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Considerations for Pragmatic Performance


This section addresses the notion of politeness and its role in understanding pragmatics.

What is politeness?

Politeness is a very complex and intricate topic. In fact, it would almost require a complete website of its own. However, in order to give you some introductory information we briefly address it here.

On a very basic level, politeness refers to the most appropriate pragmatic strategies for a given context. Traditionally, we tend to think of "being polite" as being more formal. This may be the case in many situations. However, politeness can also refer to being informal when necessary. It can be just as impolite to be formal with your best friend as it is to be very informal with a boss or professor. When learning to be pragmatically appropriate, it is most important to consider what is polite in the given situation.

Social Factors Impacting Politeness

In order to determine what is pragmatically appropriate, it is important to evaluate many of the contextual factors surrounding the situation. You see specific examples of how these factors affect strategy choice in the modules throughout the website. The three most common factors affecting the politeness of an utterance are:

          • Social Distance
          • Power
          • Rank of Imposition

Social distance refers to the relationship between the interlocutors. If two people are very close, they would have a low degree of social distance. Two strangers would typically have a high degree of social distance. In most varieties of Spanish, higher degrees of social distance result in the use of more formal language.

a boss and employee

Power refers to the power relationship between two interlocutors. You will typically find yourself in three types of power relationships. In the first, you would have equal power with the person you are talking to (e.g., a friend or colleague). In the other two, you would either have more power (e.g., as a boss, instructor) or less power (e.g., employee, student) than the person you were talking to. In Spanish, more formal and indirect language is typically used in situations where the other person has more power than you do.

Rank of imposition refers to the importance or degree of difficulty in the situation. For example, in requests, a large rank of imposition would occur if you were asking for a big favor, whereas a small rank of imposition would exist when the request is small. In Spanish, high ranks of imposition tend to require more formal and complex language structures.

wheelbarrow of gifts

Each one of these factors interacts and relates differently to the politeness of a communicative act. They even carry different weights in different varieties of Spanish. When learning to be pragmatically appropriate, it is important to learn which social factors are most applicable and important to the context in which you are interacting. Specific considerations for each of these factors are included in the modules of this website. We encourage you to pay special attention to them as you learn about each communicative act.

Are some language varieties more polite than others?

No. All language systems carry their own politeness orientation and have a way of expressing formality, informality, large or small ranks of imposition, and power relationships. We strongly caution you against ranking the "politeness" of different languages or different language varieties.

Politeness Orientation

Instead of ranking politeness, it is important to think of politeness in terms of politeness orientation. Politeness orientation refers to the types of preferred strategies used by native speakers of a language variety.

On a very basic level, two main types of language strategies are found in language:

Group-oriented strategies are those which are used to express solidarity, interdependence, and affiliation.

Individual-oriented strategies are those which maintain the individuality of the interlocutors as well as their freedom of action.

two friends talking

Different language varieties tend to use both types of strategies; however, preference for different types of strategies are found. For example, in general, native speakers of English tend to prefer individual-oriented strategies over group-oriented strategies.

Preliminary conclusions in Spanish (Márquez-Reiter & Placencia, 2005) have also demonstrated different politeness orientations across language varieties. For example, in some varieties of Spanish, group-oriented politeness strategies (i.e., expressing solidarity, interdependence, affiliation with the interlocutor) are preferred (Argentina, Peninsular Spanish, Uruguay, and Venezuela), and in others, both group and individual-oriented politeness strategies (deference, independence, autonomy) are preferred (Ecuador, Peru, Mexico). While these are preliminary conclusions, they do help demonstrate the role of politeness in pragmatic competence. As you improve your own skills, you will start to recognize patterns based on politeness orientation.

CLICK HERE to see the resources used to create this module.

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