A benchmark for politeness

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(Im)politeness is never a depersonalized, decontextualized absolute but always a perception or judgement of appropriate behaviour on a given occasion - what one expects oneself and others to do in a particular social interaction. Nevertheless, it is normal for most tabooed words and phrases to be castigated in dictionaries as dysphemistic (having connotations that are offensive either about the denotatum and/or to people addressed or overhearing the utterance). For example, in a range of dictionaries, shit is judged coarse , obscene , insulting , vulgar , profane , taboo , impolite , and offensive . No rationale is given for any of these ex cathedra value judgements in the dictionaries, nor in media outlets, but a middle-class politeness criterion (MCPC) was proposed in Allan and Burridge, Euphemism and Dysphemism: Language Used as Shield and Weapon. (New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 21, 31, 1991): In order to be polite to a casual acquaintance of the opposite sex in a formal situation in a middle-class environment, one would normally be expected to use the euphemism or orthophemism rather than the dispreferred counterpart. The dispreferred counterpart would be a dysphemism. Orthophemisms (straight talking) and euphemisms (sweet talking) are words or phrases used as an alternative to a dispreferred (undesirable, inappropriate) expression because they avoid possible loss of face by the speaker and also the hearer or some third party. An orthophemism is typically more formal and more direct (or literal) than the corresponding more colloquial and figurative euphemism. There is no suggestion that the MCPC fails to apply between, say, close acquaintances of the same sex or any other dyad; however, language exchange between casual acquaintances of different sexes offers the most probable default conditions for the MCPC and, in this chapter, I claim that, with some slight adjustment, the MCPC offers a benchmark for politeness within Anglo communities. Following a discussion of (im)politeness theories and hypotheses about face management, (cultural) scripts, and habitus, the MCPC is closely examined, explained, and tested in the course of examining some texts. This chapter concludes with proposals to resolve the apparent limitations of the MCPC.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationInterdisciplinary Studies in Pragmatics, Culture and Society
EditorsAlessandro Capone, Jacob L Mey
Place of PublicationCham Switzerland
Pages397 - 420
Number of pages24
ISBN (Print)9783319126159
Publication statusPublished - 2016

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