Politeness as a Theoretical and Empirical Framework for Studying Relational Communication in Computer-mediated Contexts

Politeness as a Theoretical and Empirical Framework for Studying Relational Communication in Computer-mediated Contexts

David A. Morand (The Pennsylvania State University, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-61520-773-2.ch050
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This conceptual chapter draws on the sociolinguistic theory of politeness, showing how politeness provides a robust theoretical and empirical framework that can be usefully applied to the study of relational ties in computer-medicated-communication. The chapter first reviews politeness theory, and shows how politeness is operationalized relative to a definable set of linguistic indices that are used throughout everyday discourse to communicate respect and esteem for others’ face. The chapter then discusses how recognition of the central role of face-work in social interchange can enhance our understanding of why and where emotion-work might occur in CMC, how such emotion-work (in the form of politeness) can be reliably observed and quantitatively measured at a linguistic level of analysis, and how the distribution of politeness phenomena is systematically related to relational variables that are mainstays of CMC research – variables such as socioemotional versus task orientation, status, cohesion, impersonality, friendship, and communicative efficiency.
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Politeness Theory

Politeness encompasses more than the mannered etiquette of Emily Post (Post, 1997). The theory (Brown & Levinson, 1987) -- well known in anthropology, social psychology, and linguistics (for reviews: Brown, 1996; Brown & Gilman, 1991; Fraser, 1990; Kasper, 1990; Morand, 2000, 2005; Watts, 2003) -- is rooted in the dramaturgical theories of Goffman (1959, 1967, 1971), particularly relative to the central role of face in interaction. Dramaturgy here simply references Goffman's conception of individuals as social 'actors' who concertedly 'perform' (present a public self) on the stage of everyday life. Individuals use linguistic, behavioral and gestural displays to present a positive self-image (“face”) to the social world; they seek to create certain impressions in others, to appear smooth and competent in their role performances, to be perceived as appropriately heedful and supportive of others' performances, and so forth. Face, the positive social value each person effectively claims for him or her self in the public arena (Goffman, 1967), is proffered and thus exposed throughout interaction. Face is the very reflection of self worth; upon this presentational aspect hangs individuals' self-esteem, self-identity, their credibility as a member of the social group. “There is nothing routine about face to face interaction, exposure of face to possible undermining by others, and its treatment by others, is a hallowed event” (Becker, 1991:87).

Key Terms in this Chapter

Virtual Team: A group of individuals using information and communications technologies to collaborate on work-related tasks.

Face: The positive value individuals claim for the public self they present.

Socioemotional Communication: communicative exchange focusing on development or maintenance of affective ties

Politeness: Phrasing things in such a way as to show consideration for the face of others.

Task-Oriented Communication: Communicative exchange focusing on affectively neutral instrumental activities that are related to task accomplishment.

Computer-Mediated-Communication: Communicative exchange that occurs over computers.

Relational Communication: Communication sequences focusing on affective ties on creation and maintenance of social relationships.

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