Face: A Linguistic Framework for Polite Human Interactions

Homo Sapiens, as we know, are built linguistically different and in a way unique from other species. Unlike animals, our way of communicating has more characteristics to it. While other species make instinctive noises, devoid of complexity, human language comprises creativity, ambiguity, and abstruseness. Language is the one trait that sets us apart and politeness is one feature of language usage that paints a picture of how speech reveals human societal conduct, which is apparently absent in animals. 

Politeness is a matter of understanding and acknowledging the feelings of others. In general terms, politeness refers to how speech is put forward to others considering the social statuses of the interactors and their social relationships. Yule explains it as “having to do with ideas like being tactful, modest, and nice to other people”. The concept of politeness varies from culture to culture. It is interrelated with and rooted in the ethnocultural and linguistic properties of the people belonging to a speech community. In countries such as Brazil and Argentina, physical touch and close body contact are appropriate and polite. People who keep their distance would be thought of as unfriendly and cold. However, people in Japan and Korea prefer to keep physical distance while conversing. In the context of India, kissing may not be the most appropriate way of greeting another person for many, instead holding palms together or shaking hands is considered polite. Therefore, it is essential to have a proper understanding of other cultures by making efforts to learn the reasons for their behaviours. 

Understanding politeness goes beyond studying word or sentence meaning; it is considered part of pragmatics, a subfield of linguistics that studies speaker meaning which involves all the possible factors such as context, social rules, and other unspoken factors that provide additional meaning to communication. Politeness is defined in linguistics as “showing awareness of and consideration for another person’s face”. What is this face then? It is an individual’s public self-image. The concept of face was established by Erving Goffman who defines it as “an image of self”, and “the positive social value a person effectively claims for himself by the line others assume he has taken during a particular contact”. This self-image or face is something that everyone possesses and expects others to recognize. In human interactions, one feels the need to have self-respect and to be considerate of others at the same time. 

When someone says something impolite to someone, his or her self-image or face gets threatened. This act is called a face-threatening act in the politeness theory. For example, when someone tells you, “Pass me the salt!”, that person may come off as having a higher social power than you if he, in fact, does not. The use of direct speech here results in committing the face-threatening act. To make one’s request less threatening to someone’s face, the use of indirect speech in the form of a question is often preferred, for example, “Could you pass me the salt?”. This act of lessening the possible threat to someone’s face is called a face-saving act. However, these acts are culture-bound, i.e. using direct speech to get someone to do something may not be treated as face-threatening in some cultures. 

An individual has a negative face and a positive face. A negative face is the need to be isolated and free from control and imposition. Positive face, on the other hand, is the need to be connected with others. How does one threaten the positive face and negative face? It threatens a person’s positive face when one faces disagreement, criticism or has to apologise, for example, by saying things like “Your performance is not satisfactory”. One’s negative face gets threatened when he is being ordered or his privacy is invaded, for example, by saying things like, “You have beautiful nails''. Yes, giving compliments may seem nice but, according to the politeness theory, it threatens the negative face of the hearer by getting unwelcome attention. However, the situation will also determine if such acts are appropriate or threatening for the hearer. 

How do we negotiate communicative situations in order to save ourselves from the possibility of threatening someone’s face? The politeness strategies may help save the face of both the speaker and the hearer. Besides making requests, one strategy for saving one’s face is by using inclusive terms such as ‘we’ and ‘let’s’, for example, in inviting someone, “Let’s go to the movie. We will have lots of fun together”, instead of, “We are having a movie night, you can also join us if you want”. Another effective strategy is using indirect speech in addressing problems, for example, using common phrases like “I’m sorry to say this but…...”, “Sorry to bother you…”, “I think you forgot to……”, “Excuse me…...”, “Don’t get me wrong but...…...”, etc. Another strategy is giving suggestions instead of saying a straight no, for example, one can say, “How about…….”, “Why don’t we……”, “What about……”. 

Taking into consideration these aspects, politeness can be considered as having a significant role in a speech community. It is a product of societal and cultural norms and can vary depending on the context and situation where communication takes place. In a culture where directness is treated as polite and as a way of showing solidarity, one coming from a culture more oriented to indirectness may find it rude, aggressive or impolite. Politeness, then, is having a conscious awareness of one’s self-image and the need to have one’s face recognized and respected. Understanding the concept of face helps us understand how successful communication works and that it is a process of comprehending the intentions of the speakers and not merely what they say. 
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Degree of Thought is a weekly community column initiated by Tetso College in partnership with The Morung Express. Degree of Thought will delve into the social, cultural, political and educational issues around us. The views expressed here do not reflect the opinion of the institution. Tetso College is a NAAC Accredited UGC recognised Commerce and Arts College. The editorial team includes Chubamenla, Asst. Professor Dept. of English and Rinsit Sareo, Asst. Manager, IT, Media & Communications. For feedback or comments please email: dot@tetsocollege.org