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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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

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A language community’s expectations and perceptions regarding the mitigation of threats to involvement and independence reflect a way of interacting that is unique to that community. Indeed, to express oneself contrary to the community’s expectations is to mark oneself as an outsider.

Using an interactional approach and a politeness framework, the current study reveals that there are strong tendencies regarding the mitigation of requests and rejections based on the relative weight of the imposition. These correspond to the variables of ranking of imposition and to some degree, power relations. However, the variable of social distance was controlled in this study, as this factor has been the most disputed in the literature, especially the dimensions of familiarity and affect, and the dimension of liking in particular (Kasper, 1990; Meyer, 1994).

More face-work is generally expected for those speech acts that are ranked as being more difficult (+R) and in which the speaker is in a lower power position (-P). This is indeed the case in the DCT data. In contrast, the supervisor (+P) uses fewer politeness strategies, and overall, fewer strategies are used to mitigate easy (-R) requests and rejections. Consider the two employee (-P) requests, which are signed by the same ASL signer, in Examples 1 and 2:


1.       Context: An employee (E) asks a supervisor to pass one’s pen.

E:    index/tight lips, my #pen/(wondering), don’t-mind give-me, don’t-mind give-me/tight lips,q.

       [translation: I think that’s my pen. Do you mind—Do you mind handing it to me?]

2.       Context: An employee (E) in a grocery store asks the supervisor for the day before Thanksgiving off.

E:    i/pg, possible i wednesday index-right+/t, possible, if can/(cond), off i index-right
       wednesday, “well”(1-hand)/tight lips /q. suppose you have-to/pg,cond, i willing/pp. you
       have other people cover me, “well”
/tight lips(1-hand, nondominant hand, move forward) /q,
       possible, “well”(some circular movement)/(slight rocking)bt /tight lips,q.

       [translation: I—is it possible for me to have this Wednesday off, you think? If you say I have to
       work), I’ll do that (of course). Perhaps someone could cover for me, or something? So is that a
       possibility at all?]

These two examples are markedly different, and demonstrate some uses of the politeness strategies reported in this study. Example 1 shows use of the sign don’t-mind, the tight lips marker, and a question form. Example 2 shows use of the sign possible (hedging); four different NMMs: pg, bt, and tight lips during the head request, and pp during the offer/promise strategy; the give deference strategy (suppose you have-to/pg,cond, i willing/pp); an offer/promise (you have other people cover me, “well”/tight lips(1-hand, nondominant hand, move forward) /q); as well as the use of the question form in the head request.

In most cases, one would not expect the politeness strategies used in Example 2, a difficult (+R) request, to be used in an easy (–R) request, such as Example 1. The implication would be that there was a great threat to face, which seems unlikely in such a request. In a typical context in which an employee is asking a supervisor to pass the employee’s pen, the extensive face-work would seem extreme and would imply that something more is at stake.

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