Department of Linguistics & English Language, Lancaster University


Impoliteness as an emotional reflex

It is difficult to underestimate the importance of emotions when considering impoliteness. People get upset by impoliteness, and that upset is the emotional side of impoliteness. I write "emotional side" because displaying an emotion such as embarrassment, hurt, contempt or anger has nothing in itself to do with impoliteness. Rather all impoliteness has emotional consequences for at least one participant, typically the target, but often the producer of impoliteness too (here I will generally focus on the target). For example, somebody, perhaps frustrated by a situation, may display great contempt for or anger at somebody else and say something to them which is designed to be impolite; in doing so may be judged by the target to have acted in an inappropriate and unfair way, causing them an emotional reaction such as annoyance, anger and/or shock.

The nature of emotions has been poorly understood until very recently. The traditional approach to human emotion considered emotional displays as a reflex of a physiological state (e.g. disgust induced by a foul smell) (e.g. Darwin 1872). Traditional research on aggression with a biological emphasis was similar, viewing aggression as a basic human instinct with genetically predetermined expressions of emotion, as one would find in animals (e.g. growling as a threatening gesture) (e.g. Morris 1967). More recently, evolutionary social psychology has developed this view. However, whilst biological theories account for the bodily reactions that accompany some emotions, theories based purely on instinct are not sufficient as explanations of aggression, or of impoliteness for that matter. For example, people can issue sinisterly cold impolite threats or take offence but not show it: in both cases they control their emotional displays on the basis of what happened, why it happened, how angry they feel, the future courses of action they decide to pursue, etc.. This process of interpretation or appraisal may be more thoughtful or more impulsive, but it happens and it influences emotional displays. To take Erving Goffman's example, if we stub a toe in a nursery school, we don't generally let rip with an automatic stream of expletives, but take the time to moderate the expression of our emotional pain. A model of impoliteness needs to link language, situations, judgements of impoliteness and the specific emotions associated with impoliteness. The process of appraisal is crucial: how else will banter be recognised as banter, as opposed to "real" impoliteness?

Impoliteness and its emotions

What I want to consider here is the kind (or kinds) of emotion impoliteness is associated with, and whether different kinds of impoliteness are associated with different kinds of emotional response.

In Concepts, I discussed morality in the context of social norms. I pointed out that the management of people's face sensitivities also involves norms (especially reciprocity) and matters of morality. Morality is linked to a set of emotions - moral emotions. Haidt (2003: 855; see also Rozin et al. 1999) divides negative moral emotions into two groups:

  1. "Other-condemning" emotions: anger, disgust and contempt, and
  2. "Self-conscious" emotions: embarrassment, shame and guilt.

I predicted that impoliteness violations of sociality rights are more likely to trigger other-condemning emotions, whilst violations of face are more likely to trigger self-conscious emotions (though face-violations could additionally involve other-condemning emotions if the face-attack is considered unfair).

In a 100 diary-type reports of impoliteness events, I asked informants to describe their feelings, and then I analysed the emotion labels they used . For events involving face loss, t he bulk of the emotion labels, 70%, belonged to the general emotion category "sadness", a self-conscious emotion, and contained labels such as embarrassed , humiliated , stupid , hurt and upset . Thus the first part of the prediction was supported. However, for events involving sociality rights, "sadness" is still the most densely populated category, accounting for 48.6%. Nevertheless, the dominance of this category is much less. In contrast, we see a dramatic increase in the general emotion category "anger", which now accounts for 27% (for face loss events, it had accounted for only 14.3% of the labels), and contained labels such as angry and annoyed .

Overall, it seems to be the case that self-conscious emotions dominate impoliteness events. However, this is most true of events involving face and least true of events involving social rights, where "anger", an other-condemning emotion, takes on increased importance. Rights have more to do with injustices being done that involve others and have weaker implications for the self.