Site Loader
Get a Quote
Rock Street, San Francisco

Lakoff sees the politeness norms in American culture as changing from a respect based culture to becoming a camaraderie culture (in Brown and Levinson’s terms, moving from a “negative politeness culture” to more of a “positive politeness culture”). She notes certain changes in American culture, for example “sexual coarseness in public contexts… violence in the media, ageism (the unwillingness to acknowledge a middle ground in debate); uncontrolled displays of hostility; negative political advertising; cursing and other bad language, flaming on the internet, the loss of polite conventions (such as ‘please’ and ‘thank you’), invasions of privacy and the rise of conventional ant formality” (Lakoff, 2006: 30–34). These changes which Lakoff perceives as taking place in “American culture as a whole” are quite clearly loosely connected to the notion of civility and incivility (some of them more tenuously than others).
However, what surprised us most when reading this article is less the fact that a politeness theorist would try to monitor changes taking place in politeness norms generally, but rather the confidence which Lakoff seems to have in her own ability to claim that these changes are actually taking place and that they are taking place at a cultural rather than at a subcultural or Community of Practice level. She also claims that there is an erosion of the distinction between public and private life, arguing that one’s private life is being invaded by public concerns (her example is that of cold-calling) and that public life is being treated as if it were private life (her example is of people speaking on mobile phones in public places).
? Truss
Truss (2005), in a similar way, laments the loss of a particular type of politeness norm at the social level, arguing that there has been an increase in incivility across British society, but this she seems to locate at a different level in society, mainly so-called youth culture, as well as global capitalism. Her railing against a changing society, where Britain is portrayed as increasingly an uncivilized country, can be seen by her opening remarks about the differences between French and English politeness.
Truss’ book is informed by a conservative ideology; she states “egalitarianism was a noble aim, as was enlightened parenting, but both have ploughed up a lot of worms” (Truss, 2005: 33). Her concern with disrespect also marks this out as a plea for older people whom she characterizes as alienated by the disproportionate influence of youth culture: “old people are addressed by their first names. Teachers are brusquely informed ‘That’s none of your business’ by small children, judges are abused in court by mouthy teenagers” (Truss, 2005: 34). She states that “the most extreme form of non-deference … is to be treated as actually absent or invisible” (Truss, 2005: 34). She characterizes her book as not simply documenting linguistic change, but rather as exhibiting concern about the imminent breakdown of society, for she states: “If you ask people, they will mostly report with vehemence that the world has become a ruder place. They are at breaking point” (Truss, 2005: 39). This apocalyptic view is also registered when she states that the reason that politeness is so important is that it is ‘a signal of readiness to meet someone half-way; the question of whether politeness makes society cohere, or keeps people safely at arm’s length is actually a false opposition. Politeness does both, and that’s why it’s so frightening to contemplate losing it” (Truss, 2005: 61). Thus, this is not simply a discussion of what she sees as linguistic change, but constitutes a call to action to people to act to ‘save’ politeness before it disappears. It is clear that discussion of impoliteness is largely a means by which Truss can discuss the ills of modern British society, for the culprits of incivility are largely youths and the working class people who serve her in shops or who drive her in taxis. Furthermore, she sees that changes in politeness norms are leading to British society no longer being civilized and this fills her with a range of extreme emotions.
Both Lakoff’s and Truss’ view of the linguistic changes which have occurred in the US and UK are clearly inaccurate, but there have been linguistic changes which can serve as indexical of social change. As Fairclough (1992) has documented, there have been a number of important changes at a surface level in the level of formality required in public interaction and there has developed a conversationalisation of public statements to consumers. In a complex way, language can be seen as both a site where conversationalisation and informality are affirmed or challenged, as well as helping to bring about social changes in the relations between individuals and groups (see Mills, 2003a). In Britain in particular, this growth in informality and the decline of deference between people perceived as superior or inferior to one another has been largely the result of political changes and the decline of a clear cut class system. Although as Skeggs (1997) remarks, I should not imagine that, because the linguistic markers of deference and social division are less apparent in Britain today, class distinctions are not salient in interactions. She argues: “there was a time when the concept of class was considered necessary by the middle classes to maintain and consolidate differences in power; its recent invisibility suggests that these differences are now institutionalized” (Skeggs, 1997: 7).
What Truss seems to be drawing attention to in her analysis of contemporary Britain is that, for her at least, the growth of informality in interaction has not been a positive change and she would like to return to the days when class distinctions were moreclear cut and respect for one’s elders was the norm. Her perceptions about changes in politeness is used as an index of these changes.
What both Truss and Lakoff share is the belief that it is possible to make sweeping generalizations about norms of language across a society. Not only that but they assume that they are in a position to generalize about the society as a whole – as Foucault (1969 -1972) has shown, this is a very powerful position to hold and it is only open to certain commentators. Their comments on politeness are not simply descriptive but are highly evaluative.
The ‘disappearance’ of politeness: A diachronic perspective
A problematic aspect of the aforementioned generalizing descriptions is that they easily lead to simplistic views on the development of politeness. In fact, in modern times it is a general tendency for politeness to become simplified and less deferential or, to provide a perhaps more accurate definition, less ritual in a Goffmanian (1967) sense which is unavoidably painful for the members of the higher classes who possess the ‘key’ to ‘proper’ politeness that, for them, differentiates them from people from ‘lower’ classes. Since researchers and other powerful commentators are generally members of the educated middle classes, such generalizing views inherently reflect that class’s negative attitude towards change. These views are generally apocalyptic, that is, politeness is seen as degenerating. Therefore, it is intriguing to briefly explore whether politeness can diachronically decrease or degenerate at all in a certain society.
In fact, Chinese may be the best example for the realization of the apocalyptic prediction of Truss and Lakoff. This is because in the course of the 20th century the historical Chinese honorific lexicon of several thousand words (cf. Kádár, 2007a) has simply disappeared from colloquial language; furthermore, Chinese underwent major ‘purification’ campaigns, launched by the Communists after 1949, which promoted rudeness and directness (‘the voice of the masses’), as well as the stigmatization of traditional politeness norms.
Due to these dramatic changes, the traditional means of deference largely disappeared from Chinese politeness, which previously had a complex system of honorifics that made it quite similar to Japanese and Korean. As a result of this large-scale change, many Chinese literati lamented the disappearance of ‘politeness’ (see Wang, 1988, cited in Kádár, 2007a: 41). Due to the fact that in Chinese the traditional norms and lexicon of politeness mainly disappeared, if one applies a macro or generalizing view it would be a clear-cut conclusion that modern Chinese culture became less polite.
For example, the modern Chinese speaker has to apply conventional politeness markers in a very careful way, compared to speakers of historical Chinese: the complete lack of politeness markers is open to impolite interpretation, whilst their use beyond a ‘minimum’ makes an utterance sound overly formal. That is, whilst in historical Chinese communication the abundance of politeness markers and honorifics was the norm in deferential contexts (cf. Kádár, 2007a), in modern Chinese contexts that necessitate politeness the speaker needs to maintain a balance between the lack of these forms and their extensive use, which is a difficult task, all the more so because the definition of ‘extensive’ changes in every context. Furthermore, in modern China a set of polite discursive strategies (in a Brown and Levinsonian sense), such as joking tone, have gained salience, filling the space of the extinct historical honorifics. Although certain forms of politeness in the case of Chinese, honorifics can largely decrease, this will be perceived as a loss of ‘politeness culture’ merely by the members of the higher/educated classes. For example, as argued in Kádár (2008), in historical China, members of the lower and uneducated classes, such as peasants, made use of a very limited honorific lexicon; it is doubtful that, for these people, the modern replacement of honorifics with discursive strategies meant the loss of politeness.
In this section I have reviewed generalizing views, which predict negative outcomes for changes in politeness in certain cultures/societies, by showing that politeness can alter but not decrease in a technical sense; instead, it is only certain phenomena equated with politeness by the elite which can decrease or be viewed as degenerating.

Post Author: admin