This chapter explores the issues of universality and cultural variation of politeness norms and practices. Early approaches to politeness have been criticised for seeing them as applicable to societies as wholes. In contrast, recent discursive approaches focus instead on lay understandings and subjective evaluations of politeness in situated real-life interactions. This chapter argues that the latter limits the possibility of generalisation and, importantly, cross-cultural comparison. It shows that generalisation is needed if we aim at analyses which are not simply valid for specific participants in specific encounters. It is also needed if we are interested in understanding similarities and differences among different cultures, which however, are not seen as unified wholes but as sharing a repository from which interlocutors select practices.
- Conversation Analysis
- Discursive Approach
- Single Utterance
- Politeness Strategy
- Negative Politeness
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More generally, Watts (2003, p. 12) maintains that the linguistic means through which politeness is realised differ quite radically across a range of different languages.
This should not be taken as an overarching generalisation that spans whole populations because, as Fernandez-Amaya et al. (2014) argue convincingly, conclusions regarding in/appropriateness should be made for individual genres, and, as Bella and Sifianou (2012) show, the single constant feature in e-mail requests sent to faculty members by Greek students is the use of formality.
In mass communication studies, similar issues are discussed extensively under the rubric of ‘the spiral of silence’ (Noelle-Newmann 1974) to refer to cases in which people who believe they are in the minority tend to abstain from publicly expressing their opinion and vice versa.
See Jaworski (1994) for related issues on apologies.
Moreover, Garcés-Conejos Blitvich (2010b) raises the question as to whether such models developed for dyadic interaction can be applied to studies of polylogic interactions as well as mediated (rather than face-to face) interactions, such as those found in the social media.
We should also bear in mind that not all individuals share exactly the same set of resources (Johnstone 2008, p. 160).
As Bucholtz (1999, p. 9) states ‘language is only one social activity among many and ... takes much of its meaning (both social and referential) from the other practices that surround it’. Janney and Arndt (1993, p. 34) also contend that in order to fully understand how politeness phenomena are perceived and interpreted by different groups of people it is necessary to extend investigation beyond the linguistic level.
van der Bom and Mills (2015, p. 180) have recently noted a ‘return to Brown and Levinson’ albeit with modifications.
See Kádár (2013) for an in-depth discussion of the ‘middle way’ between extreme co-constructionism and cultural norms.
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Sifianou, M., Blitvich, GC. (2017). (Im)politeness and Cultural Variation. In: Culpeper, J., Haugh, M., Kádár, D. (eds) The Palgrave Handbook of Linguistic (Im)politeness. Palgrave Macmillan, London. https://doi.org/10.1057/978-1-137-37508-7_22
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