Department of Linguistics & English Language, Lancaster University


The strategy in an impoliteness strategy

What do I mean by strategy? I take strategies to be ways of getting things done in interaction that are conventional for a particular community. Impoliteness strategies regularly occur in specific contexts, and those specific contexts are associated with offence. Calling somebody names, such as "you bastard", is not simply what a speaker does; it is recognised in a particular community as something that routinely causes offence.

Of course, not every strategy is equally frequent and well-known as a routine. Some, to use Karen Tracy's (2008) term, are "context-spanning" – they have a particular impoliteness value across a range of contexts, whilst others are much more restricted. For example, "you fucking cunt" is likely to be highly offensive across a wider range of contexts than "you bastard", though not necessarily all contexts (I have examples in my data where it is used in the context of friendly banter).

Two warnings about strategies need to be issued early:

  1. They are relatively abstract. As we have seen, "Call the other names" is an impoliteness strategy that could have a number of different concrete linguistic realizations. Brown and Levinson (1987), working on politeness, recognised two different degrees of abstraction: "superstrategies", and the more abstract end, and "output strategies", at the less abstract end.
  2. Strategies are not hotwired to impoliteness effects. The most heinous crime when performing an analysis of impoliteness strategies, or politeness for that matter, is to simply count them up on the assumption that if the strategy is there, it necessarily is performing impoliteness. Calling somebody names, for example, could be for the purpose of banter and thus a matter of cementing solidarity, not causing offence.

A taxonomy of impoliteness strategies

The impoliteness strategies proposed in Culpeper (1996: 356-7, and slightly revised in 2005), which to an extent mirror the politeness strategies of Brown and Levinson (1987), are as follows (impoliteness superstrategies are in small caps and output strategies are in italics):

[N.B. The terms "positive" and "negative" have nothing to do with being good and bad, but, in the world of Brown and Levinson, relate to, respectively, the positive values claimed by the participant, and the wish not to be imposed upon]:

BALD-ON-RECORD IMPOLITENESS: the FTA is performed in a direct, clear, unambiguous and concise way in circumstances where face is not irrelevant or minimized.

POSITIVE IMPOLITENESS: the use of strategies designed to damage the addressee’s positive face wants, e.g. Ignore, snub the other - fail to acknowledge the other's presence. Exclude the other from an activity. Disassociate from the other - for example, deny association or common ground with the other; avoid sitting together. Be disinterested, unconcerned, unsympathetic. Use inappropriate identity markers - for example, use title and surname when a close relationship pertains, or a nickname when a distant relationship pertains. Use obscure or secretive language - for example, mystify the other with jargon, or use a code known to others in the group, but not the target. Seek disagreement - select a sensitive topic. Make the other feel uncomfortable - for example, do not avoid silence, joke, or use small talk. Use taboo words - swear, or use abusive or profane language. Call the other names - use derogatory nominations.

NEGATIVE IMPOLITENESS: the use of strategies designed to damage the addressee’s negative face wants, e.g. Frighten - instill a belief that action detrimental to the other will occur. Condescend, scorn or ridicule - emphasize your relative power. Be contemptuous. Do not treat the other seriously. Belittle the other (e.g. use diminutives). Invade the other's space - literally (e.g. position yourself closer to the other than the relationship permits) or metaphorically (e.g. ask for or speak about information which is too intimate given the relationship). Explicitly associate the other with a negative aspect - personalize, use the pronouns 'I' and 'you'. Put the other's indebtedness on record. Violate the structure of conversation – interrupt.

OFF-RECORD IMPOLITENESS: the FTA is performed by means of an implicature but in such a way that one attributable intention clearly outweighs any others.

WITHHOLD POLITENESS: the absence of politeness work where it would be expected. For example, failing to thank somebody for a present may be taken as deliberate impoliteness.

IMPOLITENESS META-STRATEGY: SARCASM OR MOCK POLITENESS: the FTA is performed with the use of politeness strategies that are obviously insincere, and thus remain surface realisations.

Are the impoliteness strategies valid?

The impoliteness output strategies outlined in Culpeper (1996) seem to have stood the test of time, the same basic set having been applied in a number of studies. However, that does not prove that they are routine, that they are strategies that are known within particular communities. So, in the work for my book (Culpeper 2011: chapter 3) I considered meta-pragmatic impoliteness commentaries – people talking or writing about ways in which they or others are impolite. More specifically, I analysed manuals on and parodies of rudeness. These represent communities talking about strategies which they recognise and which have conventional status.

Let's look at Catherine Rondina and Dan Workman's (2005) Rudeness: Deal with it if you please, a serious manual. Two lists of "don'ts" are given (p.4 and p.19). They include non-verbal behaviours such as burping. The more language-based ones are listed below, followed by an impoliteness output strategy classification in square brackets:

  • Insulting someone to their face. [Positive impoliteness: Call the other names]
  • Embarrass or insult others. [Positive impoliteness: Make the other feel uncomfortable. Call the other names]
  • Avoiding or ignoring someone. [Positive impoliteness: Ignore, snub the other]
  • Don't use crude language. [Positive impoliteness: Use taboo words]
  • Talking back to your parents or teachers. [Negative impoliteness: Condescend, scorn or ridicule]
  • Interrupt when someone is speaking. [Negative impoliteness: Violate the structure of conversation]
  • Forgetting to say "please" or "thank you." [Withhold politeness]

This manual is designed for the North American context. However, even from my British cultural perspective, I have no difficulty at all in recognising these “rules”. What emerges, then, maps quite well onto the set of impoliteness strategies outlined above.

You will have observed that I have in the last two paragraphs largely been discussing the validity of the output strategies. The superstrategies have proved far more problematic (identifying clear, mutually exclusive examples has been particularly challenging).

Directness and impoliteness

In Brown and Levinson’s framework (1987), the superstrategies are not only ordered according to directness (bald on record being most direct), but also associated with different degrees of face threat, such that Bald-on-record is selected when face threat is small and Don’t do the FTA when it is large. In constructing my own models of impoliteness, I have never made any claims about correlation with offence.

From a theoretical point of view, one can point to two contradictory hypotheses. From Brown and Levinson (1987), we could hypothesise that the more directly the impoliteness is triggered the more offence is taken (e.g. "Leave" is predicted to be more offensive than "would you mind leaving?"). From Leech (1983: 108), we could hypothesize the opposite. This may sound implausible, but Leech is talking about the expression of impolite beliefs. To illustrate, the Republican presidential candidate John McCain responded to his wife when she teased him about his thinning hair in front of reporters: "At least I don’t plaster on make-up like a trollop, you cunt" (The Week 12/07/08). The utterance "At least I don’t plaster on make-up like a trollop" flouts the Maxim of Relation: it is not the most relevant way of putting it (compare with the more direct "you plaster make-up on like a trollop"). But the inference that it is she who plasters on make-up like a trollop can clearly be drawn.

Which hypothesis is right? There are two studies worth mentioning; neither are conclusive, but both suggest that things are more complex. The study reported in Culpeper (2011: Chapter 5) suggests that impoliteness that is relatively direct and impoliteness that is relatively indirect were both inclined to produce more offence. Viejobueno et al. (2008; this is largely based on Viejobueno 2005) also reveals a similarly mixed picture, and, moreover, points to differences depending on whether the relationship between participants is close or distant.

From impoliteness strategies to impoliteness triggers

There is an alternative way of conceiving of impoliteness strategies, and it is one that focuses much more on the idea that a strategy involves something that is routine, that is a known regularity within a particular community, rather than an abstract way of getting something done. To make this alternative distinct, I use the term "trigger" rather than strategy. Impoliteness triggers are the forms or formulae associated with impoliteness.