(im)politeness In Casual Conversations Among Female Mandarin Speakers: A Practice-based Perspective

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2009-09-16T18:20:45Z

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Linguistics

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The fact that people have the choice to use different words and attitudes to convey messages of various significance has been attributed to politeness concerns. However, what constitutes politeness varies from culture to culture and person to person. Therefore, a universal definition for what politeness is does not seem plausible. Furthermore, using the term politeness' to indicate the study of all kinds of linguistic behavior is problematic because politeness' seems to exclude behavior that is inappropriate, aggressive or rude. To provide a more comprehensive account of politeness, this research draws upon the notion of "(im)politeness" (Watts, 2003) to account for linguistic behavior that is open to negotiation between interactants. In the scholarly field of (im)politeness studies, Brown and Levinson's (1978, 1987) utterance-based perspective views certain communicative acts as intrinsically face-threatening and concerns only the speaker's utterances. Given that a conversation cannot be formulated without listeners' responses, this research adopts a practice-based perspective, as assumed by Watts (2003), Locher (2004), and Locher and Watts (2005), which gives merit to the give-and-take features of interactional negotiations. In so doing, the practice-based perspective considers the listener's role as essential as the speaker's. Using naturally occurring conversations between female speakers in Taiwan, this research studies both the dynamic characteristics of (im)politeness (i.e., moment-by-moment reactions, emergent context) and also the stable features (i.e., cultural norms, existing ways of behaving) which jointly serve as the basis for the understanding and evaluation of their interpersonal relationships. Results of this research suggest, first, participants employ different participant deictics to perform and mitigate potentially face-threatening acts (e.g., using null-subject to create ambiguity); second, when one of the participants' personal behavior conflicts with what other participants used to believe to be appropriate, they adjust their criterion of evaluation for that specific participant. This adjustment thus reconstructs the relationship between (im)politeness and (in)appropriateness such that inappropriate behavior is not necessarily evaluated as impolite. This adjustment also demonstrates how both dynamic (i.e., newly constructed agreements) and stable (i.e., previously agreed norms) characteristics are simultaneously at work in an interaction.

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