Social Distance Inversion (Tuesday, April 22, 2008)

Brown and Levinson discuss politeness in terms of minimizing threats to face in order to retain the cooperation of the addressee in an interaction. They state that a speaker will weigh the cost of a Face Threatening Action (FTA) based on his perceived social distance from the addressee, and that in general, he will not choose a strategy that minimizes risk to face more than is necessary to retain the addressee's cooperation. It seems that a corollary to this principle might be that a speaker may choose a higher cost FTA in order to elevate himself relative to the addressee in terms of social distance, and indicate that the speaker is coming from a position of strength.

For example, the social distance between a young panhandler and a passing business executive is quite great, and under usual circumstances, the panhandler would try his best to minimize the executive's loss of face when begging for money. However, if the young panhandler were so inclined, he might phrase his request in a way that implies a threat (of harm, of inconvenience, or whatever), elevating his position of power above the business executive. Even though their relative positions are unchanged, the panhandler can perform an FTA to attempt to invert their positions.

In another example, if two business executives are engaged in a negotiation, and one is negotiating from a weaker position, he could perform an FTA in an attempt to assert dominance and bluff himself into a position of power (as perceived by the other executive).

So it seems that while an actor's respect of face derives from his perception of social distance, he may also use a lack of respect of face in order to influence the addressee's perception of their social distance.


Brown, P. and S. Levinson. "Politeness." Cambridge University Press.

—Brian (04/22/2008 10:00 AM)