Linguistic Politeness: Brown and Levinson’s Theory


Numerous studies of the 20th century in the field of linguistic politeness play an important role in modern pragmatic works that touch on this topic and raise issues of verbal communication. As a basis for many ideas and hypotheses, Brown and Levinson’s theory is used as a valid background. However, despite the development of this concept and its universality from the standpoint of the discussions involved, its relevance in subsequent studies has been disputed more than once. According to Song (2017), Brown and Levinson’s theory was presented to the world academic community in 1987. Since then, many new proposals regarding the unique features of linguistic politeness have appeared. Moreover, their authors not only created new evaluative approaches but even criticised the initial concept, referring to fallacy in the context of universal validity. This topic is significant due to a variety of judgments on the subject of what specific features linguistic politeness possesses and what manifestations are observed in the modern world. Brown and Levinson’s theory cannot be considered a single and undeniable concept, particularly due to the obsolescence and bias of the concept in question.

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Brown and Levinson’s Approach

Since its creation, the theory under consideration has been mentioned many times the academic community. The authors of this idea understand politeness as a rational and expedient concept that is subject to certain rules aspect of communication. As Mills (2017) argues, the assumption is based on the principle of cooperation. The main purpose of politeness in terms of Brown and Levinson’s theory is to maintain social unity, which, in turn, can be achieved by assuming a diversity of opinions. An abstract person’s social face devoid of any national specificity model person should be a combination of two different desires – others’ approval and the freedom of action (Bouchara, 2015). In other words, a person feels comfort and safety when his or her personal views and self-evaluating judgments are not condemned by society but, conversely, are accepted and approved. According to Fukushima and Sifianou (2017), attentiveness is a valuable element of politeness. In addition, a good impression can be formed due to various factors: the type of activity, religious affiliation, cultural interests and other aspects that create a specific image and, thus, support the concept.

Regarding directly linguistic politeness that has become one of the main topics in the theory under consideration, penetration into the culture and features of individual languages ​​is an important nuance. Ogiermann (2009) notes that speech acts of different nationalities contain unique properties, and people’s accumulated experience serves as a significant background for evaluating certain approaches. The author also claims that in the context of Brown and Levinson’s concept, requests are considered an important element in the formation of the concept of politeness (Ogiermann, 2009). Interaction with one another allows assessing forms of intercultural communication. The universality of this approach is proposed by Brown and Levinson as a natural consequence of the study of communication features, and an opportunity to apply their concept to different languages ​​is allowed. According to Lim (2017), the authors of the theory insist that the manifestations of typical linguistic features are characteristic of different nationalities. However, as practice shows, in many studies, this approach is criticised and justified differently, in particular, due to the universality of its nature.

Critique of the Theory

The claim to the universality of the theory, as well as the authors’ interpretation of a social person, is at the centre of serious theoretical objections. The subject of criticism is often the address-centricity characteristic of this concept since Brown and Levinson pay excessive attention to the sociality of addressees but not their statements that remain out of sight. Also, the authors’ understanding of a number of speech acts is criticised as an incorrect from the standpoint of collectivist Asian cultures (China, Japan or Korea). Fukushima and Sifianou (2017) emphasise the impossibility of using a universal model in the study of politeness. For instance, unlike European individualistic principles, in Chinese culture, speech acts of a sentence, invitation, or promise are not considered statements that threaten the communicator’s negative face (Al-Duleimi, Rashid & Abdullah, 2016). The concept of social identity is manifested not in the awareness of an important personal space but in the understanding of how other individuals behave (Alabdali, 2019). In many cultures, concern for group rather than personal interests is considered an anticipated behaviour. Therefore, the universality of Brown and Levinson’s concept is a controversial idea.

One of the key messages regarding the unsuitability of the politeness model in the global context is its static nature. According to Al-Hindawi and Alkhazaali (2016), the actions of those involved are not viewed from a dynamic perspective, which does not allow evaluating such a theory as a flexible mechanism. This staticity, in turn, “prevents human tendency to productivity and social creativity,” thereby inhibiting natural progress in communication (Al-Hindawi & Alkhazaali, 2016, p. 1541). Despite the fact that, as Does (2018) states, this concept of politeness is the most authoritative and recognisable today, its provisions may be regarded as partially biased. For instance, when analysing the approaches to the formation of linguistic structure, Does (2018) notes that the openness of western people does not correspond with the indirectness of the eastern inhabitants. As a result, the inability to apply this theory to any culture indicates the limitations of its provisions. In addition, according to Piskorska (2017), intercultural characteristics of states can also influence the characteristics of linguistic politeness. Thus, the criticism of the concept under consideration is well-reasoned.

Examples of the Theory and Possible Substitutes

The manifestations of Brown and Levinson’s theory may be seen in some everyday situations. For instance, Fa’aq (2017) provides an example of conflicts at the workplace, which either side can smooth out or avoid completely by reducing imposition. In other words, the aforementioned right to freedom is an important element of the concept under consideration. It is respected and followed, which, in turn, helps maintain positive relationships. Concerning manifestations in writing, Brown and Levinson’s model can be found in literary works. Qadir and Al Ghizzi (2018) mentions the novel Lord of the Flies and notes that in it, the interactions of the characters largely convey the concept in question, which involves individuals and their perception of specific behaviours and communication. The ability to interpret the theory of politeness in such a context makes it possible to assert its rigidity and bias, which manifests itself in the overly naive and straightforward interaction typical of children. Therefore, the failure of Brown and Levinson’s concept may be revealed from different angles, and its inappropriateness in the global context can be proved due to the variety of human communication forms and approaches.

As possible substitutes for the outdated and controversial Brown and Levinson’s theory, other models may be applicable in the context of linguistic politeness. Kádár (2019) offers to pay attention to “the macro or cultural level of politeness,” thereby making the interaction system not only more flexible but also dependent on external factors (p. 154). This approach is more relevant than the one developed by the founders of the original concept. Such a model makes it possible to evaluate the categories of communication and manifestations of the features of human interaction from different countries, including both western and eastern regions of the world.

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Another alternative to this concept is the theory of emotional communication. Vergis and Pell (2020) see this concept as a successful mechanism for assessing the behavioural characteristics of both speakers and making the right contact, avoiding rudeness or other forms of impoliteness. The variability of such models makes it clear that Brown and Levinson were not the only ones who worked successfully on this topic, and more flexible and convenient methodologies can be applied.


The ambiguous principles of Brown and Levinson’s theory allow talking about its obsolescence and the impossibility of universal application due to the rigidity and bias shown in relation to individual linguistic cultures. Despite the authority of this concept, its criticism has become commonplace in the academic community. By using individual situations as an example, scholars prove the irrelevance of this model and its static nature. The considered alternatives to the interpretation of linguistic politeness are more dynamic and involve additional assessment criteria, which contributes to a more effective analysis.


Alabdali, T. S. (2019). Revisiting Brown and Levinson’s politeness theory: A middle-eastern perspective. Bulletin of Advanced English Studies, 2(2), 73-78.

Al-Duleimi, H. Y., Rashid, S. M., & Abdullah, A. N. (2016). A critical review of prominent theories of politeness. Advances in Language and Literary Studies, 7(6), 262-270.

Al-Hindawi, F. H., & Alkhazaali, M. A. R. (2016). A critique of politeness theories. Theory and Practice in Language Studies, 6(8), 1537-1545.

Bouchara, A. (2015). The role of religion in shaping politeness in Moroccan Arabic: The case of the speech act of greeting and its place in intercultural understanding and misunderstanding. Journal of Politeness Research, 11(1), 71-98.

Does, R. (2018). Does Politeness Theory need multi-modal expansion? An investigation of the non-verbal multi-modal expression of politeness (Master’s Thesis). Retrieved from Radboud University (4043626).

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Fa’aq, F. M. (2017). Perspectives on politeness theories and politeness strategies. Journal of Kirkuk University Humanity Studies, 12(3), 12-30.

Fukushima, S., & Sifianou, M. (2017). Conceptualizing politeness in Japanese and Greek. Intercultural Pragmatics, 14(4), 525-555.

Kádár, D. Z. (2019). Introduction: Advancing linguistic politeness theory by using Chinese data. Acta Linguistica Academica, 66(2), 149-164.

Lim, B. S. (2017). Brown and Levinson’s politeness framework and studies on politeness in the 1990s. Journal of Modern Languages, 15(1), 47-63.

Mills, S. (2017). Traditional approaches to language, culture and politeness. In S. Mills, English politeness and class (pp. 25-54). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Ogiermann, E. (2009). Politeness and in-directness across cultures: A comparison of English, German, Polish and Russian requests. Journal of Politeness Research, 5(2), 189-216.

Piskorska, A. (2017). Relevance Theory and intercultural communication problems. Research in Language (RiL), 15(1), 1-9.

Qadir, I. A. A., & Al Ghizzi, A. A. F. (2018). Facework in the fictional dialogue of Golding’s “Lord of the Flies” in terms of Brown & Levinson’s politeness theory: A pragma-stylistics study. Journal of Basra researches for Human Sciences, 43(2), 32-50.

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Song, S. (2017). The Brown and Levinson theory revisited: A statistical analysis. Language Sciences, 62, 66-75.

Vergis, N., & Pell, M. D. (2020). Factors in the perception of speaker politeness: The effect of linguistic structure, imposition and prosody. Journal of Politeness Research, 16(1), 45-84.

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