Politeness is Two-Faced

Note: This is an one-sheet explainer for myself. I have never encountered politeness theory before this week. I wanted to do a quick one page review of the concepts from Wikipedia and a quick web search, then put together a short one-page summary. This summary can serve as a reminder for understanding what politeness theory entails without going through the whole Wikipedia page, which badly needs editing for readability.


Politeness theory holds that politeness is universal. We present a “face” to others in a particular social context that represents how we wish to be perceived in that context.

Face has two aspects, positive and negative. Positive face is the desire to appear competent, to be accepted and to have value to others. It means that one’s self-image is in alignment with the perspective of other individuals and one’s social group(s). Negative face is the desire for autonomy and often involves the maintenance of the status quo.

Attacks on Face From Others & Our Response

Attacks on our negative face from others include: orders, requests, offers, suggestions, advice, remindings, threats, warnings, compliments, promises, and expressions of envy, admiration, anger, hatred, or other strong negative emotion toward someone. We damage our own negative face when we: express thanks, accept a thank you or apology, offer excuses, accept an offer, respond to a violation of social etiquette, or commit to doing something we don’t want to do.

Attacks on our positive face from others include: expressions of disapproval, excessively emotional expressions, belittling, discussing topics that inform identity (e.g., politics, sex, religion), interrupting, non sequiturs and misreading the face of others (e.g., calling a trans-man a “she”). We damage our own positive face when we: apologize, accept a compliment, are unable to control our physical or emotional selves, engage in self-humiliation, or confess.

Politeness Strategies

There are four politeness strategies: bald on-record, positive politeness, negative politeness, and off-record. Bald on-record is for close relationships and does not account for face at all. Positive politeness attempts to make the person feel like they belong. Negative politeness attempts to not impose on other people. Off-record is an indirect communication that relies on the awareness of the other person to read in between the lines and understand what is being communicated.

Specific Examples

Leadership: If someone tries to becomes a leader of a group. It is changing their positive face from being a member of a group to being its leader. If there is a current leader of the group, this is an attack on the current leader’s positive and negative face. It is also an attack on the negative face of other members of the group because it is changing the status quo and putting them into a position of making a choice, where they might not wish to make this choice.

Proselytizing: When we try to convert others to our point of view, we are violating both their positive and negative face. It violates the positive face because it is not accepting the face that they are presenting. It violates negative face because someone else is trying to impose their viewpoints and change other people’s minds.


Erving Goffman. Interaction Ritual: Essays on Face-to-Face Behavior. New York: Doubleday, 1967.

Penelope Brown and Stephen C. Levinson. Politeness: Some Universals in Language Usage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Politeness Theory, Negative Face

“Negative face was defined as ‘the want of every ‘competent adult member’ that his actions be unimpeded by others’, or ‘the basic claim to territories, personal preserves, rights to non-distraction—i.e. the freedom of action and freedom from imposition’. Whereas positive face involves a desire for connection with others, negative face needs include autonomy and independence.”

—Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, s.v. “Politeness Theory,” (accessed January 14, 2019), https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Politeness_theory#Positive_and_negative_face

Rearranging Our Minds

Open Question: Should we make an effort to change our minds in some fundamental way? And if so, how?

There are a number of stories of people suffering a traumatic brain injury that results in the brain being rearranged in a way that gives them a new ability. Generally, this involves some skill with art, understanding music, improved memory or doing calculations in math. Although, a few also involve different kinds of experience, such as synesthesia.

It’s not limited to injuries. There is also the question of psychedelics. Scott Alexander makes this point in an article in his blog Slate Star Codex:

“The third possibility is the one that really intrigues me. A 2011 study found that a single dose of psilocybin could permanently increase the personality dimension of Openness To Experience. I’m emphasizing that because personality is otherwise pretty stable after adulthood; nothing should be able to do this. But magic mushrooms apparently have this effect, and not subtly either; participants who had a mystical experience on psilocybin had Openness increase up to half a standard deviation compared to placebo, and the change was stable sixteen months later. This is really scary. I mean, I like Openness To Experience, but something that can produce large, permanent personality changes is so far beyond anything else we have in psychiatry that it’s kind of terrifying.”

Scott Alexander, “Why Were Early Psychedelicists So Weird?” Slate Star Codex. April 28, 2016.

Anyone that has been around people that have taken a lot of LSD know that they are different. Often, they are different in ways that make it more difficult to function in society, not easier. But, the opposite can also be true.

There was also a lot of discussion a few years ago about how people in Silicon Valley were microdosing LSD in an effort to boost their creativity. Clearly, in this case, psychedelics were being used to improve performance in a particular context and probably without full consideration of the effects beyond creativity.

There has also been research done in using electrical impulses to change mental states in people. The U.S. military, for example, is using electrical brain stimulation to enhance skills. Of course, there has been a dark side to this as well, as any discussion of Electroconvulsive Therapy will invariably bring up.

Meditation is also said to have effects on our mental states. A meta-analysis into meditation research by the medical community described it as follows:

“Results indicate that meditation leads to activation in brain areas involved in processing self-relevant information, self-regulation, focused problem-solving, adaptive behavior, and interoception. Results also show that meditation practice induces functional and structural brain modifications in expert meditators, especially in areas involved in self-referential processes such as self-awareness and self-regulation. These results demonstrate that a biological substrate underlies the positive pervasive effect of meditation practice and suggest that meditation techniques could be adopted in clinical populations and to prevent disease.”

M. Boccia, L. Piccardi, P. Guariglia. “The meditative mind: a comprehensive meta-analysis of MRI studies.” Biomed. Res. Int. 2015:419808. 10.1155/2015/419808

It seems like meditation is a good idea and has many positive aspects, but it also fundamentally changes the biology and the functioning of our brains. Should we be doing it?

You could probably make arguments that music, creating art, exercise and many other activities have dramatic and important effects on the mind and likely change it on a biological level. But, should we be striving to reorganize our minds to achieve some goal or mental state? And what techniques should we be using and why? This strikes me as a fundamental unanswered question about human life that warrants investigation.

Reference: Might be useful to consult Michael Pollan’s “How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence” to get a sense of how psychedelics are currently being used.

Doctor Rapp

“The reason Hershfield was accepted at Project Blowed, said Caldwell, was that he arrived with an open mind, and he listened and learned. ‘That’s one wonderful thing I like most about black American communities,’ he said. ‘As long as you don’t try to tell them how to do their own culture, you’re good.’ Ever since Dr. Rapp’s days, performers from all races and backgrounds have jumped onstage, added Caldwell. But the moment they stutter or slur, it’s always the same:

‘Please pass the mic.'”

—Jeff Maysh. “How a Stroke Turned a 63-Year-Old Into a Rap Legend: The Story of Dr. Rapp.” The Atlantic. January 16, 2019.

The Problem of Rent

In the United States, just over a 1/3 of people rent with 38% of them paying more than 30% of their income for rent. About 17% of renters pay more than 50% of their income for rent.

When you consider the cost of rent, it is not surprising that half a million people are homeless. What else will happen when you get sick or lose a job and have no emergency fund to pay for rent?

But, the more interesting question is why is the rate of home ownership so high? David Harvey provides an explanation worth considering in his talk: The Crises of Capitalism. Below, I link to the relevant section, but the whole talk is worth a listen. It’s 11 minutes long.

In sum, he says that the United States has home ownership rates of 68%, which is an outlier when you consider Switzerland has rates around 22%. These rates of ownership have been supported by the Mortgage Interest Tax Deduction, which is a huge government subsidy for housing. It has been promoted since the 1930s because “debt-encumbered homeowners don’t go on strike.”

He goes on to talk about the excessive power of finance capital and how wages of workers have been driven down and debt has become the means to cover the gaps for various goods. Housing is the single greatest source of debt for individuals and households, and it is central to how this all plays out.

David Harvey’s comments suggests that from the perspective of individuals, home ownership and renting is a trap that it would be wise to think about differently. One approach is to reduce the size and quality of the living space, such as living in mobile homes, sheds, RVs and other kinds of smaller houses. Another approach is to share larger living spaces with others, whether that be through apartment cooperatives, intentional communities, multi-generational homes, or some other method.

We have been seeing one example of this playing out with the Millennial generation.  In the last decade or two, younger people have been deciding to stay and live with their parents after finishing school. It is a smart financial strategy and addresses the problem of rent for people newly entering the work force. If the social problems of a multi-generational household can be navigated, it could be a long-term solution that takes advantage of a housing market geared toward selling more square feet of space than is needed.

Rethinking our approach to housing is imperative for individuals looking to get on firm financial footing. It is impossible to accomplish this when half your income (or even a third) is being spent on rent. Of course, this is precisely the argument to buy a home, since paying a mortgage builds equity.

The one thing you can be sure of is any solution for society at large that involves paying less rent will involve less movement of capital, which will result in lower profits for people financing housing debt. Every instrument of influence is being used to counteract movements in that direction and to promote the “American Dream,” which always includes some modern version of a home with of the white picket fence.

Rent is a trap meant to keep people selling their labor. However, it is a trap easily circumvented with innovative thinking and/or the help of family and other like-minded people.

Why I Live in a Shed – Dark Mountain

“I could tell her about all the things I wanted to do with my wild and precious life. How I wanted to go exploring. To see with my own eyes all the wonders of the world. To ride camels and climb mountains, test myself against the elements, find my own limitations, make my own mistakes. And then, when I had finished wandering, I wanted to come home and write love songs and death poems and books about fear, because I’d felt love and I’d touched death and I’d faced oceans of fear and found oceans of courage, and, frankly, after all that life I didn’t want to go inside and sit in an office working to prop up someone else’s failing economy.

I could tell her I belong to a dispossessed generation, who came of age too late, after all the houses had already been hoovered up for spares and pension plans.”

—Catrina Davies, “Why I Live in a Shed.” Dark-Mountain.net. January 16, 2018

The One Year Rule

If you want your life to change, wait a year. It’ll change. Of course, it may not be for the better.

A study in 2008 found that happiness tends to follow a U-shaped curve, where the lowest level of happiness occurs somewhere around age 46. Yet, there are confounding factors. A death of a spouse, child or close family member, divorce/marital separation, imprisonment, personal injury or illness, or loss of meaningful work can all contribute to shifting our nadir of happiness into a different period. But, knowing that the 40s can be a difficult time, on average, and that life tends to improve after can be a helpful thing to know. It can be a source of hope.

Nothing is sure in this life but change. Are things difficult for you? All you need to do is wait. It’ll change.