In Chinese, there’s a saying of ‘唔比面’ (Cantonese: m4 -bei2- min6), or ‘不給面子’ in Mandarin (bu-gei-mian-zi),both transliterated to 'not giving a face'. But what is this ‘face’, and why is this related to the study of impoliteness?
Studies on impoliteness have gained growing attention in the discipline of socio-linguistics. This is happening particularly after Donald Trump’s presidential ‘legacy’, as well as other cases where comments made by politicians towards the public sparking social outrages. We experience impoliteness from time to time, yet we do not quite understand the mechanisms behind impoliteness. There has been no universal agreement in the construing of impoliteness, but it has always been assumed to be linked with the feeling of ‘politeness’. What do we mean by being impolite? Can we study them through language in an orderly fashion? In this article, I will focus on introducing you to the basics of studying impoliteness from a socio-linguistic perspective.
This obsession with the ‘faces’ doesn’t just exist amongst the Chinese community, but also in the realm of socio-linguistics. It is in fact an actual theoretical concept, officially termed as face-work, and it is by far the most popular theory on (im)politeness. Everyone has a ‘face’, and when we communicate and interact with others, it can either be a positive or a negative face-work. A positive face-work, such as saying ‘Hello!’ to a friend you saw on the street, is then interpreted as basic salutations, hence categorized as polite act. For impoliteness or impolite act, it is regarded as the negative face-work, which can either be the attack or disruption on people's ‘face’ (such as cursing to your friend) or the omission of giving, and usually reciprocal, ‘face’ (such as not saying ‘Hello’ back to a friend you met on the street when they greet you).
As said, impoliteness can be viewed as one does not support the face-work of another person, or, on some occasions, attack the 'face' of others. But what about intentionality? Does unintentional face-attacking count as impoliteness? The answer is: we tend to make of impoliteness as the intentional act of face-attack or omission of face-giving.
For the same case of saying ‘Hello’ to a friend, if you simply forgot, or for whatever reasons suited, did not greet this friend back, the friend is receiving real-time ‘signal’ that contradicts to the expected ‘normal’ outcome, and he or she might opt to perform acts that ‘signals’ you about the abnormality of such a face-work, or even to confront you with the potential damage you have cost in his face (such as yelling at you, ‘Why didn’t you greet me back that day?’). The next time you both meet, he might sound slightly upset, and perform acts that confront you with further impolite acts (such as replying with imperative sentence, or shout back). Now, either being aware or unaware of the reason behind his impolite acts, you have two options,
(A): you salvage the relationship by offering extra face-giving to make it up
(‘Really? I am so sorry I don’t recall, I didn’t see you’ or‘I was in a bad mood that day, I should have said Hello back, sorry!’ ) , or,
(B): you challenge, threaten and possibly damage the relationship by attacking his face through opposition ( ‘I did not! Why would you say that! You are too sensitive!’).
If you have chosen the latter option, (B), then this becomes an intentional face-attack, hence considered ‘impolite’ and will cost facial damage to people (at times including yourself). The author argues that true impoliteness is intentional, and for unintentional impoliteness, redressive mitigating strategies, such as the one shown in option (A), are typical tactics we normally use when we realized the unintentional ‘impolite’ acts. They will be deployed with the intention to move the rapport from face-damaging to a normalization of positive face-work. A classic one in redressive mitigating strategies is saying ‘Sorry!’ – but noted that the tone of utterance will influence the hearer’s perception, such as a ‘Sorry!’ with a humble remorse tone versus a ‘Sorry!’ with a sarcastic or mocking tone.
‘Face’ = Social Identity
Many referred to verbal impoliteness as the threatening of the hearer’s face, or the social identity of people, whilst Culpeper, a sociolinguist, noted impoliteness as intentional face-attack involving ‘a clash with expectations’ that ‘can partly account for people’s sense of appropriacy, something which feeds into politeness’. Here, we could then refer to our previous question on ‘what is face’ – it is essentially a socially-oriented ‘identity’, a construction of ourselves and others, or the construction of self-esteem. Spencer-Oatey, another sociolinguist, states how a deliberate threatening to people’s faces is the damage over people’s ‘sense of worth, dignity, honour, reputation, competence’ - suggesting potential influence over constructions of identity and self-esteem.
Impoliteness and Irrationality
The theory of irrationality is another concept proposed by socio-linguists related to impoliteness - being impolite could be viewed as an irrational act, and that act of irrationality can be associated with ‘breaches of social norms and conventions’. Since people are presumed to be rational in engaging politeness act like reciprocal facework and avoid face-threatening act, to act against rationality (to act against politeness) broadly equates to the violation of social norms and/or conventions, and hence incurring potential relevancy to impoliteness.
The 'Good's of Being Impolite?
But why do we face-attack on others? The author believes that we will not do it unless it gives us something in return. There could be a lot to say on the ‘good’s of impoliteness to both hearer and speaker, such as the construction of a politically authoritative ‘self’. Perhaps we could come back in the future on this meticulous matter.