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Journal of Politeness Research

Language, Behaviour, Culture

Ed. by Grainger, Karen

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Politeness: Is there an East-West divide?

Geoffrey Leech
  • Lancaster University, UK.
Published Online: 2007-07-31 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/PR.2007.009


Brown and Levinson (1987 [1978]) has remained the most seminal and influential starting point for studying cross-cultural and interlinguistic politeness. Yet it has also provoked countervailing arguments (e. g., Ide 1989; 1993; Matsumoto 1989; Gu 1990; Mao 1994), claiming a Western bias in Brown and Levinson's model, particularly in their construal of the concept of ‘face’, in their overemphasis on face-threat and their assumption of individualistic and egalitarian motivations, as opposed to the more group-centred hierarchy-based ethos of Eastern societies. This leads to the question: Is there an East-West divide in politeness?

This article presents a pragmatic framework for studying linguistic politeness phenomena in communication: a common principle of politeness (Leech, 1983; 2005) and a Grand Strategy of Politeness (GSP), which is exemplified in common linguistic behaviour patterns in the performance of polite speech acts such as requests, offers, compliments, apologies, thanks, and responses to these. The GSP says simply: In order to be polite, a speaker communicates meanings which place (a) a high value on what relates to the other person (typically the addressee), and (b) a low value on what relates to the speaker. It is clear from many observations that constraint (a) is more powerful than constraint (b).

The following hypothesis will be put forward, and supported by evidence from four languages: that the GSP provides a very general explanation for communicative politeness phenomena in Eastern languages such as Chinese, Japanese and Korean, as well as in Western languages such as English. Since politeness deals with scalar phenomena, this is not to deny the importance of quantitative and qualitative differences in the settings of social parameters and linguistic parameters of politeness in such languages. A framework such as the GSP provides the parameters of variation within which such differences can be studied.

Hence this article argues in favour of the conclusion that, despite manifest differences, there is no East-West divide in politeness.

Keywords: politeness; pragmalinguistics; socio-pragmatics; face; Chinese; Japanese; Korean

About the article

Geoffrey Leech

Geoffrey Leech is Emeritus Professor of English Linguistics at Lancaster University, UK. He has published extensively in the areas of pragmatics, stylistics, semantics, English grammar, and corpus linguistics. His main contribution to politeness research so far has been in his book Principles of Pragmatics (1983), especially Chapters 5 and 6. He has recently lectured on politeness in China, Japan, Korea and other countries.

Published Online: 2007-07-31

Published in Print: 2007-07-20

Citation Information: Journal of Politeness Research. Language, Behaviour, Culture, ISSN (Online) 1613-4877, ISSN (Print) 1612-5681, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/PR.2007.009.

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