizations in our attempt to theorize politeness. We need more studies based on culture-specific, empirical data in order to develop our understanding of intra- and inter-cultural politeness phenomena. The articles in this volume provide an excellent example of the kind of studies that need to be carried out to expand our knowledge away from the predominantly Western perspective that exists. In addition to the actual content of the empirically-based articles, the structure of the collection is a great aid to processing and understanding the articles. The presentation of topics in a Greek and Turkish pairing enables the reader, who may not be familiar with either culture, to build a clearer picture of the two societies. It also forces them to consider the issues raised in the article in more detail by making instant comparisons. In saying that, the reviewer felt that some kind of concluding chapter by the editors may have been a welcome addition. To their credit, most of the articles highlight the need for further research and mention specifically where they think this needs to be aimed. It may have been helpful, however, to draw these ideas together at the end of the collection in an attempt to focus the reader on future directions. Overall, however, the reviewer found this to be an extremely useful collection that would appeal to a very wide audience in a variety of disciplines e.g. ethnography, sociolinguistics, discourse analysis and politeness studies. As well as multi-disciplinary appeal it is felt that the book would be a useful resource for anyone with an interest in issues of cultural communication, from a general undergraduate audience to someone with specific research interests. This collection is highly recommended with the hope that it also leads to the wide publication of similar well-researched, culturally-based materials that provide us with an opportunity to move away from theoretical, ethnocentric generalisation towards a real inter-cultural perspective.


3. Saeko Fukushima (2000) Requests and Culture: Politeness in British English and Japanese, Bern: Peter Lang, 315 pp., ISBN: 3-906765-30-X (paperback) US-ISBN: 0-8204-5062-6 (paperback), £30.

Reviewed by Andrew Merrison

COVER Information

This book presents a cross-cultural comparison between British and Japanese cultures focusing on requests and responses. The study is based on data elicited from a questionnaire which lists the choices of strategies for making requests and responding to off-record requests, taking into account the variables, power, social distance and imposition. The author’s findings suggest important refinements to Brown and Levinson’s politeness categorisation and question the validity of cultural stereotypes. Drawing on the distinction between individualist and collectivist cultures, the study also accounts for differences between the politeness strategies in British English and Japanese.

Saeko Fukushima [henceforth SF] takes Brown & Levinson’s (1987) theory of politeness as a starting point. SF first deals with some of the major criticisms of Brown & Levinson (henceforth B&L), then, secure in her assumption that the B&L model is indeed the best on the market for her current purposes, she presents a cross-cultural comparison between British and Japanese cultures focusing on requests and responses. It is essentially her 1999 PhD thesis in published form. This is evident in that this book is clearly written for the already knowledgeable. For example:

B&L’s Dyad II is introduced on p.18 yet not explained until page 45.

Vertical dimension of power is introduced on p.79 yet not explained until page 86.

Knowledge of Speech Act Theory (at least of its terminology) is assumed

Other factors which point to the PhD-ness of this book include the lack of index and (for me at least) what sometimes seems to be over-signposting.

But perhaps I am putting stylistic carts before content horses. Let me talk about the what before I get on to the how.



The book is divided into the following eight chapters:

Chapter 1: Introduction

Chapter 2: Politeness Theories: Four Views: Social Norm; Conversational Maxim; Face-saving; Conversational Contract

Chapter 3: Requests and Responses to Requests

Chapter 4: Cultural Dimensions of the Study

Chapter 5: Research Design and Methodology

Chapter 6: Results

Chapter 7: Discussion

Chapter 8: Conclusion



This study investigates 133 Japanese undergraduate students (32 Male; 101 Female) and 121 British undergraduate students (48 Male; 73 Female).

SF uses a questionnaire methodology in order to ascertain how, in eight ‘culturally comparable’ situations (all drawn from the realm of student experience), her 254 representatives of these two cultures:

(A) would rate the Power, Distance and Imposition variables from B&L’s weightiness equation for Face-Threatening Acts (FTAs) [Wx = D(S,H) + P(H,S) + Rx]

(B) would make certain requests

(C) would respond to certain off-record requests

As an exemplar of her questionnaire methodology let us take Fukushima’s Situation 5 (2000: 310f):

  Situation 5

X lives in a self-catering university students’ hall of residence. While cooking in a shared kitchen, X discovers that there is no salt left. V, X’s next door neighbour in the hall is also cooking in the kitchen.

X wants to borrow some salt from V.

Part A

1. If you think there is a power difference between X and V, how big is it?

Complete the following by ticking a box on the scale, 1 being small, 5 being big.






2. If you think there is a social distance between X and V, how big is it?

Complete the following by ticking a box on the scale, 1 being small, 5 being big.






3. How big an imposition do you think it is on V to give some salt to X?

Complete the following by ticking a box on the scale, 1 being small, 5 being big.







Part B

You are X. How would you make the request to V?

(1) Stating the reason + Making a direct request

e.g. I’ve run out of salt. Please lend me some.

(2) Stating the reason + Making an indirect request

e.g. I’ve run out of salt. Could you lend me some.

(3) Stating the reason

e.g. I’ve run out of salt.


Part C

You are V, X’s next door neighbour in the hall. How would you respond if X said the following:

I’ve run out of salt.

(1) Preempting X’s request

e.g. Here, you can have some of mine.

(2) Suggesting an alternative means other than doing something yourself

e.g. Can’t you do without salt today?

(3) Refusing X’s request

e.g. I don’t have any salt.

Armed with the 254 sets of responses from these situational data, SF is able to show that Japanese and British (undergraduate student) cultures display differences in the politeness strategies they use when making and responding to (off-record) requests. Furthermore, this differential is found despite B&L classifying both cultures as negative politeness (‘Dyad II’) cultures.

SF suggests that this difference can, in part, be explained because of the distinction between individualist (the explicit British) and collectivist (the implicit Japanese) cultures.

Connected to this notion of individualist and collectivist cultures, SF suggests (2000: 188) that the Japanese (collectivist culture) make "greater distinctions than the British subjects between in- and out-group membership". While B&L associate their bald, on record strategies with either efficiency or overall low weightiness, SF makes the point that such bald strategies may also be used to show solidarity with the in-group. This leads her to add a modification to the defining criteria of B&L’s Dyad II (see Summary below).

SF also introduces the term solicitousness to cover a Hearer’s pre-emptive response to off-record requests (e.g. Hearer does/offers something for Speaker, despite Speaker only having made the request in an off-record way – in other words, Response (1) in Part C of her questionnaire situations).

SF splits Social Distance into three sub-components: (1) Whether people are similar/different; (2) How well people know each other; (3) Whether people like each other. While this refinement of Distance is to be welcomed, unfortunately SF doesn’t tell us whether these three components are to be calculated according to a simple summation, whether they are to be weighted, or indeed how they might ‘fit’ into B&L’s weightiness equation for Face-Threatening Acts (FTAs).


SF hopes to get away from the traditional (and simplistic) view of FTAs as solitary, sentential-like speech acts by considering Question-Answer [Request-Response] pairs. Indeed she states (p. 90) "To avoid focusing on isolated acts, in this study, I will consider responses to requests". Good on her! Unfortunately, when she does so, she simply considers either the Question part or the Answer part with no explicit linkage between the two. While it is commendable that someone should be bothered to realise the importance of going beyond the single utterance it was disappointing that this laudable aim was not actually achieved. As SF herself finally admits (p.222) in order to study "sequences in conversation … some methods other than the written questionnaires" would need to be employed.



· There do exist cross-cultural differences between British and Japanese in their assessment of the weightiness variables, Power (P), Distance (D) and relative imposition (R).

· P, D and R influence politeness strategies.

· The British and Japanese differ in their choice of requesting strategies.

· The type of response to off-record requests is mainly driven by R rather than P or D.

· The British and Japanese can be classified as negative politeness cultures (as per Dyad II) but with some modification:

B&L’s Dyad II (based on Fukushima, 2000: 45):


Politeness Strategies


High D relations dominate in public encounters

High-numbered strategies

Japan; Madagascar; England

Fukushima’s modifications (2000: 195) allow for two distinct politeness patterns in Japanese:




Politeness Strategies



High D relations dominate in public encounters

Negative politeness strategies, i.e., conventionally indirect requests; Off-record strategies, i.e., off-record requests

To pay respect to H in return for the FTA leaving H unimpeded

Japanese (1)

High D, P relations dominate in public encounters

Negative politeness strategies, i.e., conventionally indirect requests; Off-record strategies, i.e., off-record requests

To pay respect to H in return for the FTA leaving H unimpeded

Japanese (2)

Low P relations prevail in close relationship

Bald-on-record strategies, i.e., direct requests

To claim that the act is not an FTA; to show/strengthen solidarity



SF is not a native speaker of English and occasionally this is evident in the text. For example, her conclusions are often made very rapidly, curtly and with no tentative hedging – in other words, SF displays the very direct behaviour that she herself notes (p. 219) "can be interpreted as rude by [her] English-speaking interlocutors". My advice: live with it and allow for it – this is a study of cross-cultural difference, after all: Vive la difference!


Minor Caveats

There seems to be a rather skewed sample with respect to sex of participants, viz. 133 Japanese undergraduate students: 24% Male, 76% Female; 121 British undergraduate students: 40% Male, 60% Female.

Admittedly SF is not trying to make any claims about gendered politeness, however, with a Japanese cohort so biased to female students, I feel that we should be at least mindful of this when interpreting SF’s general claims about Japanese (student) culture. Of course, if her samples are representative of the wider student culture demographics then this caveat disappears. Unfortunately we are not told.

Other things that niggled me (and to be fair, these niggles are probably better laid at the door of the publisher) included:

· spelling inconsistencies which were not legitimised due to quotation: e.g. behaviour/behavior; mianzi/mien-tsu; lian/lien

· a policy of putting sentential punctuation inside quotation (for an excellent rant on this, see Pullum, 1991: Chapter 9)



SF generally makes her points very clearly with plenty of signposting to let the reader know where they’re heading as well as where they’ve been. One suggestion that I would make is that anyone who reads this book should really acquaint themselves with the various questionnaire situations set out in Appendix 2.3 (summarised in Table 21 in §6.7) sooner rather than later.


And Finally (on a lighter note)

Even though SF’s explanations of implicit collectivist versus explicit individualist cultures seem to be useful in explaining the differential linguistic politeness strategies between Japanese and British students, and even though SF is herself Japanese, please beware not to be beguiled by her altruistic, collectivist description of the written Chinese character for person [which is not so very unlike a reversed Greek lambda: l] being "made up of two strokes, one supporting the other" (2000: 114). This is indeed true, but what SF describes as the notion of benevolent ‘support’ in fact comes from an historical development of the original pictograph which represents a person: in short, the two strokes are actually the remnants of legs (see Fazzioli, 1986: 24)!


Value for Money

It is often the case that PhD theses generally only find smaller publishers willing to take on the role of world disseminator. These publishers should be applauded for their devotion to academic knowledge. What makes this situation such a shame, however, is that publishers can only usually economically warrant a smallish print run at comparatively high retail prices. Requests and Culture is a detailed monograph published by such a ‘non-mainstream’ publisher. It is not a textbook, and it will not be read by such a wide readership as a textbook would be: its readership is highly specialised. We should therefore expect to pay more than the £13.00 to £18.00 we would normally (and for some of us, regularly) spend on textbooks.

Fortunately Peter Lang Publishers have put this book out in paperback. Unfortunately, Requests and Culture is still set to retail at £30.00 (approx. $45.00). On the face of it, £30.00 is a lot of money for 205 pages of text. The question is, are those 205 pages worth it? Hmm. Tricky one. I think I’d happily pay £20.00, maybe even £22.50. £25.00 would be pushing it but, for my (personal) money £30.00 is just a bit too steep.

Having said that, do get your department to order you a copy for your library. This book should be accessible to a wider audience than I suspect the price tag will generate. And then, once you’ve had a read for yourself (205 pages won’t take you that long), you can decide for yourself whether to stump up the cash for your own personal copy. Me? Well I am just very grateful for the freebies that come with the pleasurable task of book reviewing – not that it’s currently on my bookshelf: I’ve already lent my copy out to one of my final year undergraduate students to aid in her sociolinguistics project work!

The Punchline

If you’re interested in politeness phenomena (and I kind of suspect you are given that you are reading this review), irrespective of whether or not you are particularly interested in cross-cultural issues I’d recommend Requests and Culture: Politeness in British English and Japanese to you – I just think I might advise you to get hold of a library copy first rather than part with your personal hard-earned cash.


Brown, G. and Levinson, S. C. (1987) Politeness: some universals in language use. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Fazzioli, E. (1986) Chinese Calligraphy: From pictograph to ideogram: the history of 214 essential Chinese/Japanese characters. New York: Abbeville Press

Pullum, G. K. (1991) The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax and other irreverent essays on the study of language. Chicago: University of Chicago Press



4. Helen Spencer-Oatey ed. Culturally Speaking: Managing Rapport through Talk across Cultures, London, Continuum, 2000, ISBN 0-304-70437-7, 381 pp.

Reviewed by Sara Mills

This collection of essays is a useful intervention into politeness theory - one of the many attempts that there have been to try to break out of the framework developed by the pioneering and incomparable work of Brown and Levinson (1978, 1987). Some have argued that that framework has become a straitjacket, because although Brown and Levinson’s work established a fascinating field of enquiry, yet it has also determined the parameters within which other researchers have worked, and sometimes it has meant that their assumptions and claims about politeness have been simply replicated rather than modified and challenged. The essays in this collection try to balance the contradictory impulses of acknowledging Brown and Levinson’s importance in this field and at the same time substantially modifying their work. The essays, as a whole, examine cross-cultural interaction in general by comparing the linguistic strategies of particular cultures, focusing frequently on the notion of directness and indirectness, which has always been a major issue in politeness research. A useful addition to the general concerns of politeness theory is a focus in many of the essays on misunderstanding and breakdown of communication, which has rarely been examined.

Spencer-Oatey’s own theoretical work on rapport management is tested out throughout the book, either in essays by herself or in essays written in collaboration with others. In the first theoretical essay in the book, rapport management is described as being a broader term than politeness because ‘a limitation of the term politeness is that it emphasises the harmonious aspect of social relations….however, people sometimes attack rather than support their interlocutors.’ (3) Spencer-Oatey argues that the term ‘face’, used extensively in politeness research, is a term which only concentrates on the needs of the individual, a peculiarly Western bias, which makes it unfitted for the analysis of cross-cultural interaction where, particularly in interactions between Asian and Western participants, concerns may well be more on the way that the group is represented, or the way that the individual fits appropriately into a role defined by the group. She thus prefers to use the term ‘rapport management’ to try to focus on the relation between group and self rather than simply focusing on the self in isolation. Spencer-Oatey, in this paper, challenges the clear-cut distinction between positive and negative face which Brown and Levinson proposed, suggesting that their ‘conception of positive face has been underspecified, and that the concerns that they identify as negative face issues are not necessarily face concerns at all.’(13) She thus modifies the way that face is described, adding to it a notion of sociality rights; thus, while face is concerned with the personal and social value of the individual, sociality rights ‘are concerned with personal/social expectancies and reflect people’s concerns over fairness, consideration, social inclusion/exclusion and so on.’ (14) In addition to the notion of a face-threatening act, Spencer-Oatey suggests that we should speak of rights-threatening behaviour. This is a significant modification of Brown and Levinson’s work, and constitutes a major improvement on the focus on the individual which made their work difficult to use for cross-cultural analysis, and indeed made it sometimes unworkable even within a British or American environment.

Ylanne-McEwan and Coupland’s essay on ‘Accommodation theory: a conceptual resource for intercultural sociolinguistics’ provides a useful theory to set alongside Brown and Levinson’s work. Accommodation theory can be to complement politeness theory and convergence and divergence are very instructive terms to use alongside notions of face and face threatening behaviour.

In a paper entitled ‘Culture as an explanatory variable’, Harris Bond, Zegarac and Spencer-Oatey take issue with the work undertaken by Hofstede which assumes that it is possible to easily classify linguistic behaviours associated with particular cultures. This work often traded on stereotypical features, suggesting that Asians are indirect or that Americans are brash. Harris Bond et. al. suggest that the assumption that Asians are indirect may simply be due to the fact that we, as English speaking researchers, are interpreting Asian speech from the perspective of the British and American notions of what indirectness is, how it is linguistically manifested and what functions/effects indirectness has. Asian speakers may well use other strategies for being direct or indirect to the ones used in British and American cultures, and researchers may simply not be recognising directness or indirectness when they see it. Whilst questioning the homogeneity of cultures, however, it must be admitted that most of the papers in this collection do tend to assume a level of homogeneity bordering on the stereotype in some of the assertions they make about different cultures.

In ‘It’s not my fault: Japanese and English responses to unfounded accusations’, by Tanaka, Spencer-Oatey and Cray, questionnaires are used to determine if there is a difference in Japanese and English linguistic behaviour. The questionnaire is used quite extensively throughout these papers, and the subjects are often university students, and although the authors are fairly careful about generalisations from this data, such extensive use needs to be questioned, particularly when most of the questionnaires seem to follow roughly the same format. However, this paper had some useful insights on the notion of equivalence between terms in Japanese and English, forcing us to reconsider the notion that the Japanese ‘sumimasen’ is the exact equivalent of the English ‘sorry’. They argue that ‘sumimasen’ is used in a wider range of contexts than ‘sorry’ and has other functions and meanings not associated with apologising. Thus, we may be led to assume that the Japanese apologise more than the British, because we observe the word which we assume is equivalent to ‘sorry’ occurring more frequently. A similar paper by Spencer-Oatey, Ng and Dong deals with ‘Responding to compliments: British and Chinese evaluative judgements’, and here there is some interesting questioning of the global notion of cultures, for when we describe British or Chinese responses to compliments, which particular groups of British and Chinese are we generalising from ?

Pavlidou’s essay on ‘Telephone conversations in Greek and German: attending to the relationship aspect of communication’ is insightful in examining the way that the assumed directness of German speakers, which is often taken to be impolite by interlocutors from other cultures, may in fact be operating as an involvement or positive politeness strategy, in just the same way as phatic communion. House’s essay on ‘Understanding misunderstanding’ challenges the assumption underlying a great deal of politeness research that interlocutors understand each other perfectly. House examines the possible reasons for misunderstanding, arguing that an emotional reaction can often be the source of the deterioration of rapport. The data from very fraught interactions between German and American students were fascinating in illuminating the way in which cross-cultural misunderstandings and tensions develop. Similarly, the misunderstanding between Chinese and German students is examined in Susanne Gunthner’s essay ‘Argumentation and resulting problems in the negotiation of rapport in a German-Chinese conversation’ . Here the German students find the Chinese students uninteresting and unable to sustain a conversation, whilst the Chinese find the German rude and offensive; these judgements are not reached on the basis of offensive language or content, but in terms of discourse strategies which are considered common-sense by the participants within their respective cultures. She argues ‘the direct way of disagreeing was interpreted as "very rude and inconsiderate behaviour" by the Chinese participants; the German students interpreted these strategies as a sign of showing argumentative "involvement".’ (237) Miller, in an essay on ‘Negative assessments in Japanese-American workplace interaction’, also draws attention to the difficulties which people in cross-cultural interaction face, stating ‘how to deliver an evaluation or assessment is a conversational landmine speakers in all societies face on a daily basis.’ (241) This focus on the difficulties of communication is taken up in an essay by Spencer-Oatey and Jianyu, where they analyse the breakdown in communication between a British company and a Chinese delegation. Through interviews, they manage to reconstruct the way that each side interpreted the others’ behaviour, and begin to piece together the way that each side became offended by the other. In terms of the wider significance of politeness research in diplomatic negotiation, this essay is fascinating in suggesting ways of avoiding offence in cross-cultural interaction, or at least being able to identify offence before it leads to communication breakdown.

Thus, this collection contains some essays which challenge many theoretical assumptions in politeness theory. Throughout the collection, there are some challenging insights into cross-cultural interaction, suggesting that we need to rethink the notion that Westerners can objectively describe the linguistic strategies of different cultures. A minor criticism of the book however is that there are certain elements in the book which seemed to suggest that the authors were not quite clear about the audience they were aiming at. At the end of each essay, there were discussion points and suggestions for further reading, which would suggest that the book is intended for an undergraduate audience and to be used as a textbook. However, I am unsure that there are many courses devoted exclusively to politeness research and theory. I would imagine that perhaps the majority of the readers of this book would be postgraduates or other academic researchers. Despite some reservations about some of the papers, however, particularly in terms of the type of data which is drawn on, I found this book very useful in challenging ways of theorising politeness, building on Brown and Levinson’s work without being subservient to it.