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.