Linguistic Politeness: Gender Differences

Subject: Sociology
Pages: 14
Words: 4058
Reading time:
15 min
Study level: PhD


Language, culture and communication are deeply interrelated phenomena. Language can be defined as a system of linguistic signs and symbols that has a major purpose of supporting human interactions, self-expression, and information exchange. Nevertheless, the latter is not the only function of language. As noted by Kirch (1973), “language is part of a process of communication which is culturally conditioned,” whereas “a dialogue is usually not just an exchange of information, but an interaction of the participants in a cultural context” (p. 340). In other words, language comprises not merely verbal components but conveys the cultural meanings as well and, in its turn, communication always occurs in a specific cultural context.

When speaking of the word “culture,” it refers to a set of norms, values, beliefs, customs, lifestyles, behaviours, and traditions shared by the members of a community (Mahadi and Jafari, 2012). Culture and its semiotic mechanisms become adopted by people unconsciously and are transmitted through non-genetic ways (Mahadi and Jafari, 2012). It means that individuals may learn their culture and absorb multiple symbols and messages it conveys by interacting with various cultural artifacts.

Nevertheless, as a means of collective memory and a facilitator of social interactions, language is probably the major method of culture transmission since for centuries and millennia, it has been used to name objects existing within disparate cultural environments, define intricate relationships between those objects and their users, and transfer knowledge from past generations to the future ones. It may be argued that for this reason, cultural and language identities of individuals are always almost inseparable.

The abovementioned implies that a good command of language skills is not enough for effective interpersonal communication. The knowledge of grammar is at the base of communication competence, yet a speaker must be able to select and utilise both verbal and non-verbal communication means and tactics in accordance with the overall situation and predict the outcomes of the performed utterance. One’s capability to decode another speaker’s intentions, read both implicit and explicit meanings of any phrase, and then choose an adequate contextually-determined response constitute the essence of pragmatic competence and are necessary to ensure interaction success (Dorcheh and Baharlooie, 2016).

Pragmatic competence may be developed through the enhancement of grammatical, psycholinguistic, and social skills, whereas failures to either convey own ideas or read others’ intents may be addressed through such pragmatic strategies as cooperative meaning negotiation, repetition and paraphrasing, and code-switching (Dorcheh and Baharlooie, 2016; Vettorel, 2018). Nevertheless, considering how deeply individuals’ language and cultural identities are interconnected, it is impossible to communicate successfully in cross-cultural and multicultural contexts without being culturally competent. In other words, cultural awareness may be regarded as one of the key aspects of pragmatic competence.

Cultural awareness implies the understanding of how cultural backgrounds of collocutors and the general cultural context in which a communication event takes place may affect both the course and the outcome of an interaction. According to Baker (2012), the important feature of cultural competence is an ability to distinguish how one’s own and others’ communicative practices are influenced by their cultures. As Byram (1997) states, adaptability to distinct contexts is one of the core signs of cultural awareness as well.

Even when a person is unfamiliar with their collocutor’s background, the overall attitude towards cultural diversity, awareness of it and an intentional choice of more sensitive behaviours often allow avoiding miscommunication (Byram, 1997). However, the knowledge of others’ cultural values, norms, and customs is also of significant help. For this reason, it is essential to know how different genders are seen in disparate cultures and how one’s gender identity may determine their choices of words and overall expression tactics within specific cultural environments.

Gender is a social construct and although gender roles ascribed to women and men in different cultures may vary, they share a lot of similar features and can be identified through linguistic analysis. Generally, women across societies are placed at a lower and less significant position compared to men and, as stated by Lakoff (1973), “the marginality and powerlessness of women is reflected in both the ways women are expected to speak, and the ways in which women are spoken of” (p. 45).

For instance, consistently with their traditional gender roles of caretakers and nurturers, girls are expected to talk like “ladies” – softly and politely – and when they speak roughly and affirmatively like boys, they often become scolded or ridiculed (Lakoff, 1973). Besides, Lakoff (1973) states that when women are spoken of, they are frequently become objectified in terms of their appearance, relatedness to men, or otherwise and since women are conventionally not expected to have strong points of view in the patriarchal societies, they are rarely taken seriously as individuals.

In her study, Lakoff (1973) primarily discussed gender-specific linguistic expressions relevant to Anglo-Saxon cultures and English. However, a similar situation can be observed in the Arabic culture and language as well. The two genders have unequal positions in the modern Arabic sociolinguistic context since men are traditionally placed in the public space whereas women are primarily situated in the private one. As noted by Sadiqi (2006), such a placement of genders indicates that women have less power and are less socially active than men, whereas males enjoy more freedom of expression and, thus, greater freedom in terms of linguistic behaviours as well. Conversely, since women are expected to be obedient and subordinated to men, their speech is inherently prone to be more reserved, modest, and polite.

To understand whether women in general and Arabic environments are inclined to be more polite than men, it is important to understand what politeness is. According to Leech (1980, p. 19), politeness is “strategic conflict avoidance,” whereas Ide (1989, p. 22) defined it as “language associated with smooth communication.” Thus, politeness is a form of pragmatic communication strategy that requires the evaluation of interaction context and selection of appropriate linguistic and paralinguistic means with an intention to prevent misunderstanding and interaction failures. As noted by Samarah (2015), politeness plays an important role in Arabic culture and its members are encouraged to be polite due to both social and religious forces. Since politeness is one of the core values in the Islamic world in general, it would be wrong to state that only women are polite there.

Moreover, Mills (2003) considers the assumption that females are naturally more polite than males stereotypical. Politeness can be viewed as an expression of respect and affection towards another and therefore largely depends on collocutors’ attitudes towards each other, regardless of their gender. According to Mills (2003), “judging someone’s utterance to be polite or impolite is also making an assessment of them as individuals” (p. 9). For this reason, politeness may be regarded as a personality trait, which develops as a result of the adoption of cultural and social norms, as well as one’s natural capacities for compassion and consideration of others.

Theoretical Background

Brown and Levinson’s Theory of Politeness

The framework of politeness developed by Penelope Brown and Stephen Levinson has been one of the most influential. At the base of their theory is a notion that every adult speaker has a face defined as a “public self-image that every member wants to claim for himself” (Brown and Levinson, 1987, p. 61). A person has a positive face or a desire to create a positive and consistent self-image and a negative face or one’s aspiration to protect personal space and freedom of action (Brown and Levinson, 1987). The former suggests that individuals always seek others’ approval and attempt to be perceived favourably by them. The latter indicates that intrusion into another’s personal space is always undesirable.

During communication, it is impossible to simultaneously satisfy speakers’ needs for positive self-image and preserve their personal space. Brown and Levinson (1987) define disapproval, requests, orders, and alike expressions as “face-threatening acts” (FTAs) (p. 65). Such expressions increase the vulnerability of negative and positive face and, to avoid harm to themselves and others during interactions, speakers may utilise distinct politeness strategies, which can be either positive or negative.

Positive politeness tactics aim at the preservation of positive face and work through the claim of common ground (attention to collocutors’ interests, exaggeration, and so forth), cooperation (promise, expression of optimism, and so forth), and fulfilment of a hearer’s want (compliments, and so forth) (Brown and Levinson, 1987). In contrast, negative politeness strategies aim to preserve the negative faces of collocutors and work through the minimisation of imposition (apologies, impersonalisation, and so forth) (Brown and Levinson, 1987). Overall, the choice of politeness tactics depends on one’s intentions to avoid FTAs and the level of pragmatic competence.

Other Theories of Politeness

Other numerous perspectives on linguistic politeness have been proposed by scholars. Lakoff (1973) defines politeness as one of the core components of pragmatic competence and claims that a successful conversation is possible if two principles are applied: be clear and be polite. As noted by Lakoff (1973), clarity and politeness are often in conflict with each other, while the latter is more important to ensure for better communication outcomes. To be polite, a person should preserve formality and interaction distance, provide options, and demonstrate empathy to another (Lakoff, 1973). Similarly, in accordance with his view on politeness as strategic conflict avoidance, Leech distinguished six maxims of polite conversation.

They include tact, generosity, approbation, modesty, agreement, and sympathy (Leech, 1983). These maxims aim to maximise communication benefits and praise to collocutors and minimise benefits and praise to self and seek agreement between collocutors. Besides, they imply that a positive attitude towards another is an essential prerequisite of politeness.

The theory developed by Erving Goffman shares a lot in common with the one proposed by Brown and Levinson. Goffman (1959) stated that preservation of a positive self-image is a big interest of every individual and to ensure that others perceive them well, it is necessary to draw a line between others and self during social interactions. That line equals politeness, and the choice of tools used to maintain one’s good face depends on the ability to read communication contexts and understand others’ intentions (Goffman, 1959). Overall, in this theory, politeness comprises both the efforts to preserve own and others’ faces and to ensure some formal distance between collocutors.

Holmes’ View of Linguistic Politeness and Gender

In her study of a vast body of evidence derived from research of distinct cultures, Holmes (1995) defines female speech as more polite than male speech. Holmes (1995) suggests that women more often utilise positive politeness strategies and choose to avoid FTAs than men. Specifically, females tend to interrupt their collocutors less, are usually more attentive listeners, and show greater empathy (Holmes, 1995). However, it may be argued that gender is only one of many factors contributing to persons’ choices of linguistic politeness strategies. Some others include age and belonging to certain ethnic/social/cultural groups.

Politeness and Culture

Every culture has its own understanding of polite behaviours and incorporates ideas about good manners and rules in terms of addressing others, responding to them, greeting, and apologising. Besides, every culture and society has its own behavioural and language taboos that can create significant barriers during communication. It is valid to say that British etiquette is one of the most renowned across the world and is largely a historical phenomenon in England.

Besides paying respect to elderly and saying “excuse me” and “thank you” at appropriate occasions, the British notion of politeness puts an emphasis on the importance of individuals’ personal space. Thus, overfamiliarity is regarded by British as a form of rude behaviour and the questions about such matters as wages, marital status, and age are normally viewed as unacceptable when collocutors do not interact at the intimacy level (Johnson, n.d.).

As such, politeness as the choice of appropriate language and behavioural tactics in the United Kingdom is viewed as a sign of good education and class-based refinement (Kádár and Mills, 2011). It means that people belonging to lower social classes may often tend to neglect particular speech norms and even be mocked by their counterparts due to the use of over-polite words and phrases (Kádár and Mills, 2011).

Besides, the view on polite and impolite speech in Britain often varies from one county to another. For instance, the speech of individuals living in Yorkshire tends to be frank and, thus, seen by others as overly direct and threatening (Kádár and Mills, 2011). In their turn, the members of the Yorkshire community often regard the soft speech of those living in the Southern areas and their characteristic negative politeness strategies as something adverse and undesirable (Kádár and Mills, 2011).

The example of England demonstrates that even within the boundaries of one culture, it is impossible to form an unbiased generalised perspective on politeness as it differs from one individual to another. It is also valid to note that there is no homogeneous gender ideology among the members of the English society and, therefore, gender-specific choices of languages can be affected by both class and regional differences.

In contrast to Western cultures, the notion of politeness across the Islamic world is usually very consistent with some minor differences in the levels of intensity. As it was previously mentioned, the importance of good manners in Arabic cultures is emphasised in both the social and the religious sphere. While Islamic religion states that humility in personal interactions is of great value, the society promotes dignity as an essential quality of individuals (Samarah, 2015). In this way, a person living in an Arabic culture needs to balance between the two. In addition, the social and religious aspects of politeness imply that there is a variety of different linguistic strategies that could be used in the Arabic culture to satisfy the specific pragmatic goals and reach the desired communication outcomes in particular relational contexts.

Exaggeration and Mitigation

As the members of a positive politeness-oriented culture, Arabs prone to extensive exaggeration. Compared to England, the Arabic world is characterised by a greater degree of hospitality and exaggeration in various social rituals, including “giving lavish gifts in weddings and other celebrations” (Qari, 2019, p. 85). Like compliments, such exaggerations may serve as means aimed to establish solidarity between same-status individuals (Boubendir, 2012).

In addition, they may have a purpose to express genuine sympathy and demonstrate overall favourable perceptions of collocutors. As noted by Ajaaj (2016), through praising and compliments, Arabs may not only strive to emphasise the importance of their collocutors, especially those in higher power positions but also promote a more favourable perception of self. Thus, it is valid to say that the exaggerating politeness is in line with the social demand to preserve own and others’ dignity in Arabic societies.

In contrast, the religious side of politeness is linked to the use of mitigation strategies aimed to “soften the illocutionary force of a directive speech” (Koike, 2014). For instance, while in “dignified” requests, individuals often utilise imperative verbs and express themselves directly, “humble” requests frequently start by referring to the name of God (Samarah, 2015, p. 2006). The latter is also characterised by a significant degree of indirectness which has a purpose of reducing coerciveness of an utterance (Koike, 2014). In this way, by expressing themselves in humble/indirect ways, Arabs strive to protect the negative face of another and, by doing so, act in line with the Islamic principles of humbleness.

Address Terms, Honorifics, and Power Relations

Honorifics are defined as titles that convey esteem towards an addressee and, in the Arabic language, they are used by speakers in both intimate and formal kinds of interactions. Such honorifics as “His Lordship,” “His Honour” and “His/Her Highness” are typically used to refer to those in the position of authority: top officials, religious people, kings, and others (Kadim, 2008). At the same time, some reference honorifics are used to express reverence to the close ones as well. For instance, spouses can call each other “hebeebee/hebeebeetee” (beloved) when referring to each other, and parents can call their children either “noor‘einee” (my eyes’ light) or “feleth – thet qelbee” (a piece of my heart) to show their affection and affinity (Kadim, 2008). Besides, as in English, Arabic language speakers use universal terms of address to refer to males, married and single females, as well as older individuals.

Overall, the application of many of these titles, especially those utilised to talk to/about authoritative individuals, shows speakers’ respect and represents as a key element of courtesy. In addition, in accordance with Levinson’s (1983) description of relational qualities of terms of address, they are applied to define the relationships between collocutors and the level of formality between them. Therefore, when using such social honorifics as “Your Honour,” a person preserves both positive and negative faces of an addressee since it is characterised by a high degree of esteem and shows an intention to avoid the intrusion into the personal space of the latter.

The abovementioned is also a good example of Arabs’ attitudes to power relations and demonstrates that in the situations of a social hierarchy the maintenance of distance is preferred. However, the Arabic world is “a highly positive politeness-oriented society,” which means that the representatives of this culture are normally “comfortable speaking to each other with a small spatial distance between them” (Qari, 2019, p. 85). Arabic people touch each other frequently when interacting. For instance, shaking hands, hugging, and kissing is considered normal during greetings and conversations between interlocutors of the same genders, whereas longer handshakes often symbolise that collocutors are close emotionally and psychologically (Qari, 2019; Ajaaj, 2016).

However, it is worth noting that both linguistic and paralinguistic expressions of affection are usually acceptable between males and females only in the intimate sphere and family circles (Boubendir, 2012). Considering that power distance is significant in Arabic cultures and women have traditionally occupied a subordinate position to men in those societies they cannot communicate as equals in the public sphere. Therefore, the language unfamiliar women and men utilise to converse may be highly formalised. Besides, politeness strategies Arabic females and males choose to interact with people in disparate power positions can differ as well.

In contrast, in British culture, power distance score is lower than in the Arabic countries, such as Saudi Arabia (Score 95), and equals to 35 (Hofstede Insights, 2019). It means that UK citizens believe that social inequalities must be minimised and that women and men in the country have a similar social stand (Hofstede Insights, 2019). Based on this, it may be argued that the choice of politeness strategies among English men and women may be less variable in England compared to Arabic societies.

Politeness Strategies in Arabic Culture

Positive Politeness Strategies and Gratitude

Expression of gratitude is one of the routinised politeness practices and is common across all cultures. According to Jautz (2008), like other forms of politeness, gratitude in England may be regarded as “a question of a distancing, non-intruding formality” (p. 172). However, in more positive politeness-oriented states, including those in the Islamic world, gratitude serves more as a means to establish and maintain positive interpersonal relationships.

When speaking of gender-defined gratitude expression, Arabic males and females differ in both the choice of linguistic strategies and the frequency of thanking. For example, in same-gender contexts, women tend to use such gratitude forms as hugging, establishing a relationship for the future, expression of positive feelings, and self-criticism, whereas males apply simple statement, handshaking, invitation, and small talk (Al-Khawaldeh and Žegarac, 2013). In mixed-gender contexts, women tend to use such strategies as small talk, apology, and acknowledgement of imposition, whereas men tend to use such tactics as a promise of repayment and appreciation (Al-Khawaldeh and Žegarac, 2013).

The observation that women tend to use more negative and indirect politeness strategies (such as apology) when expressing gratitude may indicate that they are more on the humble than the dignified side of politeness and are more sensitive towards others’ personal spaces than men. In contrast, men more frequently offer to repay materially to their male collocutors in order to show that they are socially and economically equal. Overall, the choice of expression means varies greatly among both genders in dependence on the formality of the context, social status of collocutors, and the degree of imposition associated with an initial request.

Besides, females express gratitude more often than males (Al-Khawaldeh and Žegarac, 2013). This evidence is “consistent with Lakoff’s (1975) assumption that women are more polite and conscious of (the need to avoid) hurting others, soft-spoken and nonaggressive, while men tend to be direct and assertive, due to power inequality in their linguistic and cultural worlds” (Al-Khawaldeh and Žegarac, 2013, p. 275).

Negative Politeness Strategies and Apologies

The choice of apology expression tactics also depends on social context and power status of collocutors in Arab settings. While British individuals often admit their faults openly to parents, Saudi persons (especially males) tend to be more elusive in this regard and do not express their apologies directly (Qari, 2019). According to Qari (2019), this may be due to the fear of punishment since father figures possess greater power in Arabic cultures. In fact, Saudi males prefer using negative politeness strategies when apologising more often than females who tend to use positive politeness strategies (formal and direct expressions, demonstration of interest, compliments, and so forth) (Qari, 2019).

Besides, Saudi males show intentions to apologise in the contexts of both intimacy and social distance more often than women who prefer to apologise only to close friends (Qari, 2019). It is valid to say that the utilisation of indirect apology forms by males in FTAs is again associated with the aim to preserve primarily own positive face, whereas females feel less pressure to do so and, thus, can admit their faults openly more frequently. At the same time, the fact that Saudi females tend to apologise less in situations characterised by significant social distance can be attributed mainly to the specific social-cultural norms in the country. For instance, British females admit their faults openly with both intimate friends and unfamiliar people (Qari, 2019). It means that apologising is a more routinised and formal practice among women in Britain than in Saudi Arabia.


The analysis of women’s and men’s language in this paper did not have a purpose of creating gender boundaries in language use and verifying the stereotype of gender-defined politeness. Instead, it aimed to assert the variety in the linguistic politeness behaviours and suggests that men and women access the same resources in terms of politeness expression and, therefore, may use linguistic and paralinguistic strategies in the same way.

There is no evidence to support the idea that women are inherently more polite than men because personality traits play an important role in defining individuals’ behaviours. However, the results reveal that Arabic men and women indeed tend to utilise different strategies and tactics when dealing with FTAs. If expressing apologies, females more frequently use direct and positive politeness strategies and, when thanking, they use more indirect and negative politeness tactics to establish rapport with collocutors. At the same time, besides the expression of solidarity, politeness strategies utilised by Arabic men frequently aim to avoid harm to own and others’ positive faces.

To a significant extent, the choice of those strategies by diverse persons depends on the gender and social/power-status of those with whom they speak. Therefore, the use of linguistic politeness strategies in the Islamic world is inseparable not only from the macro-cultural environment and specific views on politeness incorporated in it but also dominant gender ideologies and the norms of mixed-gender and same-gender communication.

Considering the abovementioned, it is essential for foreigners willing to communicate in intercultural and multicultural contexts to develop an awareness of differences in the forms of politeness in distinct societies. Particular attention must be paid to the ways through which politeness is expressed among males and females. Although individuals largely vary in their choices of language and, therefore, it is important for foreign speakers to remain flexible in their attitudes, the comprehension of how linguistic and cultural forms can influence communication at the national level can help to avoid major communication failures in formalised settings. It is valid to conclude that the discussion in the present paper contributed to the development of such knowledge by focusing on the matters of gender-specific and general politeness matters in the Arabic culture.

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