8.7 Politeness

The reversal of the usual dispreferred patterns in these responses to RB’s 53 can be explained if we consider these exchanges in terms of politeness. While joking in conversation is usually considered a friendly and sociable action (Norrick 1993; Tannen 1984) here RB’s 53 also causes offence and so, in the terminology of Brown and Levinson, threatens another’s face and is thereby deemed impolite and thus needs to be accounted for. By delving into the relevant aspects of politeness the details of this matter will be made clearer and it will also help explain the seemingly contradictory behaviour of JK and EM, both of whose first response to 53 is amused laughter. The following key features of politeness phenomena will be looked at here: the notions of face, face threatening acts (FTAs), and strategies for doing FTAs.

As mentioned in 6.3.3, there is a case for linking preference organisation and politeness phenomena. For example, Heritage (1984a) is keen to point up the role of solidarity in preference organisation, seeing preferred format responses as supportive of social solidarity and dispreferred responses as destructive of social solidarity (p.268). Brown and Levinson are even more explicit. ‘If one asks which kind of responses are preferred vs. dispreferred, in the sense of marked and unmarked respectively, a large part of the answer must lie in face considerations’ (1987:38). And it worth remembering that the point was also made earlier that such considerations are culturally specific.
Brown and Levinson define face as:

The public self-image that every member wants to claim for himself, consisting in two related aspects:

(a) negative face: the basic claim to territories, personal preserves, rights to non-distraction – i.e. freedom of action and freedom from imposition
(b) positive face: the positive consistent self-image of ‘personality’ (crucially including the desire that this self-image be appreciated and approved of) claimed by interactants

Also worth noting is that, ‘[g]iven that face consists in a set of wants satisfiable only by the actions (including the expressions of wants) of others, it will in general be to the mutual interest of two [interactants] to maintain each other’s face’ (p.60, emphasis added). (Their notion of face is derived from Goffman and the English folk term (p.61). Their notions of positive and negative are derived from Durkheim’s ‘positive and negative rites’ (note 8, p.285).)

Corresponding to these concepts of face are notions of ‘positive politeness’ and ‘negative politeness’, where the former is solidarity based and the latter maintains social distance. Some simple examples. If A’s nose is running and B gives A a tissue, this would be an act of positive politeness. If B, not wishing to embarrass A, ignored it, this would be an act of negative politeness (Brown and Levinson p.104). Or, if a superior at work, in an attempt at familiarity, suggested the reciprocal use of first name with inferiors, that would be an act of positive politeness. If he or she suggested the reciprocal use of title and last name, that would be an act of negative politeness (Holmes 2001:268). Put simply, positive politeness is approach-based, negative politeness avoidance-based. (Note that negative politeness is, despite its name, a form of politeness.)

Certain behaviours can pose problems for interlocutors’ faces and these are called ‘face threatening acts’ (FTAs) (p.60). FTAs can threaten both positive and negative face and Brown and Levinson give a list from which the following are directly relevant to our discussion. From those that threaten the positive face of the hearer (H):

(ii)d. divisive topics e.g. politics, race, religion, women’s liberation (p.67)

In raising such matters a speaker (S) can create ‘a dangerous face atmosphere’ (p.67). This is what RB does (indirectly i.e. ‘off record’ – see below) with his 53 vis-à-vis JK and, through her, to all supporters of women’s rights, such as BM and EM. Thus his joke is perceived as an FTA, an act of impoliteness, and as such, needs to be accounted for.

Acts can also threaten the speaker’s own face and two from Brown and Levinson are relevant:

(i)c. excuses (p.67)
(ii)d. self-humiliation (p.68)

Concerning the former, ‘S indicates that he had good reason to do, or fail to do, an act which H has just criticised; this may constitute in turn a criticism of H, or at least cause a confrontation between H’s view of things and S’s view’ (p.67). The confrontation in our discussion is now familiar territory, and RB’s 60 (‘it was a joke’) and 67 (‘because she was mean’) can be seen as excuses for 53. Concerning ‘self-humiliation’, RB’s image is reconstituted from one of being an enlightened supporter of women’s rights (10,12,14,16-18) to one of being a shamed sexist (59, 61, 62 etc.), a major volte-face in terms of personal image, and one which can be seen as a form of humiliation brought about by himself with his use of 53. Such self-humiliation would at least partly help explain the motivation for his angry demands of JK and his defiant comment about Madeleine Albright (90).

As for face threatening acts, there are a number of strategies for carrying them out. Reading from the left:

possible strategies for doing FTAs

Fig. 15. Possible strategies for doing FTAs (p.69)

[Note: ‘the more an act threatens S’s or H’s face, the more S will want to choose a high-numbered strategy; this by virtue of the fact that these strategies afford payoffs of increasingly minimised risk’ (p.60)]

In the PI conversation, RB chooses ‘4. off record’, BM ‘1. on record, baldly’, and JK displays ambivalence but when she does choose to execute an FTA chooses ‘on record with redressive action, 3. negative politeness’. These terms are now explained in further detail.

Brown and Levinson say that an off record FTA involves ‘more than one unambiguously attributable intention so that the actor cannot be held to have committed himself to one particular intent’ (p.69). They give such examples as metaplay, irony, rhetorical questions, understatement, tautologies, all kinds of hints; here, not unreasonably, jokes are added to this list. An off record strategy, they claim,

affords the S the opportunity of avoiding responsibility altogether (by claiming, if challenged, that the interpretation of x as an FTA is wrong), and simultaneously allows S to avoid actually imposing the FTA x on H, since H himself must choose to interpret x as an FTA rather than as some more trivial remark

(Note the resemblance here with Emerson’s point concerning recipients giving a joke more weight by taking it seriously.)

This neatly summarises what RB does with his 53. His subsequent turns show him to dispute H’s interpretation and to attempt to avoid responsibility. The key issue is that his 53 is interpreted not as a joke but as an FTA which, being destructive of the need to mutually maintain face, needs to be accounted for. It is BM who makes this explicitly clear.

BM’s 59 is a bald on record FTA towards RB, and, in terms of expected joke sequences, is a dispreferred turn. But, as already established, BM does not account for this (the reason for this is now clear), but, on the contrary, his 59 calls for an account from RB. In such a bald FTA ‘there is just one unambiguously attributable intention’ (pp.68-9) which gives S the advantage that ‘he can enlist public pressure against the addressee or in support of himself…he can avoid the danger of being misunderstood’ (p.71). Once again this would seem to neatly fit with the occurrences in PI for BM’s 59 is, unequivocally, a direct criticism of RB’s 53. We can also add here that BM’s direct confrontational response can be seen as coming from his postion as host and also, gender difference theorists would argue, it can be seen as a more male response.

Although JK is a critic of RB’s 53 her position is actually ambivalent, as her initial response is one of amused laughter, that is, a preferred turn. But once BM utters his 59 in criticism she lends support against RB. This seeming contradiction can, however, be explained in terms of politeness strategies. Her initial laughter (which takes place on a collaborative floor, recall), which is an act of appreciation, would seem to be addressing RB’s positive face – she does not immediately receive 53 as an FTA but as another joke in what has been a long series of jokes. (She may also be addressing her own face by letting it pass as a joke rather than taking offence (Zajdman 1995:335).) But even then her accompanying utterance in 58 (‘The great conspiracy theory!’) shows she does not completely accept the remark as a joke, is aware that it also contains some kind of threat, and that she is prepared to counter it, however mildly. Once BM utters his bald on record counter FTA (59) she is prepared to be more explicit in her disregard for the comment (61 ‘You tell him’), and eventually demonstrates an assertive criticism (69 ‘Shame!’) in response to RB’s attempted explanation. Whereas BM was bald on record, a low- numbered (1) and therefore more threatening strategy, JK is on record with redressive action (negative politeness), a higher-numbered (3) and so less threatening strategy. Brown and Levinson note that such an FTA can consist of, among other things, ‘attention to very restricted aspects of H’s self-image’ and also ‘safety mechanisms’ (p.70). The aspect of RB’s self-image she attends to is that of feminist with her admonishment of ‘Shame!’. In all her FTA utterances she uses softening mechanisms: reference to a general theory that is not directly attributable to RB (58), use of third person (61), and smiling (69). Once more we might like to use Fishman’s (1978) term of 'shitwork’ to describe such female behaviour in cross-sex conversations (when compared to BM’s).

It is not clear from the little we see and hear of EM’s response to be sure what type of politeness strategies she employs. Her comment in 68 is spoken simultaneously with JK’s 69, and has an intonation of complaint. (Once again we should note the spatial arrangements: their contiguous seating positions across the table from RB assist them in their joint attack and also lend it more dramatic force.) At that precise point the camera is on RB but switches to a shot of both EM and JK immediately after 68/9 and we see EM smiling. Thus there is weak evidence that she may, like JK, be adopting strategy (3). It is of note, however, that she seizes on RB’s comment about Madeleine Albright (90) to move the interaction away from the ongoing conflict, which may be seen as another act of negative politeness.

Thus we can see how politeness phenomena inform this part of the exchange. They help explain why it is the actor, RB, who has to give the account when the recipients BM, JK, and EM respond with dispreferred turns rather than the recipients themselves, as is usually the case. They also help explain the seemingly contradictory behaviour of JK and EM, both of whom respond initially with the preferred turn of amused laughter, but who then utter a series of dispreferred turns criticising RB.

It also needs to be pointed out that the reversal of the usual patterns for dispreferred turns discussed here is not a case of the exception that proves the rule, as a look at another example will show. The following exchange comes from the trial in which Neil Hamilton, a former Tory MP, accused Mohamed Al Fahed of libel over the latter’s allegations that the former had taken bribes to ask certain questions in the House of Commons. At this point Hamilton himself (NH) is in the witness box and is being cross-examined by Al Fayed’s counsel (FC). The extract comes from a television dramatisation of the trial’s transcripts.

1.FC: Sir Gordon Downey found that your trip to the Ritz was part and parcel of a
2. a business relationship.
3.NH: Sir Gordon Downey did, but I would not pay too much attention to that if I
4. were you.
5.FC: Do you avoid paying too much attention to anything you find disagreeable?
6.NH: No, I am paying close attention to you, Mr Carman. [General laughter]
7.FC: I’m sorry you find the question disagreeable, or me, but you understand I
8. have a professional duty to put important matters to you.
9.NH: That was a joke, by the way, I do not mean it.
10.FC: A rather bad joke. But the case is about corruption in politics we allege.
11.NH: Yes.
12.FC: And serious to you.
13.NH: Oh, I can assure you, Mr Carman, the seriousness of this is not lost on me.
14.FC: Serious to Mr Al Fayed and to the witnesses who have given evidence on his
15. behalf, who have been accused of perjury. You understand that?
16.NH: It certainly is. But I can assure you that the risks I have had to endure for the
17. last five years on account of that are far greater.
(Hamilton 2000)

Once again an utterance offered as a joke (6) causes laughter (6) but also offends, and when non-amusement is expressed (7,10, 12) i.e. a dispreferred response is given, it is the actor and not the recipient who accounts (NH’s 9,13,16), an acceptance of the act as an FTA.

Nor should such a reversal be seen as the preserve of humorous exchanges. It is not difficult to imagine other actions which could meet similar responses. For example, A offers B assistance with a relatively simple task and B takes offence: ‘How dare you assume I am unable to etc.’, to which A accounts: ‘I was only trying to be helpful etc.’. If this is the case, this once more shows the power of the audience in determining meaning, and would also call for a revision of previous conceptions of preference organisation to take such factors into account. For example, if recipient response really can be so powerful in interactions that it can override speaker intention, then it can be problematic for analysts to a priori name certain speech acts which are presumed to have a predictable set of possible preferred/dispreferred responses. These findings also underline a point made earlier (6.3.3) that preference organisation, though describable as a formal structural feature, is also shaped by subjective and cultural considerations.

In a broader pragmatic framework, these findings would also lend some support to Leech’s assertion that Grice’s Cooperative Principle (CP), in which speaker’s intentions are of primary significance, and on which Brown and Levinson avowedly base their politeness model, is not always able to explain problems interlocutors encounter. Leech (1983) suggests a Politeness Principle to complement the CP to help account for such exchanges as the following:

A: We’ll all miss Bill and Agatha, won’t we?
B: Well, we’ll all miss BILL.

Here B fails to meet the maxim of quantity, as when asked to confirm A’s opinion he only confirms part of it, the implicature being that they will not miss Agatha. Leech notes that had B added ‘but not Agatha’, thereby conforming to the maxim of quantity, the utterance would remain equally true, relevant, and clear. So why is this indirect form used? ‘Our conclusion is that B could have been more informative but at the cost of being more impolite to a third party: that B therefore suppressed the desired information in order to uphold the politeness principle’ (p.81).

Brown and Levinson refute such criticisms of the CP, saying there is no need for yet more maxims to cover every pattern of language use. But in their own defence against the need for a Politeness Principle, they do seem to concede that the CP alone is not always enough: ‘In our model…it is the mutual awareness of “face” sensitivity, and the kinds of means-ends reasoning this induces, that together with the CP allows for implicatures of politeness’ (p.5, emphasis added).

We can finish by coming back to the utterance that was offered as a joke: ‘But Margaret Thatcher really in the end turned out to be a man’. This will now be considered in terms of its linguistic make-up as a joke, and also in terms of the earlier mentioned (6.1) strong trace model of humour comprehension, which, when coupled with Carrell’s ‘humor competence’ (5.1), will reveal its social significance.

In 4.2 it was stated that jokes have two stages, the preparation stage and a culmination, that is, a set-up and a punch line. If we view RB’s 53 as a joke we see that the preparation is simply the mere mentioning of Margaret Thatcher, and the punch line is that she turned out to be a man. Or, possibly, the preparation is ‘Margaret Thatcher turned out to be…’ and against most expectations this is completed with the culmination ‘man’. That is, formally it can be seen as a joke.

If we recall, the strong trace model states that the comprehension of verbal jokes involves not just two meanings, M1 and M2, where the latter simply replaces the former, but that full comprehension of verbal humour is dialectical, and involves a third element M3, in which M1 and M2 are synthesised in a higher unity. That is, the humorous meaning M2 is explicitly understood and established but the other meaning M1 is not wholly excluded, remaining as a strong trace with M2 within M3. Now that we have looked in some details at RB’s 53 it is apparent that no matter how it was intended (or how RB claims he intended it), this utterance was received both as a joke (majority audience response) and as an insult (BM’s response). Some recipients, as we saw, had an ambivalent response (JK and EM). All of this, it is argued here, would seem to add support to the strong trace model. Let us place that utterance within the framework of the model.

Cognitive and social aspects of RB's utterance

Fig.16. Cognitive and social aspects of RB’s utterance.

In this diagram M1, the thesis, is given as ‘woman’. This is not the only possible completion of the syntagm which begins ‘But really in the end Margaret Thatcher turned out to be…’. This paradigmatic slot could be filled by any of a host of noun, verb or adjective phrases: ‘tired’, ‘stupid’, ‘a wet’, ‘a dictator’, ‘living on borrowed time’, ‘a-coming round the mountain’ etc. However, as the antithesis M2 is ‘a man’, it is not inappropriate to insert a similarly gender-based noun phrase in the slot, so long as it is one which contrasts with M2. As it is a fact that Margaret Thatcher is a woman, this choice is certainly one that fulfils most normal expectations. To note that it is just one of many other possibilities it is actually given as ‘a woman etc.’.

The model works as it did for the miser joke – here in the full joke comprehension we have M1 being implicitly understood but it is M2 that is explicitly understood and established. Nevertheless, a strong trace of M1 remains in the synthesis M3. It is again claimed here that anyone who comprehends this utterance as a joke, or understands that it is intended as a joke or that it has the form of a joke, understands M3. However, if we recall Carrell’s distinction between ‘joke competence’ and ‘humour competence’, such understanding is not the same as appreciating the joke. For Carrell, the former is the ‘ability of the native speaker…to recognise a text or a joke without determining whether or not the text is funny’ and the latter is the ability to then ‘pass judgement on the humorness of a specific text’ (1997:174).

If we apply Carrell’s notions to the strong trace model (in Fig.16 the distinction between the competences is shown as a horizontal dotted line) we find that M3 can be appreciated with amusement or it can fail to elicit an amused response, for example, it can cause offence. The fact that this is possible is seen here as support for the strong trace model as if there were no strong trace, the recipient would quite simply have no grounds for complaint, would have no choice but to accept that Thatcher was a man or behaved like a man. As we have seen, there were such grounds and they provided the platform for a forceful criticism of the utterance.

8 Humour in Context: The Thatcher Joke>

8.1 The Performers, the Audience and Space>

8.2 The Discussants>

8.3 The Collaborative Floor vs The Single Floor>
8.4 Negotiating The Serious Import of Humour> 8.5 Two Psychological Perspectives on Joking> 8.6 Preference> 8.7 Politeness