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Review of  Linguistic Politeness in Britain and Uruguay: A Contrastive Study of Requests and Apologies

Reviewer: Francisco Yus
Book Title: Linguistic Politeness in Britain and Uruguay: A Contrastive Study of Requests and Apologies
Book Author: Rosina Márquez Reiter
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 12.2291

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Rosina Marquez Reiter (2000) Linguistic Politeness in Britain and
Uruguay: A Contrastive Study of Requests and Apologies. John
Benjamins Publishing Company, ISBN: 1-58811-015-X, Pragmatic &
Beyond New Series, 83.

Reviewed by Francisco Yus, University of Alicante (Spain).

As the title indicates, this is a book on contrastive politeness,
comparing for the first time the politeness strategies used by
Uruguayan and British informants when faced with quasi-natural
role-play situations which require the use of either requests or
apologies. Why other face-threatening acts (� la Brown and
Levinson, 1987) such as those involving orders or permission are
not dealt with in the book surely has to do with space
constraints. Nevertheless, I think these two strategies
(requests/apologies) show how Britain and Uruguay differ in the
way politeness is expressed in conversational interaction.

In the introduction the author states the main aim of the book,
namely "to study the differences and similarities in the
repertoire of linguistic behaviour as exhibited in the
performance of these speech acts relative to the same social
constraints [... and] to compare the value or function of
politeness as realised by the performance of requests and
apologies in British English and Uruguayan Spanish from a cross-
cultural and socio-pragmatic perspective" (p. xiii).

Chapter 1 is theoretical, with a general (and inevitably
succinct) review of current theories of politeness, basically
the conversational-maxim view (supported by Lakoff and Leech),
the face-saving view (proposed by Brown and Levinson) and the
conversational-contract view (suggested by Fraser and Nolen).
Special emphasis is laid upon the notion of positive and negative
politeness (which the author assumes in the book) and the
possible universality of these notions. Some interesting issues
are also dealt with in the chapter, for instance, whether
politeness is a social or individual feature. Marquez Reiter is
right in pointing out that "although the act of behaving politely
is performed by an individual agent, that act is intrinsically a
social one" (p. 2). Politeness is always set upon a social (and
culture-specific) standard, and every language allows for
different strategies to perform the (im)polite act.

Chapter 2 is also theoretical, but this time centred upon the
relationship between speech acts and politeness (a necessary
chapter, of course, considering that both requests and apologies
are themselves speech acts). The well-known taxonomies by Austin
and Searle are reviewed, together with the interaction between
speech acts and positive/negative politeness, on the one hand,
and contextual issues on the other hand (e.g. the social
variation of the conceptualisation and verbalisation of speech
acts, or the "Western" emphasis on certain acts in 'archetype
situations'). Speech acts are limited when coming to explain
interactive phenomena such as the one sought after in this book.
For instance, "too much emphasis [is laid] on the individual and
the object of the speech act disregarding and/or neglecting the
effects on the addressee" (p. 34). This is not exclusive of
speech act theory, but is pervasive in many linguistic theories,
forgetting that communication is, above all, a project of mutual
interest between speaker and hearer (Yus, 1997: 116). This is why
in this book the author opts for a more interactive model within
which specific speech acts were embedded.

The preliminary analysis of request and apologies in this chapter
reveals interesting cross-cultural differences between Britain
and Uruguay (to be supported in later chapters by the results of
interactions by informants). In the case of requests, for
instance, morphologically "English imperatives are uninflected
and marked by neither aspect nor number, [whereas] in Spanish
they are more elaborate" (p. 37). This morphological asymmetry
also applies to interrogatives: "English appears to have more
elaborate constructions with modals whereas in Spanish they are
generally formulated with the present indicative or conditional
constructions" (p. 38). Several examples showing further points
of no coincidence between Britain and Uruguay in terms of
politeness structures are suggested (lack of space in a review
like this prevents me from explaining them in more detail). What
I would stress is the fact that speakers of both languages tend
to resort to conventional indirectness when faced with the need
to redress (positive or negative) politeness, a feature which
later in the book is claimed to be one key finding. On pages 42-
43 Marquez Reiter comments on the issue of whether conventional
requests such as the over-repeated can you pass the salt? are
means of asking for an action by means of a parallel speech act
(asking about the ability to do the action) and the role that
literal meaning plays in the extraction of the request-meaning.1

Concerning apologies, it is interesting to note that in
apologising not only the hearer's negative face is addressed
(e.g. from offences), but also the speaker's positive face is
redressed, and therefore apologies are acts which benefit both
interlocutors (p. 45). However, several studies show that
apologising acts tend to differ cross-culturally.

In chapter 3, the author addresses the methodology of data
collection and measurement. The approach taken is objective and
statistics-based. Although the ideal situation should be a
recording of conversations in which interlocutors are unaware of
being "informants", the author admits (Introduction, p. xv), that
there are important time and financial constraints preventing an
adequate application (ibid.), together with an impossibility to
get enough samples of these speech acts. Therefore, in her book
Marquez Reiter has opted for open role-plays instead, and in
which no preliminary clue was provided as to what their actual
purpose was. The situations depicted in these role-plays
"represent socially differentiated situations which reflect
everyday occurrences of the type expected to be familiar to both
British and Uruguayan university students. The situations vary
according to a number of social variables: the social distance
between the speakers, the relative social power of the
participants, the ranking of the request and in the case of
apologies the severity or seriousness of the offence" (p. 59).
These variations are, indeed, based of Brown and Levinson's
(1987) famous three-way formula to weigh the requirement of
polite strategies.

The effectiveness of the instrument used in the book was pilot-
tested three times before actually tried with informants. Marquez
Reiter has to be congratulated for taking every effort to create
almost-naturalistic environments in which to embed requests and
apologies. Besides, the results of the research (explained in
chapters 4 and 5) are backed up by a total reliance on
statistical data, which adds to the objectiveness of the study.

Basic in the design of the role-plays is the distinction between
directness (e.g. open the window), conventional indirectness
(e.g. can you open the window?), and non-conventional
indirectness (e.g., it's cold in here). Concerning the last one,
and leaving aside the fact that many forms of non-conventional
indirectness can turn into conventional ones due to overuse
(i.e., a certain strategy becoming a conventional means for being
non-conventional in requests), Marquez Reiter distinguishes,
following Blum-Kulka et al. (1989), between strong hints (i.e.,
"those utterances whose illocutionary intent is not immediately
derivable from the locution", p. 87) and mild hints (i.e., "those
locutions which contain no elements of immediate relevance to the
intended illocution", ibid.). However, the author is not totally
satisfied with this dichotomy because of the difficulty to
differentiate them.

Chapters 4 and 5 show the qualitative and quantitative findings
of the research. As in other cross-cultural studies of
politeness, these findings show a great deal of divergence of
linguistic strategies by Uruguayan and British speakers when
dealing with the same politeness-requiring situation. Although I
do believe that there is a universal2 urge in all of us to check
the position we believe (and the position others believe) we have
in society and which is often achieved through politeness in
daily interactions, the socially accepted behaviours and related
linguistic structures differ a great deal cross-culturally, with
some of these strategies being more or less similar, as the
research in this book shows.

Concerning requests, social distance and social power seem to be
key factors determining the choice of an (in)direct strategy in
both cultures. In general (and not surprisingly), in both
cultures the more familiar and close the relationship between
interlocutors, the more direct the strategy will be But the
results show a greater tendency towards directness in Uruguayan
informants than in British ones. This fits the general view that
English is typically an over-polite language (e.g. "British
English speakers appear to be more concerned than Uruguayan
Spanish speakers with reducing the level of coerciveness in
requests", p. 172). Cultural principles of what is appropriate in
certain situations is also important here: Uruguayan directness
may be motivated by the closeness of the relationship between
the interlocutors, but certainly it also motivated by "the fact
that [directness] is the expected behaviour in such situations"
(p. 171).

In general, also, both the Uruguayan and the British informants
chose conventionally indirect requests (can you...? could
you...?). The fact that these are coded linguistic forms and
typical means for requesting makes them highly accessible and
not prone to misunderstandings: with this kind of request, "the
speaker is balancing clarity and non-coerciveness hence ensuring
that his/her utterance will have the correct interpretation and
the right impact, thus leading to success" (p. 173).

There is also some variation when the sex of the interlocutors is
taken into account. For instance, British male-male
conversations are specially sensitive to power relationships (and
not so much to social distance), a finding which is reversed in
Uruguayan male-male conversations. On the other hand, although
British female-female requests are not significantly influenced a
lot by social issues, these issues do play a part in mixed-sex
conversations involving requests.

Regarding apologies, among other findings, I would stress the
fact that both British and Uruguayan informants took into
account features such as the severity of the offence and
considerations of social power when using them. Again, the
British informants used far more apologies than the Uruguayan
ones. Regarding the sex of the interlocutors, female speakers
from both cultures were more apologetic than the male
counterparts. Variations are also involved in the use of
intensifiers in the apology: the British informants use more
intensifiers (terribly sorry, awfully sorry, etc.) than the

All in all, the book is very interesting and very easy to read
despite the statistically quantitative approach adopted (and
rightly so) in the book. It does show, for the first time, how
much the Uruguayan and the British differ when coming to display
considerations of politeness at a discourse level. After
stressing my positive impression from this research, there are
three small issues which I would like to comment on:

Firstly, I feel that Marquez Reiter might usefully have given
greater weight to the role of nonverbal communication in the
expression and interpretation of politeness. Indeed, the role-
plays in the book were recorded, but despite the usefulness of
the recording for transcription purposes the nonverbal aspects of
these dialogues are not given much attention in the book. This
is unfortunate, in my opinion, considering that in many cases the
apparent bald-on-record directness of some utterances is, in
fact, mitigated by some intonational contour related to a polite
attitude (to my knowledge, this is actually typical in peninsular
Spanish) or by some gesture / position with the same purpose
(see, for instance, Trees and Manusov, 1998). Although it is
obvious that written transcriptions of spoken conversations are a
hard (and limited) job (see Yus 1998 for discussion), it would
have been interesting to have instances of conversations
transcribed in their full orality" and the role of nonverbal
communication analysed in some detail.

Secondly, I would also like to have seen the use of post hoc
questionnaires asking informants whether they thought that the
politeness strategy used in the role-play was appropriate or not.
This is particularly interesting and pursued to some detail
within cognitive pragmatics (specifically within relevance-
theoretic pragmatics). If the author had given out these
questionnaires, she would probably have discovered that,
surprisingly, politeness is not communicated as such on many
occasions and that for the informants politeness was actually
processed sub-attentively. Although informants would actually be
able to say that a certain linguistic expression used was
(im)polite, in general fixed polite formulas do not really call
the interlocutor's attention when used in stereotypical
scenarios. This is precisely the point of Jary's (1998) research.
For him, only over- and under-polite strategies will actually
call the interlocutor's attention and make it worthwhile to
process beyond a sub-attentive level. Many fixed formulas for
fixed situations normally go unnoticed because they fit the
hearers' assumptions about what kind of relationship holds
between them and their interlocutors. What would strike the
hearer is an (im)polite formula which led him/her to the
conclusion that the interlocutor holds him/her in higher or lower
regard than s/he had assumed (ibid., p. 8).

Thirdly, it would have been a good idea to add cross-cultural
interactions between the Uruguayan and the British informants in
the research, which would have been interesting in order to
determine the asymmetrical cultural representations that speakers
of these cultures access in the course of choosing a certain
(in)direct strategy. I acknowledge the fact that such cross-
cultural interactions are difficult (if not impossible) to carry
out, let alone to embed them in naturally occurring situations,
but this kind of research would have uncovered the social-
specific dimension of politeness, the way people differ in the
cultural representation of appropriate polite behaviour.

These are, of course, only minor points suggesting aspects of
politeness which could have been added to an otherwise
interesting book written with clarity of expression and showing a
remarkable concern for a truly scientific approach to politeness;
an approach that has to be valued for reaching beyond the
traditional reliance on the researcher's own intuitions that
unfortunately abound so much in linguistics.

Notes 1. My own approach is different, as explained in Yus
(1999). Firstly, there is a proposal of two continua, the e-
continuum (where explicitly communicated information is situated)
and the i-continuum (where indirect messages would be placed).
Secondly, each continua has its own gradience between more/less
explicitly communicated information (e-continuum) or more/less
implicitly communicated one (i-continuum). Within this framework,
conventional questions such as can you...? would simply be
explicit (belonging to the e-continuum), but placed nearer the
less explicit end of the continuum than, say, a more
straightforward request such as pass me the salt. Hence, no
duality "ask for ability / ask for action" would be involved in
can you...? and similar conventional questions, but only an
explicitly communicated request (i.e., no implicatures involved
in extracting the intended meaning).

2. In a recent paper, Perez Hernandez (1999) proposes a possible
cognitive (i.e., Lakoffian) explanation of this
universal/culture-specific divide in the study of politeness.
With the aid of cognitive concepts such as source domain and
target domain she states that human beings are heavily
influenced by several image-schemas, among them the fact that
people live within a (social) container and are themselves
containers (of their self, for instance). Within the container,
several forces interact, and the position of one element in the
container affects the relative position of the others. In this
view, what is universal about politeness is the fact that within
all the social containers there are forces constantly affecting
people's position in the vertical (power) and horizontal (social
distance) axes, and politeness strategies are useful to position
oneself and the others within the container: "different social
containers... may limit or restrict behaviour in different ways,
requiring the use of different levels of politeness between those
interactants who share a given environment-container" (p. 224).
In other words, the universal fact is the existence of social
containers inside which several forces affect people's position;
what varies is the way people manage their own (and other's)
position inside and what type of linguistic strategy they resort

Blum-Kulka, S. et al. (1989) Cross-Cultural Pragmatics: Requests
and Apologies. Norwood, NJ.: Ablex.

Brown, P. and S. Levinson (1987) Politeness: Some Universals in
Language Use. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Jary, M. (1998) "Relevance theory and the communication of
politeness". Journal of Pragmatics 30: 1-19.

Perez Hernandez, L. (1999) "Grounding politeness" Journal of
English Studies 1: 209-236.

Trees, A.R. and V. Manusov (1998) "Managing face concerns in
criticism: Integrating nonverbal behaviors as a dimension of
politeness in female friendship dyads". Human Communication
Research 24(4): 564-583.

Yus, Francisco (1997) Cooperacion y Relevancia. Alicante:
University of Alicante, Servicio de Publicaciones.

Yus, Francisco (1998) La preeminencia de la voz. Alicante:
University of Alicante, Servicio de Publicaciones.

Yus, Francisco (1999) "Misunderstandings and explicit/implicit
communication". Pragmatics 9: 487-517.

Francisco Yus teaches linguistics at the University of Alicante,
Spain. His main research interests are media discourses (his
1995 Ph.D was on the pragmatics of British comics), verbal irony
and misunderstandings from a pragmatic point of view, especially
from the relevance-theoretic approach to human communication. He
has published several books on these subjects, including a
recent one on the pragmatics of Internet communication
(Ciberpragmatica. El uso del lenguaje en Internet. Madrid: Ariel,