Department of Linguistics & English Language, Lancaster University

Definitions of Impoliteness

Definitions from the academic literature

The following definitions are all taken from the linguistic pragmatics literature (full references can be found in the bibliography):

The lowest common denominator [underlying definitions of impoliteness in Bousfield and Locher 2008] can be summarized like this: Impoliteness is behaviour that is face-aggravating in a particular context. (Locher and Bousfield 2008: 3)

[rude behaviour] does not utilise politeness strategies where they would be expected, in such a way that the utterance can only almost plausibly be interpreted as intentionally and negatively confrontational. (Lakoff 1989: 103)

[...] rudeness is defined as a face threatening act (FTA -- or feature of an FTA such as intonation -- which violates a socially sanctioned norm of interaction of the social context in which it occurs. (Beebe 1995:159)

[...] impoliteness, communicative strategies designed to attack face, and thereby cause social conflict and disharmony [...] (Culpeper et al. 2003: 1546)

Impoliteness comes about when: (1) the speaker communicates face-attack intentionally, or (2) the hearer perceives and/or constructs behaviour as intentionally face-attacking, or a combination of (1) and (2). (Culpeper 2005a: 38)

[...] marked rudeness or rudeness proper occurs when the expression used is not conventionalised relative to the context of occurrence; following recognition of the speaker's face-threatening intention by the hearer, marked rudeness threatens the addressee's face [...] impoliteness occurs when the expression used is not conventionalised relative to the context of occurrence; it threatens the addressee's face [...] but no face-threatening intention is attributed to the speaker by the hearer. (Terkourafi 2008: 70)

[...] impoliteness constitutes the communication of intentionally gratuitous and conflictive verbal face-threatening acts (FTAs) which are purposefully delivered: (1) unmitigated, in contexts where mitigation is required, and/or, (2) with deliberate aggression, that is, with the face threat exacerbated, 'boosted', or maximised in some way to heighten the face damage inflicted. (Bousfield 2008: 72)

[...] verbal impoliteness [is] linguistic behaviour assessed by the hearer as threatening her or his face or social identity, and infringing the norms of appropriate behaviour that prevail in particular context and among particular interlocutors, whether intentionally or not" (Holmes et al 2008: 196)

Rudeness is a kind of prototypically non-cooperative or competitive communicative behaviour which destabilises the personal relationships of the interacting individuals [...] creates all maintains an emotional atmosphere of mutual reverence and antipathy, which primarily serves egocentric interests [...] (Kienpointner 1997: 259; see also Kienpointner 2008)

The following definitions can be found in the social psychology literature, dealing with "aggression", "social harm" or "hurt" - all of which overlap with impoliteness.

Aggression may be defined as any form of behaviour directed towards the goal of harming or injuring another living being who is motivated to avoid such treatment. (Baron and Richardson 1994: 37; original emphasis)

Communicative aggression is defined as any recurring set of messages that function to impair a person's enduring preferred self image [...] (Dailey et al. 2007: 303; original emphasis).

[Social harm involves] damage to the social identity of target persons and a lowering of their power or status. Social harm may be imposed by insults, reproaches, sarcasm, and various types of impolite behaviour. (Tedeschi and Felson 1994: 171)

People feel hurt when they believe someone said or did something that caused them emotional pain. (Vangelisti 2007: 122).

Some comments on defining impoliteness

Defining impoliteness is a real challenge. An important reason for this is that although some verbal behaviours are typically impolite, they will not always be impolite - it depends on the situation. To take an extreme example, shouting and using potentially offensive language to an older person living in a quiet cul-de-sac might be taken as extremely impolite, but the same behaviour in the midst of a football crowd might not be taken as impolite at all. Impoliteness is very much in the eye of the beholder, that is, the mind's eye. It depends on how you perceive what is said and how it relates to the situation.

The impoliteness definitions from the academic literature do have some common features:

  • A number of them referred to "face", "preferred self-image" or "social identity". Some impolite behaviours are very much about damaging somebody's identity. The key case here concerns insults, which typically target somebody's appearance, age, gender, race, etc.
  • Not all definitions revolve around identity. Some flag up the importance of social norms and rights. Take the case of shouting, as mentioned above. The important issue here is whether it is normal, appropriate or right to do something in a particular situation. Note that there is overlap with the above item: damaging somebody's identity with an insult often breaks a social norm or right to be treated with respect, etc..
  • A number of definitions mention intentionality, i.e. whether the person who is impolite intended to offend the target. But intentionality carries a bunch of problems with it. Foremost is the fact that we can never know for sure whether someone intended something, as we have no direct access to their thoughts. Having said that, people use indirect evidence to arrive at the conclusion that somebody probably had such an intention, and research has demonstrated that an understanding that something was intentional makes it worse.
  • A few definitions emphasise emotional aspects. Impoliteness always involves emotional consequences for the target (victim). This should be a central part of any definition of impoliteness. Interestingly, the legal definition of antisocial behaviour in the U.K. revolves around consequences for the target - antisocial behaviour involves somebody acting " in a manner that caused or was likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress" (Crime and Disorder Act 1998, 1.1).

My definition of impoliteness, weaving these features together, is as follows:

Impoliteness is a negative attitude towards specific behaviours occurring in specific contexts. It is sustained by expectations, desires and /or beliefs about social organisation, including, in particular, how one person's or group's identities are mediated by others in interaction. Situated behaviours are viewed negatively when they conflict with how one expects them to be, how one wants them to be and/or how one thinks they ought to be. Such behaviours always have or are presumed to have emotional consequences for at least one participant, that is, they cause or are presumed to cause offence. Various factors can exacerbate how offensive an impolite behaviour is taken to be, including for example whether one understands a behaviour to be strongly intentional or not.

More flesh can be put on this, and I will do so in the various pages of this website, but particularly in Concepts and Emotions. Also, under Forms I will pinpoint what those certain behaviours typically are, at least as far as British culture is concerned.