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Susanne Mühleisen (Frankfurt am Main)

Leo Hickey and Miranda Stewart (eds.) (2005): Politeness in Europe.
Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

What is considered polite in Britain, Finland or Greece? Would the same type of behaviour be evaluated as polite versus impolite in these countries? Are some cultures impolite in comparison with others? And, as Juliane House cannily asks in the first chapter of the present volume, is there such a thing as politeness in Germany? In lay terms, most competent adult members of a society know what "politeness" means. There are linguistic and non-linguistic features of what is commonly referred to as politeness – for instance apologizing for a mistake, saying "thank you" and "please", or waiting one's turn in a queue. Polite behaviour is usually the unmarked form of conduct for an adult. However, the rules for this are by no means "natural" or given but acquired behaviour and part of children's general and linguistic socialization process.

Beyond such everyday knowledge, politeness has also become a highly prolific research field in linguistics and a vast number of publications have appeared in the last two decades on various aspects of the topic, including politeness and gender (e.g. Holmes 1995, Mills 2003), or the comparison of specific politeness practices in various languages or countries (e.g. Blum-Kulka, House & Kasper 1989, Fukushima 2000, Held 1996, Sifianou 1992). Linguistic politeness theory emerged as part of the growing field of Pragmatics in the 1970s and is related to Grice's idea of cooperative behaviour in communication. Research on politeness experienced a boost after the publication of Penelope Brown's and Stephen Levinson's Politeness. Some Universals in Language Usage (1978, 1987), now a classic and still an important reference point in the field. Central to Brown and Levinson's model is the notion of "face", a term borrowed from and associated with the sociologist Erving Goffman (1955, 1967). Face, in the description of Brown & Levinson, means the public self-image that a person wants to claim and uphold for him- or herself and which has to be constantly negotiated in interaction, i.e. face can be enhanced, maintained and also lost in such negotiation.

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There are two related aspects to this concept: negative face and positive face, both of which can be damaged in what Brown and Levinon call "Face Threatening Acts" (FTAs): negative face, a person's claim to "freedom of action and freedom of imposition" might be threatened by an interlocutor's request, for example, whereas positive face, a person's claim to a positive consistent self image, might be threatened by criticism or insults. Some verbal acts are therefore inherently face threatening acts and it is not surprising that many studies on politeness deal with particular speech acts like requests, apologies, thanks, compliments, etc. (cf. Blum-Kulka, House & Kasper 1989, Fukushima 2000, Held 1996, Holmes 1986). In order to minimize a FTA or enhance the positive face of another, so Brown and Levinson, speakers may use a number of politeness strategies, including a claim common ground, to notice and attend to the hearer's interests, to use in-group identity markers which are used to enhance the hearer's positive face, whereas indirectness, apologies, impersonalizations are ways to make a negative face threat (e.g. a request) less imposing.

Politeness in Europe, edited by Leo Hickey (Research Professor, University of Salford) and Miranda Stewart (Senior Lecturer and Head of Spanish and Latin American Studies, University of Strathclyde) looks at such issues of linguistic politeness practices across 22 European countries. The list of countries and areas covered is impressive, with Western Europe as the largest contingent (Germany – Juliane House, France – Catherine Kerbrat-Orecchioni, Belgium – Emmanuelle Danblon, Bernard de Clerck and Jean-Pierre van Noppen, Luxemburg – Johannes Kramer, The Netherlands – Rob le Pair, Austria – Silvia Haumann, Ursula Koch and Karl Sornig, Switzerland – Guiseppe Manno, Britain – Miranda Stewart, and Ireland – Jeffrey L. Kallen). Northern Europe is represented with four contributions (Norway – Thorstein Fretheim, Denmark – Elin Fredsted, Sweden – Cornelia Ilie, and Finland – Valma Yli-Vakkuri), followed by five articles on Eastern Europe (Estonia – Leelo Keevalik, Poland – Romuald Huszcza, Hungary – Lóránt Bencze, and the Czech Republik – Jiří Nekvapil and J. V. Neustupný). The last part is devoted to Southern Europe (Greece – Maria Sifianou and Eleni Antonopoulou, Cyprus – Marina Terkourafi, Portugal – Maria Helena Araújo Carreira, and Spain – Leo Hickey).

Politeness in Europe is not the first volume which seeks to compare politeness behaviour in a range of countries/languages – Blum-Kulka and Olshtain's (1984) Cross-Cultural Speech Act Research Project (CCSARP) and subsequent publications (Blum-Kulka et al. 1989), for instance, contrasted apologies and requests across Australian, American and British English, Canadian French, Danish, German, Hebrew and Russian – but it is certainly the most ambitious one with regard to the number of languages covered.

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In contrast to a more unified study such as Blum-Kulka and Olshtain's, it is perhaps inevitable, however, that a collection like Hickey's and Stewart's covers rather diverse issues and applies various different research methodologies, ranging from studies of specific speech acts (e.g. thanks – Hickey on Spain, requests and apologies feature in most articles) and forms of address, especially changes in the pronominal address (T/V forms) of many European languages (e.g. Ilie on Sweden, Yli-Vakkuri on Finland, Manno on Switzerland, Haumann et al. on Austria, etc.) to "small talk" in various contexts. Some of the studies are based on experiments (e.g. Le Pair on Dutch), others use observation or transcripts of recorded interaction (e.g. Keevalik on Estonia) as their data-base.

But apart from such more technical details, the question or comparability must also be posed to the very concept of politeness itself. After all, one of the most fundamental criticism of Brown and Levinson's approach is its basic claim of universality and its Anglo-centric model of politeness with, for instance, indirectness as a core strategy to mimimize FTAs or to associate a particular linguistic form with politeness across cultures (cf. Eelen 2001). As Meier points out,

Each speech community has means to communicate deference, mitigation, directness, and indirectness, etc. It dare not be assumed, however, that these means will find functional equivalence across languages and cultures. The folk notion of one culture being 'more or less polite' than another can be ascribed to one language using linguistic forms, for example, that are associated with a different meaning in a comparable context in another speech community. Politeness can be said to be universal only in the sense that every society has some sort of norms for appropriate behavior [...]. (Meier 1995: 338)

The editors are aware of this and quite a few articles engage in a fruitful discussion of the norms and values underlying politeness rules in a society, for instance, "sincerity" (e.g. Jeffrey L. Kallen on Ireland) or "uncertainty-avoidance" (Juliane House on Germany). As House, long-standing pioneer in the field, points out in her contribution, "the relationship between indirectness and politeness is much more complicated than had been predicted by politeness models such as Brown and Levinson's" (House 2005: 22).

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Another danger of an enterprise like Politeness in Europe lies in an overgeneralization of politeness rules with respect to a particular country which might then lead to producing or reproducing national stereotypes. Again, Hickey and Stewart acknowledge this potential trap and note that it "emerges [...] that language is not necessarily co-terminous with culture and a number of the chapters address issues such as the differences between rural and urban norms [...] Furthermore, within the same country there may co-exist different, often conflicting, language communities" (Hickey & Stewart 2005: 2). This is considered especially those contributions which deal with multilingual countries (e.g. Switzerland, Belgium, Luxemburg), usually along the lines of the language groups within the country. In other articles, an awareness of regional and social differences remains strangely absent. Generally, one might wish for more community-based politeness research in all languages/countries. This might also be borne in mind in the projected updates in 10-year intervals: As the editors note with special reference to the Eastern Europe section, "as Europe changes and transforms itself, then necessarily its politeness systems are also bound to be transformed [...] One of our hopes, therefore, is that this book will be re-written every so often, say every ten years, to update politeness in Europe and Politeness in Europe." (Hickey & Stewart 2005: 10)

With such happy perspectives on the horizon, we can see the present volume as a first exploration of much needed further research. Politeness in Europe (2005) provides an impressive overview of politeness issues in a wide range of contexts, and readers interested in politeness or scholars working in an area of pragmatics or sociolinguistics in one of the countries/languages covered will have quite a few interesting finds. Thanks!


Blum-Kulka, Shoshana & Elite Olshtain (1984): "Requests and apologies: A cross-cultural study of speech act realization patterns (CCSARP)", in: Applied Linguistics 5 (3): 196–213.

Blum-Kulka, Shoshana, Juliane House & Gabriele Kasper (eds.) (1989): Cross-cultural Pragmatics: Requests and Apologies. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

Brown, Penelope & Stephen Levinson (1978): "Universals of language usage: Politeness phenomena", in: Esther Goody (ed.): Questions and Politeness Strategies in Social Interaction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 56–311.

Brown, Penelope & Stephen Levinson (1987): Politeness: Some Universals in Language Usage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Eelen, Gino (2001): A Critique of Politeness Theories. Manchester: St. Jerome.

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Fukushima, Saeko (2000): Requests and Culture: Politeness in British English and Japanese. Bern: Peter Lang.

Goffman, Erving (1955): "On face-work: An analysis of ritual elements in social interaction", in: Psychiatry 18: 213–231.

Goffman, Erving (1967): Interaction Ritual: Essays on Face-to-Face Behavior. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Anchor Books.

Held, Gudrun (1996): "Two polite speech acts in contrastive view: Aspects of the realization of requesting and thanking in French and Italian", in: Marlis Hellinger & Ulrich Ammon (eds.): Contrastive Sociolinguistics. Berlin: de Gruyter, 363–384.

Holmes, Janet (1986): "Compliments – compliment responses in New Zealand English", in: Anthropological Linguistics 28: 484–508.

Holmes, Janet (1995): Women, Men and Politeness. London: Longman.

House, Juliane (2005): "Politeness in Germany: Politeness in Germany?", in: Leo Hickey & Miranda Stewart (eds.): Politeness in Europe. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters, 13–28.

Meier, Ardith J. (1995): "Passages of politeness", in: Journal of Pragmatics 24: 381–392.

Mills, Sara (2003): Gender and Politeness. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sifianou, Maria (1992): Politeness Phenomena in England and Greece. Oxford: Clarendon.