In this post I’m taking the topic of pragmatics further, by looking a bit at what politeness means. How can we understand politeness in a systematic way that enables us to explain why someone is polite or not, and in what way? Politeness is one of those vague ideas that the society has developed and people have the impression everyone knows what is meant so no need to reflect on it. But once we do attempt to explain what is actually involved in our idea of politeness we start realising that language, or communication, is really not “just words”, but actions. Because this takes us to the fundamental question why we use language in the first place. Some people may immediately answer, “to get information across”; but how often have we actually exchanged information with our close friends, for instance?
Language is on the one hand our main means to achieve goals, it’s our main channel of action in attempting to get we want. There’s always something we need to say if we are to obtain something, we’re no solitary Robinson Crusoes who just used to hope for a good crop. On the other hand language is the main channel for projecting ourselves, who we are, what we want to be and to get. So understanding politeness is a path to understanding how we use language to achieve our goals in ways that are socially accepted. Watch my presentation for a view of politeness that has a lot of explanatory power.