Department of Linguistics & English Language, Lancaster University


The context that matters

Nobody disputes the fact that the context in which you say something has an effect on how people understand it. Smiling may seem a straightforwardly nice thing to do, but imagine that that is your response to a friend who has announced a personal tragedy. In Concepts , I outlined the notions of face and norms which are helpful in explaining impoliteness. But it is not the case that all aspects of face and all kinds of norms are relevant all the time - our minds would rapidly experience overload! It is more likely, as research in cognition demonstrates, that particular face aspects or norm are activated in the mind for a particular encounter. Pe ople use memories of similar situations to help organise and make sense of the new situational encounters, including encounters with potentially impolite words in particular situations.

What specifically comes to mind will be influenced by:

  1. The situational context. For example, i n many encounters the setting you see (e.g. an office, a party, the family dinner table) and the nature of participants in it raises expectations of certain norms before a word has been spoken. In fact, as has been demonstrated in research on aggression, some contexts are likely to prime expectations that what will be said will be impolite (consider a speaker who is male, a "hoodie" and with tattoos and a skinhead hairstyle and one who is female and wearing glasses).
  2. How recently it was last activated in the mind. For example, having recently experienced unfair criticisms of your appearance, you would be much more likely to interpret comments on your appearance as impolite criticisms.
  3. The frequency with which it has been activated in the past. For example, if you regular ly experience unfair criticisms of your appearance, you would be much more likely to interpret comments on your appearance as impolite criticisms.

The context is also crucial in influencing the degree of suffering you experience as a result of impoliteness. Particular components of face (how your identity is handled by others) are primed in particular contexts. For example, when asking my bank manager for a further overdraft I wish to be seen as trustworthy; when at work I wish to be seen as competent; when seeking the help of a doctor I wish to be seen as ill (implications to the contrary would make me feel a fraud). And context may prime face components that are highly emotionally sensitive or not. For example, comments on my work target a face-sensitive area but comments on my shoes do not (of course, for somebody who is fashion conscious they would!). Moreover, context may affect the extent of perceived face exposure. Ensconced in the enclosure of a "portaloo" in Leicester Square ( London ) no face is lost on account of my state of undress. Face is not an issue if it has no exposure. But if the sides of the portaloo fell away revealing me to the stares of passers-by, I would suffer acute embarrassment, as I became aware that I was exposed to so many. We can hypothesise that the potential for face loss is related to the degree of sensitivity of the face component at issue and also the perceived degree of exposure, as illustrated in this Figure.

The potential for face loss

Diagram illustrating The potential for face loss  

Power and legitimation

What English people tend to react to and label as impoliteness are abuses of power, that is, cases where a person or group exerts power over another person or group beyond what is considered legitimate. If you look at the page Terms, you will see that patronising was the most frequent label that my informants used to describe events in which they had been offended. People tend to take offence when the speaker adopts a position of superiority to which others feel they are not entitled. In another study, power relations turned out to be highly influential in determining judgements of impoliteness. Asking someone to do something in a normal way is not considered impolite at all when high-power speakers command relatively low-power addressees. But when low-power speakers command high-power addressees, the mere fact of commanding someone who has relatively high power in a context where one clearly has no special right to do so is enough to lead to the evaluation of strong impoliteness (e.g. an employee commanding a boss, a recruit a sergeant, a defendant a judge).

Legitimising power structures are often institutionalised. The functions of impoliteness here do not pertain to the level of the individual but the dominant group behind the institution: they serve collective intentions, which an individual may be less than fully conscious of. I focused on two specific functions of institutional impoliteness. One is institutional mortification, which promotes activities with the function of "killing" some aspect of a person's self so that it can be replaced with an approved self (this happens, for example, in army recruit training). The other is institutional exploitation, which refers to institutions, especially those relating to the media, which promote activities with the function of attacking some aspect of a person's face or sociality rights in order to, for example, entertain others (e.g. exploitative television shows).

The context of talk

Once interaction -- including talk -- starts that interaction itself becomes a norm against which any potential impoliteness works. In classic research on norms, Sherif (1936) conducted a set of experiments which showed that people use norms as a "frame of reference. Moreover, he showed that when people made perceptual judgements alone in a context free from the influence of previously established norms (the judgement of light movement in a darkened room), their own judgements rapidly became the norm -- the frame of reference. However, when they were in the same context but in a group, diverse individual assessments (i.e. judgements articulated in talk) converged to become a common assessment, and people used that as the norm. Thus, the norm emerged from the interaction between group members, and once created acquired a life of its own.

People can create certain politeness or impoliteness thresholds that can be matched or mismatched. Moreover, as the interaction progresses so the (im)politeness threshold is being continually up-dated. Let us illustrate this through an example.

[Graffiti dialogue written on a Lancaster University Library desk; from the handwriting it seems to be the case that each line has a different author. The numbering is mine.]

(1) Good luck if you are revising for your exams!

(2) R U fucking gay? Is U Mom a fucking WHORE?


There is no strong expectation of a high politeness threshold within graffiti dialogues. What happens here is that the first turn engineers a high politeness threshold through performing an altruistic act of good wishes. The fact that such an act is not typical of graffiti makes it all the more salient in this context. The following turn strikingly violates that politeness threshold, deploying two intensified conventionally impolite formulae (challenging rhetorical questions). Perhaps it is also worth noting that the first of these attacks the first writer's masculinity. There is, in fact, no evidence as to the gender of the first writer. The second writer simply seems to be targeting a stereotypical association between politeness and femininity. Finally, the third writer responds with an intensified conventional insult. Readers may agree with me that this third turn seems far less impolite than the second. Of course, they deploy different impoliteness formulae intensified in different ways, and this may account for some of the difference. But I would argue that in addition the (im)politeness threshold has been reset by the second writer at a much lower negative value.

The "reciprocity norm" (Gouldner 1960) proposes that behaviour, prosocial, antisocial or of some other kind, should be matched - it is a kind of "tit-for-tat" prescription. Setting the (im)politeness threshold at a particular point constrains the interlocutor to match it. Reciprocal polite "thank yous", sometimes repeating themselves over several exchanges, are not uncommon in British culture. Conversely, reciprocal impolite exchanges are also not uncommon. People tend not to "turn the other cheek", but to retaliate in kind in British and North American cultures, as research on aggression has demonstrated. The reciprocity norm also has implications for the perception of impoliteness, as illustrated in the graffiti example above. If the threshold is set high on a scale of politeness, behaviour which seems impolite is likely to be perceived as violating the reciprocity norm, and thus is likely to be taken as even more impolite. If the threshold is set low on a scale of impoliteness, then behaviour which seems impolite is likely to be perceived as upholding the reciprocity norm, and thus is likely to be taken as less impolite.

Banter and contextual neutralisation

I once turned up at a party at 7.00pm, only to discover the party had started at 17.00hrs and had almost finished. Upon telling the host, a friend, the reason for my mistake, he replied "You silly bugger". He used a conventionally impolite insult. But of course I did not take offence - this was friendly banter. Banter involves mock or non-genuine impoliteness, as does some types of teasing and humour. The important thing is to recognize that it is indeed non-genuine. To do this mock impoliteness relies on some degree of mismatch between the conventionally impolite formulae used and the context (e.g. "you silly bugger" vs. friendly relations), along with additional signals (e.g. laughter, smiling) that the impoliteness is not genuine. In addition, mock impoliteness, especially banter, is often characterized be ritualistic qualities, and can involve competitive creativity. In British culture, a good example is "impoliteness" in football crowds. The point of these is more about reinforcing solidarity amongst team-supporters than causing personal offence. Football chants are by their very nature creative (they impose a metrical form on the insult), and one team's supporters tries to out-do the other team's supporters in the creativity of their insults.

If people know it is a bantering game, mock impoliteness should not cause offence. Similarly, if you are an army recruit, you will probably know that impoliteness is part of the training philosophy and so it should not cause offence. However, the neutralisation of impoliteness by any context is difficult to achieve. The main reason for this is that the context in many cases is likely to be overwhelmed by the salience of impoliteness behaviours. Research in social cognition would suggest that, people do not careful attend to contextual reasons why they should not take offence; they are more likely to focus on the impolite language or action and, with little thought, take offence.