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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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Conversely, if one uses the politeness strategies used in an easy (-R) request, such as Example 1, in a context in which there is a perceived greater threat to face, the addressee may be offended or may wonder why the signer is making light of the request. In other words, the lack of face-work on the signer’s part would imply that the content and function were taking precedent over the social meaning and the mitigation of the larger threat to independence. Example 3 shows what this type of incongruous request might look like, i.e., if an employee were to do little face-work when making a difficult (+R) request.

example

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

E:    wednesday, day before thanksgiving/t, don’t-mind, off, i/pp,q.

       [translation: Do you mind if I have the day before Thanksgiving off?]

All of the native ASL signers engage in more face-work (e.g., use more severe NMMs) in this difficult (+R) rejection made by the employee than appears in this example. Clearly the appropriate and expected face-work is not being conveyed in this example. The supervisor would wonder why the employee is presuming to make light of such a big imposition, especially given that the pp marker (which is used only for small threats to involvement) is being used to make a difficult (+R) request.

When it comes to social meaning and the linguistic expression of politeness, what matters is not only what language users say, but how they say it. Human beings are not only conveying content, function, and textual meaning in interaction, they are also maintaining an image of themselves and their relationship with others; they are conveying social meaning. The linguistic decisions they make, which are generally made unconsciously, provide the glue that helps maintain our social interactions.

Two Kinds of Face Politeness Systems, Not One

When most people in the United States think of politeness, they tend to think of the traditional view of politeness as it is expressed in books on etiquette. This social norm view of politeness reflects a prescriptive view of polite behavior and, therefore, may assume that a polite way of speaking is more akin to independence, in that the speaker does not want to impede the addressee’s wants, actions, and values. When it comes to linguistic politeness, however, speakers often mitigate threats to both involvement and independence, and some cultural groups may be more independence oriented or involvement oriented. Involvement, when the speaker affirms the addressee’s wants, actions, and values as desirable, reaffirms the relationship between the interlocutors and a sense of solidarity and connectedness. In actuality, both kinds of face-needs are mitigated in face-to-face interaction.

The general lack of awareness of the involvement politeness system (at least in the majority culture of the United States) is unfortunate. As has been suggested in this book, some language communities, such as the American Deaf community, assume involvement as the predominant face politeness system, where acceptance in common membership takes precedence over independence. The implication of this cultural tendency is that there may be less concern with independence.

This difference in expectations regarding independence and involvement is reflected in some comments made by English speakers. For example, some English speakers have said that ASL signers do not say “please” and “thank you” enough. This criticism seems to be based on differing cultural expectations regarding the linguistic expression of politeness. Given that independence (characterized by the desire to not impose or assume the listener will agree) is the predominant face politeness system in the majority culture, these English speakers may well be assuming an independence face politeness system and judging those who do not conform to their expectations.


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