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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Itís Not What You Sign, Itís How You Sign It: Politeness in American Sign Language

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When interlocutorsí politeness strategies differ, there may be one of three results. First, the addressee may misinterpret the speaker by interpreting the speakerís meaning (social or otherwise) based on the addresseeís way of speaking. Second, the addressee may judge the speaker harshly and may reject the speaker as being either too forward or too evasive. Third, the addressee may recognize the speaker as an outsider who has a different way of speaking, and either attempt to understand communicative differences or discount the speaker as a deviant who does not know how to interact well with others.

These first impressions are made quickly and often without much thought. Oneís way of speaking marks someone as either an insider or an outsider, showing that differences in politeness strategies are interpreted as having a social meaning.

An increased awareness of how people express themselves in different contexts is an important first step in reducing the misinterpretation of social meaning and the subsequent judging, misinterpreting, or discounting of speakers that can occur in cross-cultural communication. For example, it is helpful for ASL signers to recognize that English-speaking supervisors may use indirect requests when making a difficult (+R) request. This is an example where an ASL signer may misinterpret the supervisorís request and may judge the supervisor to be unnecessarily vague or uncooperative.

Likewise, the judging of ASL signers as too direct, which appears to be a folk stereotype, may be used as a way to discount this linguistic minority. The evidence from the ASL DCT provides evidence that ASL signers, in fact, are not always direct. Although at times they were more likely to engage in direct requests and direct rejections apparently due to different cultural expectations, they in fact engage in a variety of strategies to mitigate threats to face, and many of these strategies are similar to those of English speakers. In addition, the use of indirect rejections by the ASL signers in the DCT data provides strong counterevidence to the prevailing view that ASL signers do not use indirect strategies. This is not to say that ASL signers and English speakers do not differ in their ways of speaking; there are actually many differences. The function of nonmanual modifiers (NMMs) to mitigate threats to face, in particular, seems to have been overlooked. Nonetheless, this multidimensional investigation of differences helps move the focus away from a dichotomy based on one dimension. By using multiple dimensions, researchers can more accurately characterize the complexity of language use among the members of each language community.

Itís How You Say It

Cross-linguistic differences can be better understood by looking at three possible levels of analysis: cultural, discourse style, and interaction. Some trends may be made about cultural dimensions that affect the linguistic tendencies of a linguistic community, and trends may also be made about discourse styles. However, it is the interactional level of analysis that provides evidence regarding how linguistic devices are used in their complexity by language users in changing day-to-day interactions, and it is this level that has been the focus of this book.

There is no question that people alter the way they express themselves depending on the context they are in. The data presented here show that at the level of face-to-face interaction, both ASL signers and English speakers use politeness strategies that reveal that they consider both involvement and independence in making requests and rejections. For example, when supervisors make requests or rejections of subordinates, they use certain strategies depending the perceived supervisor-employee (+P) relationship and the relative weight of the threat to involvement or independence. When supervisors are with their colleagues (other supervisors), they may use different strategies, and when addressing their own superiors, they make different linguistic choices. At the interactional level of analysis, each language user makes use of linguistic strategies to maintain face, and the interlocutorsí relationship, within the social context of the interaction.


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