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.

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.

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.

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.

Conquering Evil

“Evil can not be conquered within this world. It can only be resisted in oneself.”

Kung Fu (television series), Master Po

The world is full of people that look at the world they live in and see evil all around them. It’s easy to point to outliers, such as Ted Kaczynski, a.k.a., the Unabomber, to illustrate the point. But, looking at individuals is a good way to only look at trees and miss the forest.

The fundamental problem is that every human being has evil tendencies, and they live with other human beings that use those tendencies to increase the group’s chances of survival in a world with limited resources. Hunter-gatherer groups protect sources of water for their groups exclusive use from other hunter-gathers. With the advent of agriculture, surpluses allowed a larger population, which could then take control over the sources of water in their area from hunter-gatherers. Larger societies took from smaller ones, and killed and consolidated with outside groups. Human history is simply a chronicle of the rise and fall of these groups, whether it be tribe, city or modern nation.

How then can these tendencies be eradicated? How can evil be fought?

The first step is to transcend the notion that our group is somehow special, whether this idea is talked about as “The Chosen People”, the “twice-born” of Hinduism, the “Elect”, or any of the other many permutations of this idea of a special group that is above others. This kind of thinking allows for a double standard of morality, where the in-group is treated one way and the out-group is treated in another.

The second step is to realize that all human beings are the same, with capacities for both good and evil. Evil is the product of desires to get the things we want or need. We need to turn and face this tendency in ourselves and make a choice. That’s the only evil we have any hope of eradicating, and realistically, most people can only hope to reign in their evil tendencies, particularly in a cultural environment that promotes them.

Social Contagion & Tolerance

In 2007, The New England Journal of Medicine had a study on obesity and social networks that has results that said:

“A person’s chances of becoming obese increased by 57% (95% confidence interval [CI], 6 to 123) if he or she had a friend who became obese in a given interval. Among pairs of adult siblings, if one sibling became obese, the chance that the other would become obese increased by 40% (95% CI, 21 to 60). If one spouse became obese, the likelihood that the other spouse would become obese increased by 37% (95% CI, 7 to 73). These effects were not seen among neighbors in the immediate geographic location.”

Christakis, Nicholas A. and Fowler, James H. “The Spread of Obesity in a Large Social Network over 32 Years” N Engl J Med 2007;357:370-9

It is clear that social contagion has impacts everyone across a wide-variety of behaviors. Hearing of a celebrity or having an acquaintance committing suicide increases the chances of those hearing of it committing suicide. News of mass shootings spawn other mass shootings.

Racial, gender and other stereotypes propagate across the social landscape in much the same way, both for good and ill. Social justice movements can reduce stereotypes just as racist, sexist and other groups can reenforce them.

Then, there is the whole process of demarginalization. In online forums, finding kindred spirits can help with being part of an often marginalized group, such as being homosexual. But, it can also lead to adopting extremist attitudes, such as the religious extremism that drives Islamic, and other ideologically-motivated terrorism.

All of which ties into the paradox of tolerance, a society without limits is a society that will be destroyed by tolerating behaviors that eat away at the social bonds that bind it together. But, where does brotherhood and sisterhood reside? Where should boundaries be drawn?

Should we select our friends based on whether they are physically fit? So, we reduce the chance that we will be influenced into behaviors that will make us obese?

What of people with a mental illness, such as the chronically depressed? What of stupid people? What of controlling, manipulative people? What of people with uncontrolled anger? What of the socially inept?

What if we change the perspective and ask ourselves about a society? Should individuals cut themselves off from a society, or parts of it, that have a negative social impact on them as individuals?

Clearly, the Western diet, as it is becomes the dominate way of eating around the world, leads to a whole host of modern ailments, from diabetes to dementia. It also seems likely that the Internet is a catalyst that is causing fissures in society by speeding up the forming of communities and the propagation of ideas, more of it bad than good due to the structure and incentives of the technology. Should healthy individuals cut themselves off from a sick society and technologies that tend to promote undesirable behaviors?

I don’t know the answer to any of these questions. However, I do remember a comment made at a Quaker meeting I attended once that seems relevant, they said:

“If you want to learn to love, don’t start with Hitler.”

-Quaker Meeting comment

I think the demands of love are that we try to be as open and tolerant as we are able. But, I think it is not an unqualified principle. If a relationship doesn’t have the potential to benefit from tolerance, where the risk is substantial and the reward minimal, then we can draw lines based on our capacity. The Enlightened Buddha, Jesus Christ or a deity may be able to save all sentient beings. It’s a good goal. But, if you are just starting out on your journey or only a little way on, trying to love Hitler out of the gate sounds like an excellent way to be pulled from the path and to lose ourselves entirely. Like on an airplane, you’ve got to put your own oxygen mask on first. Save yourself, then you might be able to save others.

This is probably why Buddhist meditation on loving-kindness starts with our own selves. We must first learn to love ourselves. If we cannot learn to tolerate our own limitations and the negative influence of our own mind on our behavior, how can we hope to have much capacity to deal with the difficult individuals in our lives?

We surely have more capacity than we think we have and a principle of tolerance reminds us to stretch ourselves, perhaps even find our limits and run the risk of passing them. But, first start with yourself. Understand your limitations and weigh the risks. Don’t start trying to save the whole world. Start with just a small piece of it. Tending one’s garden can lead to tending the world.

Changing Reality Tunnels

Open Question: How does one cultivate the skill of evaluating our world view, assessing its strengths and weaknesses, and changing it when our situation changes?

“Every kind of ignorance in the world all results from not realizing that our perceptions are gambles. We believe what we see and then we believe our interpretation of it, we don’t even know we are making an interpretation most of the time. We think this is reality.”

—Robert Anton Wilson

“Our job is to remind us that there are more contexts than the one that we’re in — the one that we think is reality.”

—Alan Kay

Yesterday’s The Cost of the Club discussion starting me thinking about reality tunnels. Reality tunnels can shape not only how we view the world but also how we view ourselves, and vice versa.

If you identify with a political party, then how you view the world is shaped by this identification. It may be impossible to see the limitation of the field of view because you do not have a point of comparison.

Like depth perception, you have to have a slightly different frame of reference in order to see into three dimensions. Without a second frame, it can be difficult to judge certain qualities in our environment, such as distance.

And, we can extend this analogy. Add in space and time as proxies for our geography and our historical moment and we can try to adopt different frames of reference to look at our own and other times. This gives us increased flexibility in outlook, and perhaps, we can cultivate a sense of their strengths and limitations.

For example, in the current moment, we like to imagine that the mind is like a computer, subject to programming. Before computers, minds were compared to locomotives, houses, gardens, sponges and so forth. All of them provide some insight into how to think about our minds, but none of them are true. All of them have limitations.

Whatever else it is like, the mind is like a filter, taking in all the overwhelming information of our sense experience and trying to narrow it down to some desirable essence that helps us to live. This essence can change depending on our circumstances. The needs of civilians living in a town torn apart by civil war are different from the needs of military prisoners of war living in captivity. Princesses need a different way of interpreting the world than does the cook preparing her meals, even though they both ostensibly live in the same environment.

The ability to adapt to our environment and cultivate mental models that help us to survive in them is a great gift. But, it is also a great gift to be aware of their limitations and learn to be able to change them at will, when circumstances change.

How does one improve this skill? It’s a good question. I’m thinking that a good place to start might be with Prometheus Rising by Robert Anton Wilson. It seems to be part of a larger question of: how do create an environment for yourself and others that is conducive to human flourishing? The ideas of Extropianism and their principles, particularly the other books in their recommended books near the bottom of the page might be a useful place to start.