3 Key Factors in Politeness – Distance, Power, Impositions

Distance 

In Politeness theory, distance describes the degree of social familiarity between parties, such as the difference between a close friend and a complete stranger.

When distance is high, we tend to minimize our FTAs (face threatening actions), and focus on off record (implied) requests. Conversely, when distance is low and familiarity high, we tend to increase our FTAs, often feeling comfortable enough with the other party to make on record (direct) requests when needed.

Further, in attempting to reduce distance, we’ll often provide forms of payment in positive face, demonstrating liking and approval of the other person in the hopes of building a closer relationship.

Power 

In this context, power describes the range both formal and perceived, such as the difference between a middle manager and CEO. When power is in our favor, we tend to feel comfortable risking FTAs, as well as using on record requests. Conversely, when power is not in our favor, we tend to feel less comfortable risking FTAs and more comfortable using off record requests.

In attempting to reduce power differences, we’ll often provide forms of payment in negative face, demonstrating respect and deference in the hopes of making sure our requests are considered.

Impositions

Impositions describes the range of difficulty for complying with our requests, including the difference between asking a colleague for five minutes compared to an hour, or asking a customer to spend $10 versus $10,000. When making smaller imposition, we tend to feel more comfortable risking FTAs and even using on record requests. When making larger impositions, we tend to feel less comfortable risking FTAs and more comfortable using off record requests.

Finally, in attempting to reduce the impact of our impositions, we’ll often provide forms of payment in positive face to create a feeling of reciprocity, as well as negative face to create a feeling of freedom through the ability to accept or deny our request.


I’ll share a recent example to illustrate.

This morning, upon sitting down with my laptop to write this post, my wife politely posed the following question:

“Do you mind if we turn on the air conditioning?” 

Now, after 4 years of marriage, why did she instinctively and intuitively use this highly off record message? First, asking “Do you mind” serves as a payment in negative face, which in this instance represents my being unimpeded from getting settled, opening the laptop, and starting to write.

Second, asking “if we” can turn on the air conditioning, is another form of payment in negative face, creating the opportunity for me to say yes I’ll do it, making it my choice.

Thus, once I begin my walk to the thermostat, the perfect turn of a polite FTA is completed, accounting for zero social distance, roughly equal power (advantage her), and the smallest of daily marital impositions.

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