Politeness Principle by Robin Lakoff

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Table of Contents

  • Don't Impose
  • Give Option
  • Make Audience Feel Good

Politeness as defined by Robin Lakoff is forms of behaviour that have been developed in order to reduce friction in personal interaction. In her book ‘The Logic of Politeness,' Lakoff argues that politeness governs conversation and that there are specific rules which should be followed to ensure that a conversation is cooperative and successful. These ‘rules' are as follows:

  1. Don't impose
  2. Give options or deference
  3. Make your receiver feel good

When we speak, not only are we concerned with the information that is being conveyed, but with the effect our words are causing towards our interlocutors. Your message might be clear but delivering it in an inappropriate or impolite manner may cause misunderstanding. Therefore, to avoid conflict, politeness is a crucial point in human interaction in order to sustain good relationships.

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Don't Impose

This rule looks at our distance and formality. We must look at how close we are with the person we are talking to. This may be in terms of our age, social status, occupation, family relation or many other things. If there is a large disparity in the distance then this rule is applied. We shall not ask about their personal affairs nor shall we disclose our own personal affairs. With regards to formality, usually we will use formal language to ensure that status distinctions are kept. This can be implemented with use of title and last name as well as adopting the passive voice rather than the active.

Give Option

In this maxim, Lakoff stresses the point that the speaker should not take complete control of the conversation. The speaker gives the addressee options to express uncertainty over the conversation. It also is important to allow our interlocutors to either refuse or accept an idea. Lakoff says that the speaker knows what he wants, but thinks it is important to let the addressee choose for themselves. In order to be polite, we should not insist on the way forward. This can be done by using vague language or open ended questions that allow the interlocutor to choose their response, phrases such as "It's up to you." Or "Do you want to go first?" It is also characterised by pauses and fillers ‘er' ‘um' ‘ah' that allow the addressee time to speak. This Maxim highlights that the opinion of the interlocutor is valued and should always be taken into account.

Make Audience Feel Good

This maxim is concerned with the mutual trust and friendship between the speaker and the listener. It is important to make the interlocutor feel appreciated for who they are and that conversation is balanced. One can do this by using first names or nicknames which gives the impression of an informal relationship between speaker and addressee phrases such as "What would I do without you?" One must also be friendly to their interlocutor as it is a sign of courtesy. This is achieved by using inclusive pronouns such as "we" and "us."

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