Rethinking Politeness, Impoliteness and Gender Identity

Sara Mills


This chapter aims to interrogate the relationship between impoliteness and gender identity. I question the way that previous research on politeness has assumed a stereotypical correlation between masculinity and impoliteness and femininity and politeness. Furthermore, I aim to move politeness research away from the Brown and Levinson (1978) model whereby individual speech acts are considered to be inherently polite or impolite, towards a more complex model of the way that politeness and impoliteness operate. I argue that communities of practice, rather than individuals, arbitrate over whether speech acts are considered polite or impolite. Stereotypes of gender may play a role in the decisions that such communities make about politeness, but, nevertheless, individuals within these communities may use such stereotypes strategically to their own advantage. To illustrate these ideas, in an analysis of an incident at a departmental party, I argue that politeness needs to be analysed at a discourse level rather than at the sentence or phrase level. I also argue that gender needs to be analysed in a way which moves it away from a focus on the sex of individuals to a form of analysis which focuses on such issues as the gendering of strategies, modes of talk and domains.

Keywords: politeness; gender; pragmatics; relevance


In this chapter I aim to bring together new theoretical work on gender from feminist linguistics with new theorising of linguistic politeness. (1) I aim to clear some theoretical space for thinking about both the terms gender and politeness, and thus much of the paper is given over to a critique of theorising on this subject. My argument is that we need a more flexible and complex model of gender and politeness. Theorists in gender and language research cannot continue to discuss gender simply in terms of the differential linguistic behaviour of males and females as groups; we need to be able to analyse the various strategies which gendered, raced and classed women and men adopt in particular circumstances and with particular goals and interests. (2) In terms of the analysis of politeness, I would argue that we need several analytical changes: firstly, we need to see politeness as occurring over longer-stretches of talk; secondly, it should be seen within the context of a community of practice, rather than as simply as the product of individual speakers, and finally, we need to be aware that there may be conflicts over the meanings of politeness. By focusing on the analysis of an incident in which I was involved, in the final part of this essay, I try to formulate the ways in which I think the theorising of gender and politeness might proceed, and in particular I focus on the way that impoliteness is dealt with in interactional terms. A more pragmatic focus on impoliteness enables us to view politeness less as an addition to a conversation, something which is grafted on to individual speech acts in order to facilitate interaction between speaker and hearer, (which is at least implicit in Brown and Levinson's 1978 model) but rather as something which emerges at a discourse level, over stretches of talk and across communities of speakers and hearers. This, therefore, constitutes a discourse analysis of politeness, rather than a linguistic analysis of politeness. Thus, rather than identifying the Face Threatening Acts performed by individuals and the politeness repair work deemed necessary to contain their force, as Brown and Levinson (1978) have done, I will be focusing instead on the effect of impoliteness on groups and the way that gender plays a role in assumptions about who can be impolite to whom, and who needs to repair the damage. I will suggest that, using Relevance theory to examine the way that male and female interactants make sense of an event in speech, we may be able to see gendered protocols at work. (Sperber and Wilson, 1986) In viewing a range of different interactions we can analyse the different strategies adopted by various women rather than attempting to make generalisations about the way that all women respond to rudeness or are themselves impolite. (3) In this way, we can map out parameters for strategic intervention to repair interaction and suggest ways in which they may be contextually gendered, without making assumptions about the necessary pairing of language items with a specific gender.

Feminist Linguists and Communities of Practice

Gender has begun to be theorised in more productive ways, moving away from a reliance on binary oppositions and global statements about the behaviour of all men and all women, to more nuanced and mitigated statements about certain groups of women or men in particular circumstances, who negotiate within certain parameters of permissible or socially sanctioned behaviour. (Coates & Cameron,1988; Johnson & Meinhof 1997; Bergvall, Bing & Freed, 1996) Rather than seeing gender as a possession or set of behaviours which is imposed upon the individual by society, as many essentialist theorists have done so far, (see Butler, 1990; Fuss, 1989 for an overview) many feminists have now moved to a position where they view gender as something which is enacted or performed, and thus as a potential site of struggle over perceived restrictions in roles (Crawford, 1995).(4)

Of particular interest is the notion of communities of practice, developed by Wenger, (1998), and developed in relation to language and gender research by Eckert and McConnell-Ginet to particular effect. (Eckert and McConnell-Ginet, 1998; 1999). Within this view, feminist linguistics should be concerned less with analysing individual linguistic acts between individual (gendered) speakers than with the analysis of a community based perspective on gender and linguistic performance, which in the case of politeness must therefore involve a sense of politeness having different functions and meanings for different groups of people. ` A community of practice is an aggregate of people who come together around mutual engagement in some common endeavour. Ways of doing, ways of talking, beliefs, values, power relations – in short, practices – emerge in the course of their joint activity around that endeavour.’ (Eckert & McConnell-Ginet, 1998:490) The crucial dimensions of a community of practice are that it will have `mutual engagement; a joint negotiated enterprise; and a shared repertoire of negotiable resources accumulated over time.' (Wenger, 1998:76 cited in Holmes and Meyerhoff, 1999:175) Thus, each community will develop a range of linguistic behaviours which function in slightly different ways to other communities of practice. However, we need to modify this notion of community of practice slightly, since although there may be broad agreement as to the norms operating within that group, there will also be different `takes’ on those norms, and gender may play a significant role here in determining what each participant views as appropriate. If we are concerned with analysing cross-cultural differences in language use, the issue of gender is even more fraught, since what we refer to as gender or sex difference varies within and between cultural contexts. What is deemed appropriate linguistic behaviour for a working class white heterosexual English woman in conversation with a group of her peers will not be the same as what is deemed appropriate for a middle class Chinese heterosexual woman conversing with her peers.

This notion of a community of practice is particularly important for thinking about the way that individuals develop a sense of their own gendered identity; because it is clear that individuals belong to a wide range of different communities with different norms, and they will have different positions within these groups, (both dominant and peripheral). Thus, rather than describing a single gendered identity which correlates with one's biological sex, it is possible within this model to analyse a range of gendered identities which will be activated and used strategically within particular communities of practice. (see footnote 3)

This more productive model of gender makes it more difficult to make global and hence abstract statements about women’s or men’s language; however, it does allow for variations within the categories `men’ and `women’ and allows for the possibility of contestation and change, whilst also acknowledging the force of stereotyping and linguistic community norms. As Eckert and McConnell-Ginet state: `An emphasis on talk as constitutive of gender draws attention away from a more serious investigation of the relations among language, gender and other components of social identity: it ignores the ways difference (or beliefs therein) function in constructing dominance relations. Gender can be thought of as a sex-based way of experiencing other social attributes like class, ethnicity or age (and also less obviously social qualities like ambition, athleticism and musicality.’(Eckert & McConnell-Ginet, 1998:488/9) Thus, we do not need to lose sight of the way that stereotyping operates within communities, rather, the stereotypes of gender, race and class difference will be more or less salient dependent upon the community of practice, and each community of practice may develop different positions in relation to these stereotypes (see Bucholtz, 1999). It may also be the case that certain activities within those communities of practice might be coded or recognised as stereotypically masculine or feminine and thus certain types of linguistic activity may be considered by males and females as appropriate or inappropriate within interaction and sanctioned by the group as a whole.

Alice Freed suggests in her analysis of the types of speech which are produced by close friends that certain styles of interaction are coded by the participants as feminine or masculine; thus, because of the context and the perception that intimate conversation is feminine, the males in her study seemed to be behaving like stereotypical females. (Freed, 1996) This does not seem entirely satisfactory since it is clear that some males would perhaps see this as an occasion to mark their speech in hyper-masculine ways. (5) Furthermore, not all linguistic communities would code this type of relaxed conversation as feminine. However, the notion of gendered domains is important here in being able to describe the way that gender impacts at the level of the setting and context, rather than simply at the level of the individuals involved in the interaction.

When this new more complex theorisation of gender is extended to the analysis of linguistic politeness, it results in a move away from stereotypical assumptions that have dominated discussions of women’s use of politeness, in most of the standard analyses of gender and language from Lakoff (1978) through to Holmes (1996). It is clear that we need to acknowledge the extent to which our notion of `women’ is classed and raced, particularly when we are considering linguistic politeness. As I will argue later in this paper, politeness is already gendered, classed and raced, so that stereotypically it bears a signature of middle class, white femininity and this trace lingers on in the way that individuals react politely or impolitely, in the way that they react to politeness and impoliteness, and also whether they recognise an utterance as polite or impolite. This stereotyped connection between gender and politeness leads to certain expectations by members of communities of practice about what linguistic behaviour they expect of women and men.

Theorising of Power

Essential to feminist thinking about gender difference has been a particular model of power relations. Much early feminist thought presupposed that there was a more or less simple correlation between males and power and females and powerlessness. (Lakoff, 1975; Spender, 1980) Whilst Foucault’s formulation of power relations has been influential in this area and many feminists have urged that we need to think through power relations in a more complex manner to avoid such a simple binary opposition, there remains little work which details how to analyse seemingly endemic structural inequalities and at the same time individual transgressions and contestations of those inequalities. (Foucault, 1978) If we consider Foucault’s notion of the dispersion of power, that is, the spread of power throughout a society, rather than the holding and withholding of power by individuals, we will be able to move towards an analysis which will see language as an arena whereby power may be appropriated, rather than societal roles being clearly mapped out for participants before an interaction takes place. In engaging in interaction, we are also at the same time mapping out for ourselves a position in relation to the power relations within the group and within the society as a whole. This is what I would like to call interactional power, to differentiate it from those roles which may or may not be delineated for us by our relation to institutions, by our class position, and so on. It is possible for someone who has been allocated a fairly powerless position institutionally to accrue to themselves, however temporarily, a great deal of interactional power by their verbal dexterity, their confidence, their linguistic directness, (those more stereotypically masculine/competitive/report talk attributes), as well as through the use of the seemingly more feminine linguistic display of care, concern and sympathy, described as co-operative strategies or rapport talk. (Coates, 1998; Tannen, 1991). (6) For example, a secretary in a university department may be able to use a fairly direct form of address to those in positions of power over her, because of her access to information upon which they depend; conversely, lecturers who need this information and who are reliant on her, will need to employ politeness forms which would normally signal deference. (Mills, 1996) Thus, positions of power mapped out by one’s role in an institution may not relate directly to the interactional power that one may gain through one’s access to information, one’s verbal skill or one's display of care and concern for other group members.(7)

Contesting Brown and Levinson’s Model of Politeness

Brown and Levinson's (1978) model of politeness has influenced almost all of the theoretical and analytical work in this field. They argue for a pragmatic analysis of politeness which involves a concentration on the amount of verbal `work' which individual speakers have to perform in their utterances to counteract the force of potential threats to the `face' of the hearer. Face is a term drawn, via Goffman, rather loosely from the Chinese, to describe the self-image which the speaker or hearer would like to see maintained in the interaction. Brown and Levinson state `face is something that is emotionally invested, and that can be lost, maintained or enhanced, and must be constantly attended to in interaction.'(Brown & Levinson, 1978:66) A threat to a person's face is termed a Face Threatening Act, and they argue that such threats generally require a mitigating statement or some verbal repair (politeness), or breakdown of communication will ensue. They analyse politeness in two broad groups: positive politeness which `anoints the face of the addressee by indicating that in some respects, S[peaker] wants H[earer]'s wants (e.g. by treating him/her as a member of an in-group, a friend, a person whose wants and personality traits are known and liked),' and negative politeness which `is essentially avoidance-based and consist(s)…in assurances that the speaker…will not interfere with the addressee's freedom of action.' (ibid,75) Positive politeness is thus concerned with demonstrating closeness and affiliation (for example, compliments) whereas negative politeness is concerned with distance and formality (for example, hedges and deference).

Many theorists have criticised Brown and Levinson’s model of politeness, mainly for its overgeneralising of Eurocentric norms; several theorists have criticised both the overextension and the limitation of use of the term `face’ in Brown and Levinson’s use. (Mao, 1994; Boz, forthcoming) (8) Brown and Levinson’s model also seems unable to analyse politeness beyond the level of the sentence. Culpeper has criticised their model for being unable to analyse inference, which he suggests is the level at which a great deal of linguistic politeness and impoliteness occurs. (Culpeper, 1996) As Holmes notes, politeness cannot be said to reside within linguistic forms. Thus, a statement such as `Do you think it would be possible for you to contact Jean Thomas today?’ would be interpreted by Brown and Levinson as polite if used by a boss to her/his secretary, since mitigating features are included in this direct request which might constitute an FTA; however, this might in fact be interpreted as impolite, if it were said by a boss to his/her secretary if they usually have an informal style of communicating, and this is not the first time that the request has been made. Thus, the very features which Brown and Levinson would argue seem to indicate politeness may in fact be used to express impoliteness. Brown and Levinson’s model can further be criticised for the fact that it assumes that it is possible to know what a polite or impolite act means. It is thus a model of interaction which is focused on production, i.e. which conflates the intentions, or the perceived intentions of the speaker with that of the meaning of the interaction as a whole (9). I would argue that it is only individuals interacting within communities of practice who will be able to assess whether a particular act is polite or impolite, and even then, such interpretations may be subject to disagreement.

The Cross Cultural Linguistic Politeness Research group was set up to discuss some of these problems and to develop new ways of analysing linguistic politeness (see footnote 8). One of the contributions of the group so far has been to observe that politeness is not very observable except when there are violations of perceived politeness norms. The essence of politeness is that appears to be invisible. A further observation is that politeness is not only a set of linguistic strategies used by individuals in particular interactions, it is also a judgement made about an individual’s linguistic habits; thus it is a general way of behaving as well as an assessment about an individual in a particular interaction. Thus, if a person whom we would normally categorise as very polite is impolite in a particular instance, this might have greater force than a less offensive statement by someone whom we would categorise as habitually impolite.

Thus, politeness should be seen as a set of strategies or verbal habits which someone sets as a norm for themselves or which others judge as the norm for them, as well as being a socially constructed norm within particular communities of practice.(10) Holmes seems to affirm this in that she talks about `polite people’ as those who `avoid obvious face-threatening acts ... they generally attempt to reduce the threat of unavoidable face threatening acts such as requests or warnings by softening them, or expressing them indirectly; and they use polite utterances such as greetings and compliments where possible.’(Holmes, 1995:5) However, this view of `polite people’ does not relate those polite acts to a community which judges the acts and the people as polite, and thus is again an example of the disembodied, abstract analysis which is often determined by the use of a Brown and Levinson framework.

An important element in the assessment of an act as polite is judging whether an utterance is appropriate or not, either in relation to the perceived norms of the situation, the community of practice or the perceived norms of the society as a whole. (11) There is obviously a great deal of flexibility in these norms and the potential for misunderstandings and misapprehension of politeness is large. For example, a woman university lecturer may use mild swear words and a range of informal expressions to set a seminar group at ease and create an atmosphere of informality and openness, (that is paying positive politeness to the face needs of the group) but this may be interpreted by some of the group members as impolite, ingratiating or patronising, if they have particular views of the language which is appropriate to staff members or to what they consider a relatively formal setting such as the seminar.

Drawing on brown and Levinson's work, Janet Holmes argues that in general women are more polite than men: `Most women enjoy talk and regard talking as an important means of keeping in touch, especially with friends and intimates. They use language to establish, nurture and develop personal relationships. Men tend to see language more as a tool for obtaining and conveying information.’ (Holmes, 1995:2) Her empirical studies seem to back up this global view of women’s language, influenced by Jennifer Coates (1996) and Deborah Tannen’s (1991) work on co-operative and competitive strategies, and thus Holmes asserts that, therefore, women are more polite than men, as they are more concerned with the affective rather than the referential aspect of utterances and `Politeness is an expression of concern for the feelings of others.’ (Holmes, 1995:4) Holmes states that she will be using a broad definition of politeness following Brown and Levinson, so that politeness refers to `behaviour which actively expresses positive concern for others, as well as non-imposing distancing behaviour.’ (Holmes, 1995:5) Holmes suggests that women are more likely to use positive politeness than men; thus she is asserting that `women’s utterances show evidence of concern for the feelings of the people they are talking to more often and more explicitly than men’s do.’ (Holmes, 1995:6) I aim to contest Holmes’ notion that women globally are more polite than men through analysing one particular instance of linguistic impoliteness and the complexity of interrelation between perceptions of community norms and gender stereotyping.


Much of the thinking about linguistic politeness has focused on politeness in isolated speech acts, without considering those acts in relation to what would constitute impoliteness. As politeness is an entity which is very difficult to define or describe, focusing on impoliteness may be slightly easier, since normally at least some of the participants are aware when a breach of perceived norms has taken place. Third parties may be approached to discuss someone’s impoliteness and it generally involves some sort of repair to the interaction and to the relationship if the impoliteness is considered exceptional. Indeed, a great deal of interactional work goes into the assessment of impolite acts, involving retelling anecdotes and inviting judgements of the excessiveness of the impoliteness, in order to bolster the sense that one's assessment of the impoliteness is justified or not.

Culpeper has attempted to come to a definition of impoliteness as the opposite or reverse of politeness (Culpeper, 1996). He analyses several contexts of linguistic use - a documentary programme on army training and literary drama - where he isolates certain examples of impolite linguistic behaviour. In the army training documentary which he examines, he lists the instances of impoliteness by the trainers to the recruits. However, I would argue that within that particular community of practice, this is not classified as impolite, although it would be within almost any other community. The dominant group in the interaction, the officers, has managed to achieve a situation where this seeming excessive impoliteness is considered to be the norm. Thus, if we simply analyse impoliteness in the decontextualised way that Culpeper does, we will be unable to grasp the way that politeness is only that which is defined by the community of practice as such, and even then it is something which may be contested by some community members. (12) Thus, I would suggest that impoliteness only exists when it is classified as such by certain, usually dominant, community members, and/or when it leads to a breakdown in relations.

Case Study of Impoliteness

I would like to focus on an incident which occurred at a university departmental party and which involved myself, one of my female postgraduates and a new male member of staff. (13) Using anecdotal evidence in this way is problematic, as the critiques of Deborah Tannen and Robin Lakoff’s work have demonstrated (but see Cameron, 1998). However, this anecdote is used partly because of the difficulty of finding naturally occurring examples of impoliteness in data. This analysis is not intended to make generalisations about impoliteness – this case study serves to demonstrate that gender plays an important role in certain types of interaction. The way that gender works in each interaction may differ markedly from this. Focusing on an interaction where different views of what actually happens is complicated, but I think it illustrates some of the difficulties in assigning clear values to elements within a conversation in relation to politeness.

A departmental party is a community of practice with different norms to the work environment; it is a complex and sometimes rather tense environment where the interpersonal and institutional relations between staff in a department are played out and negotiated. Linguistic behaviour which might be considered impolite within the office or teaching situation, when uttered at a staff party may be considered differently. A departmental party is usually an arena where a certain amount of banter between social equals occurs; banter, and this type of public verbal play in general, seems to be a genre which is coded by many women as a masculine way of interacting, but which female members of staff may also engage in equally. (Labov, 1972) (14) However, as Clare Walsh has shown, women often use styles of speech in their interventions in the public sphere which are coded as masculine, but they run the risk of being judged as transgressive or abnormal for engaging in them (Walsh, 2000 forthcoming; Liladhar, 2000 forthcoming)

In the incident in question, a new male member of staff who had not been introduced to either myself or my postgraduate before approached us; this person, like us, is white and middle class and probably roughly the same age as myself, but older than the postgraduate. The postgraduate and I tried to be positively polite and friendly by saying `Hi there' and asking the person how he was. Since the party was well underway, I had to think up some form of appropriate phatic communion. (15) Banter was not an option since I did not know the person. Since this person is a poet I asked:

`What sort of poetry do you write?’ to which he replied,

`Name me six poets’.

This response on his part confused me . Relevance theory helps us to understand the way that we understand or gloss potentially opaque statements. (Sperber and Wilson, 1986) If I wished to continue to classify what we were engaging in as polite small talk, then I would have to comply and provide a list of poets. I would thus have to assume that there was a longer-term relevance to his request for the names of six poets which would become apparent as the conversation unfolded. However, I did not wish to be forced to answer this question, which I felt was offensive and which I glossed as his attempt to state that he would not talk about his writing as I knew nothing about poetry. Under this interpretation, he was in fact implying that I could not name six poets. Proxemic cues, such as body stance, eye contact, facial expression and his tone of voice, all led me to interpret the relevance of his statement to my question as impolite. What has since become clear is that the male staff member was extremely anxious about the departmental party, and had inferred that my politeness and friendliness towards him, because he considered them to be excessive, were in fact patronising and therefore insincere, and impolite. (16) A further interpretation which I have only come to recently is that this conflict developed precisely because of gender stereotyping: here a famous male poet found himself in conversation with a female professor in his department and she started the conversation with a gambit which showed that she had never heard of him. His aggression and impoliteness stemmed from this difficulty in accepting a relatively powerless position where gender was enmeshed with power difference. (see Cameron, 1998) I would argue that gender played a part in our attempts at making sense of each other's seemingly inexplicable interventions. As Cameron states: `gender is potentially relevant (to understanding conflict-talk) to the extent that it affects the context-specific assumptions that the man and the woman bring to bear on the work of interpreting one another's utterances. If there is a divergence of interpretation between the parties … a satisfactory explanation must be sought not in gender-preferential responses to a particular linguistic strategy, but at the level of assumptions and inferences which are specific to the situations these conversationalists find themselves in.' (Cameron, 1998:448) In this case, the conflict seems to involve the assessments each of us made as to the level and sincerity of politeness on the one hand, and to the overall relevance of the utterance to the conversation as a whole on the other. These assessments and interpretations of the interaction are inflected with gender stereotyping and assumptions.

I was then joined by my female postgraduate who was standing next to me and saw that I was in difficulties, and we both attempted to try to change the subject and to resolve the difficulty. However, the male staff member then made comments which we both considered impolite, by making overtly sexual comments and being verbally aggressive, where we had been attempting to be friendly and polite towards him. Rather than simple banter which plays around with what is acceptable, sometimes overstepping the limit of acceptability for the purposes of humour and camaraderie, this incident did not feel as if it could be classified as banter and therefore positively polite, but instead had to be classified as offensive and impolite. (17) What is also important is that the male member of staff was behaving in a stereotypically masculine fashion, drawing attention to our femaleness and sexuality. This felt like aggression and not banter primarily because we did not know him. If this behaviour had come from one of our male colleagues with whom we felt at ease, we would not necessarily have considered the incident impolite, but would have excused it on the grounds of drunkenness and personal style more readily. As it was, neither my postgraduate nor I responded with what we considered impoliteness, but continued to use positive politeness strategies, suggesting that we talk on other subjects, or explicitly drawing attention to the fact that we seemed to be misunderstanding one another, perhaps stereotypically `feminine' responses to threatening behaviour. Because of these strategies we were locked into the interaction; we could not simply walk away. We tried to assuage him and calm him down, partly because both of us were fearful of physical attack. Thus, all of participants in this interaction were inferring politeness or impoliteness in relation to norms which they thought existed within that particular community of practice, and these norms I would argue have something to do with gendered domains and stereotypes of gendered behaviour.

An initial coding of an utterance as impolite or polite leads to a range of different behaviours for each participant. For myself and the postgraduate, it led to a range of `repair’ behaviours, a stereotypically feminine response, perhaps, whereas for the male staff member, it led to an increase in insulting terms, as if perhaps these were implicit from the beginning.(18) One could argue that this person gained some interactional power through this type of behaviour, since he had insulted a person who was senior to himself in institutional terms (and in fact, my status was something which was brought up later in the interaction) and also had insulted someone to whom he should have had some responsibility since she was a postgraduate student within the department. However, we would need to be careful about the elision of interactional power with masculinist stereotypical behaviour, which in many contexts such as this one, do not necessarily bring any form of power to oneself.

The question of a person’s commitment to a particular speech act is important here. Clare Walsh has argued that we need to be able to discuss the notion of inferred sympathy or politeness which we assume is behind a particular speech act. (Walsh, forthcoming) My postgraduate and I as participants in a particular community of practice inferred a certain degree of commitment to this person’s speech acts. What is interesting is that those who tried to help resolve the problem suggested that we should not attribute commitment to him to his speech acts on lines which seemed strikingly gendered; that is, he is a poet (and presumably male poets have a certain type of behaviour which is seen to be acceptable), and that he was drunk and therefore should not be held responsible and committed to what he said. (19) Further gendered stereotypes were brought in, since we were told that we should simply accept this behaviour because `that’s just the way he is’; Having worked with extremely impolite, `masculinist’ females as well, it is worth considering the very different ways in which females are judged for directness, verbal aggression and impoliteness. Thus, this impolite behaviour was judged to be not serious or problematic, because those who were trying to resolve or minimise the difficulty, for the best of motives, that is, in the interests of departmental harmony, were drawing on gendered stereotypes of what was appropriate behaviour for men and women.

The incident itself is not particularly important, except for the fact that my postgraduate and I felt that the person had been grossly impolite, and the party was disrupted by the event. What is perhaps more important is the outcome of this behaviour, where all of the people who attended and the rest of the department were drawn into various behaviours which either tried to resolve or worsen the perceived breach. Several male and female members of the department refused pointedly to speak to the member of staff; several meetings were held between senior staff and the postgraduate, where the postgraduate tried to make a formal complaint.(20) After several weeks of not communicating with the person, I decided to try to resolve the matter by talking to him explicitly about the event and suggesting that we begin to speak to each other again. Generally, I would characterise both myself and my postgraduate as strong speakers who are confident in the public sphere. Thus, this may seem to be a fairly stereotypical feminine response to the situation, or even perhaps an admission of some fault on our part. (21) However, resolving breaches seems to me a fairly powerful move to make, and strategic use of stereotypical gendered behaviour cannot be considered in the same way as other less foregrounded gendered behaviour. This type of strategic use of stereotypical behaviour requires us to analyse more carefully the notion of the meaning of such behaviour. The impoliteness towards me and my student was beginning to reflect more on us than it did on him; I did not wish to be cast in the role of victim and he showed no awareness of the distress his verbal attack had caused, particularly to the postgraduate. This strategic use of feminine co-operative strategies should be seen as a way in which female behaviour cannot be equated with stereotypes of behaviour, and even those stereotypes can be used for our own ends. However, whilst I felt that I was resolving the situation by drawing on these feminine norms strategically, that is not to say that other members of the department or indeed the staff member himself interpreted them in this way.


Thus, what the analysis of this incident shows is that gender in an interaction is not simply about the gender of the speaker or hearer; this particular community of practice is coded by many of the participants as masculine because banter is considered to be the normal mode of interaction; however, what was interpreted as impoliteness on a male’s part is condoned more, since this fits in with the stereotypes of masculine interaction. A seemingly feminine response to the situation, that is, one which attempts to resolve the situation, cannot be simply coded as powerless, since in fact this is what brings the incident to a close. However, even though this is a strategic use of femininity, it may still be classified by others as a weak form of behaviour. Stereotypically masculine speech styles may be condoned more when they are employed by men than women, because these accord with notions of the habitual styles of men and their use of politeness. However, we should not assume that interactional power is necessarily achieved by the use of masculinist speech such as banter and impoliteness. Thus, when analysing politeness and impoliteness in relation to gender, it is not enough to simply analyse males’ and females’ use of seemingly self-evidently politeness strategies within particular interactions; what must be focused on is the gendered domains of speech acts like politeness and the perceived norms of the community of practice. We must also analyse the way that individuals come to a judgement of an utterance or series of utterances as polite or impolite, and the way that this judgement is not a once and for all act, but that it is something which takes up a great deal of interactional work with others. Furthermore, the power of feminine and masculine strategies of speech must also be considered in relation to what is achieved in the long term within the interaction. Thus, what I am arguing for in this essay is a greater complexity in the analysis of gender, politeness and impoliteness which perhaps can only be achieved through turning from the sentence level to the level of discourse. The notion of community of practice can provide a framework for analysing the complexity of judging an utterance as polite or impolite, and it can also enable us to see that within different communities of practice, individuals may perform their gendered identities in different ways.


  1. I would like to thank the following people who have commented on draft versions of this paper: Tony Brown, Clare Walsh, Janine Liladhar, Reina Lewis, Manana Tevzadze, Corinne Boz, Jane Sunderland, Lia Litoselliti, Keith Green, Peter Jones and the members of the Cross Cultural Linguistic Politeness group who commented on a draft version of this paper which I gave at Nottingham Trent University, November 1999. I am also grateful to those who commented on versions of this paper which I have given at the Loughborough University Social Sciences Women's Group, February, 2000; International Gender and Language Association, California, May, 2000, and Gender and Language Conference, Utrecht, May, 2000.
  2. Thus, I am not arguing that no generalisations can be made about gender; context-sensitive empirical studies would be able to yield useful data, but we would have to be wary about using this data to comment on women or men as a whole. As I show later, there are generalisations which can be made about the employment of stereotypical behaviour at certain moments in interactions, but even here, stereotypical behaviour cannot be said to have one function or one interpretation. Perhaps, also, we need to question whether there is one stereotype for feminine and masculine behaviour. (See Liladhar, 2000 forthcoming; Eckert and McConnell, 1999; Holmes and Meyerhoff, 1999)
  3. Ehrlich's (1999) article on the differential behaviour of a female tribunal judge and a female complainant in a sexual harassment/date rape trial is an excellent analysis of the way that women may be part of different communities of practice and therefore will behave linguistically in very different ways, but that they may decide call on their shared sex for particular strategic reasons.
  4. That is not to suggest that anyone can say/do/be anything, as several feminist theorists have interpreted Judith Butler as stating in her work on the performativity of gender.(Butler, 1990) My position is a modified form of Butler’s theories on gender identification which acknowledges the force of stereotyping and perceptions of sex-appropriate roles, yet sees also that it is possible to challenge and contest those stereotypes, or change their meaning or function. (see, Bell et al, 1994)
  5. In certain recording sessions which some of my undergraduate students undertook at the University of Loughborough, in 1993, this was clearly the case. The male students in question saw intimate speech situations as stereotypically feminine and therefore spent a great deal of the time drawing attention to the fact of being recorded and addressing sexist comments to the person who was recording the interaction. Also, Cameron, (1997) has shown that single sex heterosexual male groups may use this seemingly feminine speech setting of informal gossiping to co-construct their heterosexuality masculinity against a supposed homosexual male other.
  6. It may be argued that since power and masculinity are correlated (however, complex that relation is ), that interactional power can only be achieved by using masculinist strategies in speech; however, one’s position within a speech community may be advanced by using a range of different strategies, including the seemingly more co-operative/rapport ones, depending on the community of practice. Competitive talk is not always valued by communities of practice which may code it as too direct, bullying and overbearing.
  7. Although this is a possible role for secretaries to adopt within certain particular institutional contexts, it is interesting that not all secretaries do adopt it..
  8. The Cross-cultural Linguistic Politeness Research Group, composed of linguists from Britain, China, Georgia, Italy, Turkey, Finland and the Netherlands, has been collaborating on rethinking the models which are currently in use for the analysis of linguistic politeness. We meet regularly to discuss the research of the participants and also to discuss new research in this area. One of the main discussions so far has been on the contestation of the notion of face, and we are currently working on communities of practice and politeness. Details of the group can be found on the website http:\\\schools\cs\linguistics or by contacting Sara Mills at, or at our web-board: or by contacting Francesca Bargiela :
  9. This distinction between an analyst imposing a meaning on an utterance and an analyst attempting to discover the meanings which interactants give to an utterance is one which Bucholtz (1999) defines as the distinction between sociolinguistics and ethnography
  10. These individual norms, of course, cannot be arrived at except through the particular community of practice and the wider social norms held within that society which that community will take a position in relation to It is one’s judgement about what a certain level of politeness means in relation to one’s gendered, classed and raced identity which determines what style of politeness will be adopted.
  11. The notion of appropriateness is a very difficult one to engage with, as Walsh (forthcoming) has noted. It is generally drawn on as a way of avoiding analysis of the structural inequalities in conversation which lead to certain notions of appropriateness being formulated which favour the dominant group’s norms. However, it remains a useful term to use with caution when discussing the way that individuals come to an assessment of their own and other’s utterances in relation to a set of perceived group norms. It should be noted also that individuals may have misguided notions of what is appropriate within a particular group (see Bucholtz, 1999 on peripheral group members)
  12. For example, in the army training example, it might be the case that one of the recruits considered the level of impoliteness as over-aggressive and therefore might lodge an official complaint about it. A participant at a conference on Language and Gender in Utrecht, 2000, stated that when he did his year's army training, he found the level of impoliteness personally threatening and offensiveness. My point would be that despite classifying this style of speech as impolite, nevertheless he recognised that it was `appropriate' to the context and did not in fact complain.
  13. I should make clear that this analysis is not an attempt to `get back’ at the person involved; I am simply interested in the aftermath of the event within that community of practice and what it tells us about politeness and impoliteness. Even over two years, the incident still has effects on the department and is still discussed. Indeed, this article is part of that process of understanding the event. There are clear difficulties in working on this material since I am making this incident public and presenting a particular view of the event. The male member of the staff involved in the incident has received a copy of each version of this essay, and I asked his permission to publish it. I also requested comments on his interpretation of the incident. He prevented me from publishing an earlier version of this essay in the departmental web-journal : English Studies : Working Papers on the Web . I should make very clear that the views expressed here about the meaning of the incident are mine alone.
  14. Many of the female university lecturers to whom I have spoken about banter have stressed the fact that they see `doing' banter and verbal duelling with male colleagues as a necessary but rather tedious element in their maintaining a position within the departmental hierarchy. They see it almost as a precondition of being accepted as a `proper' university lecturer that they can adopt this masculinist way of speaking. It is not something that they necessarily want to do, but it is a style of speaking that many of them felt that they could use effectively.
  15. If the incident had taken place earlier it would have been possible for me to draw on a whole range of other items of small talk, such as comments about the house where the party was being held, or even the weather, but the timing of the interaction precluded the use of these.
  16. It is difficult to work out what the other participant considered happened during this interaction; despite several attempts to discuss this issue with him, he has not responded. However, another member of the department who has attempted to be `objective' about this interaction made comments to me which lead me to assume that this is roughly how he interpreted our actions. This may however be a post hoc rationalisation on that member of staff's part or indeed on the part of the new member of staff (just as my analysis may well be).
  17. Banter also is only an appropriate speech style to those who know each other well, and may be misinterpreted when used between relative strangers; it may also be used strategically by those strangers who wish to be impolite because of this ambiguity about whether it is a signal of intimacy and therefore positive politeness or impoliteness.
  18. By this I mean that the way that the conversation developed into an excessive display of insult and sexual antagonism perhaps means that these elements of conflict were already embedded within the initial interaction where there might appear to be a certain ambiguity about whether the male member of staff intended to be polite or not. Cameron (1998) argues that whereas Deborah Tannen considers that men and women simply misunderstand each others' intentions, that they have different speech styles which lead to breakdowns in conversation, in fact, the conflict between men and women is one of social inequality and differential access to resources and goods within the public sphere; this is what leads to conflict. Here, conversational breakdown is seen as an instantiation of a wider conflict over power.
  19. I would agree that alcohol affects what we say to people, and when we judge that someone is drunk we also adopt different strategies towards them and judge their utterances in different ways. However, that cannot lead us to assume that the speech acts of those who are drunk should not be counted as having any effect or force. Furthermore, the way that drunkenness is judged as appropriate or inappropriate for men and women was striking here. (See Clark, 1998, for a discussion)
  20. When the staff member was informed that the postgraduate was considering making a complaint, he left a note in her pigeonhole which said `Sorry’. No formal complaint was made.
  21. This is also why I feel that it is important to see politeness and impoliteness over long stretches of interaction, because it is quite clear to me that there are several points in the interaction where the meaning of certain acts began to change their meaning for me and therefore required a different response.


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c:\polite\4genderpolite.doc revised 22nd June 2000