Department of Linguistics & English Language, Lancaster University


Concepts and how they can help

The point of talking about concepts in relation to impoliteness is to help give us a handle on what it is, how it works and how to analyse it. There is, unfortunately, no single concept that will do everything for us. Instead, there are a bunch of concepts which, although developed for other things, are clearly relevant to impoliteness. I briefly outline these concepts below, starting, roughly speaking, from the more specific and working towards the more general. All of these concepts overlap to some degree.


What is face ? Notions such as reputation, prestige, and self-esteem, all involve an element of face. The English term is perhaps most commonly used in the idiom 'losing face', meaning that one's public image suffers some damage, usually resulting in emotional upset. Face is a notion that can help us understand how particular impoliteness events work.

Erving Goffman, an American social psychologist, defines face like this:

the positive social value a person effectively claims for himself by the line others assume he has taken during a particular contact. Face is an image of self delineated in terms of approved social attributes. (1967: 5)

Essentially, this involves the idea that we like other people to have positive thoughts about us. Note that it is not just the positive values that you yourself want to be associated with, but what you can claim about yourself from what others assume about you - much more complicated! The point is that how you feel about yourself is dependent on how others feel about you. Hence, when you lose face you feel bad about how you are seen in other people's eyes.

One particular difficulty with the concept of face is that we do not all have the same idea as to what counts as a positive value. For example, loud and aggressive behaviour can be highly valued in one group but not in another. I will return to this issue in the webpage Culture.

Experiential norms

Repeated experience of social situations may lead one to expect certain kinds of interaction to happen, to be able to hypothesize what others' expectations are and to know how to meet them - or, in the case of impoliteness, to break them. Consider this event. When I was last in Budapest, I joined a tour bus. The bus made frequent stops at particular sites at each of which we would all get off, and then, having looked around, get back on. Each time we boarded the bus we sat in the same places, even though there was no apparent rule that we should do so. Towards the end of the tour, a colleague wished to speak to me about a future collaboration, and suggested that I sat next to him. I did so, but this meant breaking the routine which had established the seat next to my colleague as somebody else's. Hence, I had to apologise to that person and offer them my seat as an alternative, in order to counterbalance the potential offence. Without this, my actions could have been deemed impolite.

Opp (1982) argues that regular behaviours develop into expectations, and those expectations give people a sense of certainty, and it is this certainty that has positive value. People generally like to know what will happen next, a point also made forcefully by researchers in social cognition. Additionally, in the area of human relations, Kellerman and Reynolds (1990: 14), investigating the link between expectations and attraction, state that deviations from expectations are "generally judged negatively". It is important to note, however, that this is a claim about general expectations. In interaction, things are more complicated, as the interaction can itself become a norm. Furthermore, it is clearly not the case that all violations of expectations are negative: one can be pleasantly surprised! The point is that social choices have social implications: choosing a different seat on the tour bus was not simply breaking a routine but it also impacted on the choices others could make. Here, we come into contact with social norms and rights.

Social norms and rights

Some regularities of behaviour overlap with social norms. During the day of the tour, mentioned in the previous section, it became very hot and so I took off my coat. People regularly de-vest themselves when the temperature goes up, and we expect them to do so, but this is not a social norm (merely a regular experience - an experiential norm). In fact, the seating arrangement on the tour bus was more than an experiential regularity with the comfortable certainty that that affords. Choosing one's usual seat had become the "right" thing for people in the group to do and we all collaborated in doing it. Anderson (2000: 17) defines a social norm as "a standard of behaviour shared by a social group, commonly understood by its members as authoritative or obligatory for them". Anderson is drawing on Margaret Gilbert's (1989) book On Social Facts . Gilbert's argument is that belonging to a social group is part and parcel of accepting the norms that constitute it, and also making it clear to others that you are willing to accept them. She notes that nonconforming behaviour, as indeed impoliteness usually is, provokes strong reactions because it raises questions of relationships to others and also what kind of behaviour is appropriate given those relationships. Sitting in one's usual seat on the tour bus demonstrates that one accepts the norm that had been established for seating; conversely, sitting in the "wrong" place not only flouts that norm but demonstrates a disregard for the group.

Some social norms may develop parallel rules of behaviour which are reinforced by social sanctions. Thus, throwing litter on the floor breaks a social norm; the parallel social rule is 'do not litter'; breaking such rules incurs sanctions (e.g. a fine). Impolite language - that is, abusive, threatening, aggressive language - is often explicitly outlawed by signs displayed in public places (e.g. hospitals, airport check-in desks). Sanctions are underpinned by social institutions and structures (e.g. a legal system) and enforced by those in power. Also, if social norms become internalised by members of society, sanctions can take the form of disapproval from others or guilt emanating from oneself. Thus, they take on a moral dimension.

Note that social norms are sensitive to context. There are some situations in which impolite behaviours are unrestricted and licensed. Often, such situations are characterized by a huge power imbalance, as might be the case in army recruit training. But not necessarily so: Harris (2001), for example, describes the sanctioned impoliteness that takes place in the UK's House of Commons, giving Opposition MPs opportunities to attack the Government that they might not have had in other contexts.


It is the obligations associated with social norms that underlie their morality. Impoliteness violates social norms of behaviour and leads to a sense of moral outrage. T here are also social norms to do with how face (see above) is managed in interaction. The idea of reciprocity is key. A threat would lead to a reciprocal counter-threat, and thus a speaker has a vested interest in maintaining the hearer's face, since this will enhance the probability of reciprocal support (cf. Goffamn 1967; Brown and Levinson 1987). If someone fails to reciprocate politeness with politeness, it is likely that their actions will be perceived as breaking some implicit social norm, thus giving rise to a sense of unfairness, which is where immorality comes in. In fact, reciprocity also has negative side, as work on aggression has shown the importance of reciprocity in fuelling a conflict spiral. If somebody is verbally attacked (or even if somebody just thinks they have been verbally attacked), people feel justified in retaliating. Moreover, although they may retaliate in kind, that retaliation is perceived to be less aggressive, a matter of fair defence (Brown and Tedeschi 1976).

Moral standards of behaviour arise from internalised social norms. They primarily involve behaviours which have negative consequences for others and about which there is a broad social consensus that they are "wrong" (Tangney et al. 2007: 346). They are linked to moral intentions, moral emotions and moral behaviours (Tangney et al. 2007: 346-7). For example, a child may violate a moral standard in failing to thank somebody for an expensive gift. A parent may experience a tinge of anger or annoyance (a moral emotion), decide to act to rectify the situation (a moral intention), and prod or whisper to the child to remind them (a moral, pro-social behaviour). Perceptions of fairness, and thus morality, are moulded not only by social norms but by broader belief systems or ideologies concerning social organisation.