Discussion on the Notion of Politeness in a Cross - Cultural Context
Discussion on the Notion of Politeness
in a Cross - Cultural Context
By Yusuf Kurniawan
In our daily life we interact with people in our surrounding. It is one of the
basic characteristics of human beings that they are created as individual and
social creatures. As social beings, humans may not abide the custom and
manner in their environment. The norms and orders are usually conventions
which are not explicitly written like laws or acts but they are believed and
approved as social conventions. And one of the conventions is politeness.
Politeness can be in the form of behaviour as well as verbal language.
In every country and place, politeness has its own form and application.
Something that is considered polite in a country or in an area has not certainly
been considered polite too in the other country or place. For example, the
behaviour of Arabian of holding someone else’s beard is considered an
honour for the Arabians themselves. But, for other people from different
country with different cultural background, such cultural form can be
considered very impolite.
So is a language. In English it is very common to call the name of
someone who is older than the speaker/caller without preceding the name
with certain attribute. For instance, a sister speaks to her older brother. She
could call him with his name directly. Or another example, in our daily
interaction in the university milieu. I would call the Senior Clerk of the
Institute of Communications Studies, Christine Bailey by her first name
without any attributes even though she is much older than I. I would not call
her Mrs. Christine or Mrs. Bailey. Probably it is alright but it will sound
unfamiliar and too formal. In English it is more familiar if I call her Christine.
However, in Indonesian it will be considered very impolite. A speaker who
calls the name of someone else who is older than him/her usually must
precede with attribute ‘Mas’ for male and ‘Mbak’ for female. Or, in formal
situation we should call a person with attribute ‘Pak’ or ‘Bu’(Mr or Mrs). So, in
Indonesian context if I should call Christine Bailey, I will call her ‘Bu Christine’.
The examples are merely a few of many examples that we may find in
comparative study of two languages or more. By applying Brown and
Levinson theory I would find out the application of politeness in its use in
cross-cultural context within English and Indonesian.
According to Brown & Levinson, ‘in order to make sense of what is said in an
interaction, we have to look at various factors which relate to social distance
and closeness (1987:59). I agree with what is stated by Brown here, that
actually we can not neglect the factors around us that may relate with or
influence the interaction of our daily interaction with people. When it is
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related with politeness, there are many factors that might influence the degree
of politeness applied by two people or more involved in an interaction or
conversation. They will consider the relative status of the participants based on
for example age and power (Brown & Levinson,1987:59). Interaction between
two participants of different age can cause difference in their way of
communicating and the degree of politeness. Moreover, power can also cause
the interaction between two participants much more different even though the
distance of age between them might be afar. For example when a boss speaks
to his people. Although he is still younger than his people he may speak to
them who are older than him with rather impolite way. Might be like someone
talks to his close friend.
Moreover, the politeness are actually not merely determined or influenced
by the social distance and age of the participants. Politeness may also be
influenced by other factor like degree of friendliness (Brown & Levinson,
1987:59). Two people who have close relationships and two people who are
not familiar to each other will be interacting differently in term of politeness.
We may look at the following examples. Both of them are asking what
someone else said. In the example (a) the speaker has been familiar with the
addressee/hearer. While in example (b) the speaker is not familiar with the
(a) ‘What did you say?’
(b) ‘Excuse me, could you repeat what you said?
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In Indonesian politeness is also connected with social distance and age of
the participants of interaction. However, there is a difference in English and
Indonesian in applying politeness. As it has been stated before in the
Introduction that Indonesian considers much the attribute put before the
name of someone we call. Even though we have known the person very
much, and we have a close relationship with her/him, still we have to put
‘Mas’ or ‘Pak’ for men and ‘Mbak’ or ‘Bu’ for women.
II.a Politeness Theories
There are many politeness theories. Among others are proposed by Leech,
Brown and Levinson, Grundy, Grice and Fraser. However, this essay is only
going to focus on Brown and Levinson’s theory since it is the most influential
a. Leech’s Theory
According to Leech (1980  and 1983a in Thomas, 1995:158) ‘politeness
(and the related notion of ‘tact’) is crucial in explaining “why people are often
so indirect in conveying what they mean”’. Leech introduces the Politeness
Principle (PP) which principally minimizes the expression of impolite beliefs;
and maximize the expression of polite beliefs.
b. Brown and Levinson’s Theory
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According to Brown & Levinson (1987) the theory of politeness here is based
on assumption that all competent adult members of a society have (and know
each other to have):
[I] Face, namely the public self-image that every member wants to claim for
himself, consisting in two related aspects:
a. Negative face
b. Positive face
[II] Certain rational capacities, in particular consistent modes of reasoning
from ends to the means that will achieve those ends (Brown & Levinson,
1987:61-62). Brown and Levinson in this case work with Goffman’s notion’s
of ‘face’, namely a properti that is owned by all human beings and comparable
to self-esteem (Grundy, 2000:156).
The term ‘face’ here is in the sense of ‘reputation’ or ‘good name’. It has
actually been used in English initially in 1976 within the phrase ‘Arrangements
by which China has lost face’(Thomas. J, 1995:168). Within politeness theory
‘face’ is comprehended as every individual’s feeling of self-worth or self-image.
This image can be damaged, maintained or even enhanced through interaction
with others. And the face itself has two faces: positive and negative.
And what is meant by negative face is the need to be independent, to
have freedom of action, and not to be imposed on by others. Or it is defined
as “the basic claim to territories, personal preserves, rights to non-distraction –
i.e freedom of action and freedom from imposition” (Coulmas, 1997:378).
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The word ‘negative’ here is not intended to be bad or having improper
meaning. For instance:
Would you please do me a little favour to carry my suitcase in?
Would and please show euphemism to the addressee. And little minimizes the
quantity of help that might be given by the addressee to the speaker/addresser.
All of these are oriented to the addressee’s negative face and seek to
compensate for and play down the imposition and potential loss of face. It is
an example of negative politeness.
But it is the opposite of ‘positive’. Positive face is the need to be
accepted, even liked, by others, to be treated as a member of the same group,
as a friend, confidant and to know that his or her wants are shared by others.
As in the following example:
Want a help buddy?
The sentence is straight without any attributes that create a ‘distance’ between
the speaker and the addressee. ‘buddy’ is used instead of ‘Mr/Miss’ to lessen the
formality. And the sentence sounds very friendly, as though the speaker had
been quite close to the addressee. The speaker wants to be accepted as a
friend, even though he might have not been familiar with the addressee.
The face itself is classified into two kinds, namely ‘face threatening act’
(FTAs) and ‘face saving act’ (FSAs). Face threatening act is an act or utterance
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that is spoken by a speaker which represents a threat to another individual’s
expectations related with self-image. Certain illocutionary acts can damage or
threaten another person’s face. While face saving act is to describe an action or
utterance that might be interpreted as a threat to another’s face, but the
speaker then can say something to lessen the possible threat (Brown &
b.1 Strategies to perform face-threatening acts.
First thing first to be decided in this theory is whether to perform face-
threatening acts (FTA) or not. If the answer if yes then there are four
possibilities: ‘three sets of ‘on record’ superstrategies (perform the FTA on-
record without redressive action (bald-on-record), perform the FTA on-record
using positive politeness, perform the FTA on-record using negative
politeness and one set of ‘off-record’ strategies’ (Thomas J, 1995:169). I would
discuss these strategies one by one. Let’s look at the following example of
asking a neighbour not to play his stereo too loudly because you are going to
a. Performing an FTA without any redress (bald on-record)
‘Don’t play your noisy stereo any more, I want to sleep.’
The speaker said straightforward to the addressee without performing face
saving acts. In this case, the addressee is threatened by the speaker’s words.
On this occasion the addressee might be offended by the speaker’s request
since he uses ‘noisy’ and ‘any more’. As though the speaker did not want to hear
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the sound from the stereo any further and it is like a warning to the addressee
for not to play his stereo any more.
b. Do the FTA on record with redress (positive politeness)
‘My friend Jim, I know you want to stay up late to listen to your new stereo. But how if you
turn it down so you could also enjoy it more.’
In this case the speaker is more polite in asking his neighbour to stop playing
his stereo. He uses positive politeness ‘My friend Jim’, ‘how about’. These words
shows solidarity and friendliness, that they both need to sleep and take a rest.
Compared to the previous expression, this one is more acceptable. In the
sense that the addressee is not much threatened by the speaker’s request.
c. Performing an FTA with redress (negative politeness)
‘I’m awfully sorry to request you, but could you please turn your stereo little bit down?’
In this sentence the speaker perform an FTA but in negative politeness. It
sounds formal because he uses ‘could’, ‘little bit’. These words show euphemism
and minimization of quality and quantity of the request. It is polite but formal,
especially for English people.
However, in Indonesian the expression is more appropriate and much
more acceptable among people who are involved in the interaction. Because
basically in Indonesian context, the more formal of the words used the more
polite it will be. If it is seen from Brown and Levinson’s theory, performing an
FTA with negative politeness is even appropriate in Indonesian context, in
terms of the familiarity and formality.
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d. Do the FTA off-record
‘Are you okay so you play your stereo so loudly?’
Performing off-record politeness include: ‘give hints’, ‘use metaphors’, ‘be
ambiguous or vague.’
e. Do not perform FTA
It is Brown and Levinson’s final strategy. Not to perform FTA is chosen if a
speaker is afraid of threatening an addressee. It means that he/she prefers to
be speechless. And there is nothing much to discuss about saying nothing.
After learning Brown and Levinson’s strategies at a glance, I would like to
compare the application of Brown and Levinson’s theory of politeness in
cross-cultural context with Indonesian. I want to use two cases, namely in
responding a compliment and making a request in the following examples.
In responding a compliment
It is very common in English to respond a compliment from someone else is
by saying ‘Thank you’. Or in other words if someone is complimented he/she
will tend to receive the compliment instead of denying it. For example:
A: ‘You look very beautiful!’
B: ‘Really? Well, thank you.’
It has been very common to say ‘thank you’ for responding a compliment. It
does not have any hidden meaning that means boastful. According to Brown
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and Levinson’s theory such answer is considered negative politeness since the
speaker does not apply face threatening act to the addressee.
On the contrary, in Indonesian context if someone receives a
compliment he/she tend to be modest or denying the compliment. Look at
the example 4
A: ‘Kamu cantik sekali dengan gaun itu.’
(You look very attractive with that dress)
B: ‘Ah kamu bisa saja, wajah pas-pasan begini dibilang cantik.’
(You’re kidding, I’m not beautiful)
Based on Example 4 we can actually acknowledge that B (the addressee)
is actually beautiful. But she does not want to acknowledge it. And the
addresser (A) did mean to say that she is beautiful. In Indonesian context,
such scene or conversation is very common. One who receives a compliment
tends to be modest or even sometimes he/she vilifies himself/herself. But this
is the way Indonesian people respond to compliments. It is intended to be
polite toward the speaker who compliment him/her. In this case Brown and
Levinson’s theory is not applicable.
In making requests
In requesting someone else to do something it is different in cross-cultural
context. In English context (particularly) and in western societies’ context
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(generally) people most likely use certain strategy to request someone else to
do something. They tend to use indirect language.
A: ‘Would you mind opening the door for me, please?’
B: ‘Absolutely not.’
In Example 5 the speaker uses would you mind instead of direct expression such
as Open the door! It is because the speaker does not want to threaten the
addressee’s face. He tends to use positive politeness.
It is different from Indonesian. In Indonesian most of requests are performed
in direct sentence. Let’s have a look at the following example:
‘Tolong bukakan pintu!’
(Please open the door)
It is very rare in Indonesian we use indirect sentence to make a request. It will
become unfamiliar to Indonesian if they should say in indirect sentence like:
‘Would you please not to smoke?’ Literally, if it is translated into Indonesian will be:
‘Maukah anda tidak merokok?’. The sentence will be very unfamiliar for
Indonesian. Even it will be misinterpreted by hearer to quit smoking. They
never make or receive requests in such a way. So, if such request is interpreted
into Indonesian will be: ‘Please do not smoke.’ Or ‘Mohon tidak merokok’. It is the
most common request.
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Based on the analysis I could draw some conclusions that:
- Power, (social) distance and imposition determine the strategy of applying
politeness within an interaction with people. The greater the distance and
the imposition, the lesser intimation between the participants.
- Social value for Indonesian society seems to be more forwarded than
individual one. Moreover, one thing that might make a difference between
the application of theory of politeness in Indonesia and in western societies
is that Indonesian society has been accustomed to be helpful and social to
each other. So when one need a help he/she will be willing to help without
any feelings of being threatened.
- Brown and Levinson’s theory of politeness tend to use face threatening
act. In the sense that they are too afraid of being refused by someone else.
And their theory could not be guaranteed to be applicable in other nations
or other societies. Because every society has their own value or
measurement and concept of politeness. We can not make a judgement
that Indonesian people or society is more polite than British, and on the
contrary wise. Or in a larger scale, we can not judge that western people
are more polite than Asian people. This is not a parameter or measurement
to measure the politeness or impoliteness in different cultures and
societies. I think it is more appropriate to say that politeness will merely be
mostly acceptable where it comes from.
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Brown, P. & Levinson, S.C. (1987) Politeness: some universals in language usage.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Coulmas, F. (1997). The Handbook of Sociolinguistics. Oxford: Blackwell
Davies, B. Discourse Analysis Lecture: Lecture 10. Lectured on 2 November
Grundy, P. (2000). Doing Pragmatics (Second Edition). London: Arnold
Leech, G.N. (1983). Principles of Pragmatics. New York: Longman.
Thomas, J. (1995). Meaning in Interaction: An Introduction to Pragmatics. London:
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