Department of Linguistics & English Language, Lancaster University


Affective impoliteness

All impoliteness has the general function of reinforcing or opposing specific identities, interpersonal relationships, social norms and/or ideologies. However, one can identify more specific functions. Affective impoliteness can simply involve the unrestrained display of emotion in contexts where it is prohibited or not normal (e.g. laughter during a funeral). As discussed in Emotions, there are times when the expression of emotion is more impulsive, more reflexive and times when it is more strategic, more instrumental. More instrumental affective impoliteness involves the targeted display of heightened emotion, typically anger, with the implication that the target is to blame for producing that negative emotional state.

Coercive impoliteness

Coercive impoliteness seeks a realignment of values between the producer and the target such that the producer of the impoliteness benefits or has their current benefits reinforced or protected. Those benefits could be material (e.g. impoliteness used to force somebody to give you something), or symbolic (e.g. an impolite insult to reduce somebody else's value and thereby increase one's own). Coercive impoliteness is more likely to occur in situations where there is an imbalance of social structural power (because the more powerful participant, e.g. a parent, a boss, is less threatened by retribution), though it can also be used in more equal relationships to engineer a gain in social power.

Coercive impoliteness can itself be relatively costly or cheap means of achieving something. Just as robbery is not in the eyes of many an acceptable way of gaining money, so impolite coercion is often not seen as an acceptable way of achieving a realignments of values. Furthermore, coercive impoliteness is risky in that it may achieve a beneficial realignment of values in the short-term, but there is a significant risk of the future cost of the target retaliating. Having said that, as highlighted in Cultures and Contexts , in some cultural or institutional contexts impoliteness is considered "ok" or is even positively valued.

Entertaining impoliteness

Entertaining impoliteness involves entertainment at the expense of the target (or potential target) of the impoliteness, and is thus always exploitative to a degree. As with the other functional kinds of impoliteness it involves a victim or at least a potential victim. But it is not the case that the target is always aware of the impoliteness, that the participants who are entertained are aware of who the target is, or even that the target is a "real" identity. In contexts such as graffiti or weblogs the true identity of the target is often not known or uncertain, and in the case of literary fiction the targets are entirely fictional. What is important, however, is that others, aside from the target, can understand the probable impoliteness effects for the target. Without this it would not be entertaining impoliteness. The fact that people can be entertained by symbolic violations to identities and social rights, the stuff of impoliteness, is not surprising when one remembers that people were entertained by gladiatorial shows and are still entertained by boxing matches and rugby. It is also worth remembering that impoliteness can be creative and complex, something which can strengthen the entertainment (see Myths, for a discussion of creativity).