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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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ASL signers, in fact, do use the signs, please and thank-you, among themselves at times to mitigate threats to independence. These signs appear in the ASL data in this study. However, it is likely that ASL signers are using please and thank-you the Deaf way and not in the specific contexts that some English speakers would expect to hear the words, please and thank you, in everyday usage. It would follow that please and thank-you would be used less often in a linguistic community that operates primarily under the involvement face politeness system because the degree to which these signs are used may well be lessened by the general assumption of cooperation and common membership.

Some English speakers also have said that ASL signers don’t say, “you’re welcome,” enough as well. In actuality, expressions such as thank-you or fine+ [That’s fine], often marked by the pp marker or the tight lips NMM—rather than you welcome — are used in ASL as a response to the act of thanking. A nodding of the head, often marked with either the pp or tight lips NMM, is also a common marker used in the language for this purpose.

The difference in face politeness systems may also account for why some ASL signers say that English speakers (hearing people) be-vague (are vague or are indirect). There may well be many contexts in which English speakers say things in a more roundabout way by using more face-work than many ASL signers (Deaf people) would expect at that moment in the interaction. The use of indirect requests by English speakers certainly attests to such a difference in difficult (+R) requests by the supervisor (+P). In contrast, ASL signers—using the involvement face politeness system--may use more of a deductive rhetorical strategy (topic-first), even more than English speakers.

Scollon and Scollon (2001) have suggested that Americans tend to use a deductive (topic-first) rhetorical strategy; however, when American ASL signers are compared to American English speakers, ASL signers may have more of a preference for this rhetorical strategy than do American English speakers. The use of the deductive rhetorical strategy is a matter of degree, and the attribution to any particular group may depend in part on what groups are being compared. The stereotyping regarding their different ways of speaking as direct or indirect also seems to be based on this dichotomy, which—like most stereotypes—has some basis in fact.

Holding a more independence oriented view of linguistic politeness may actually blind some people to the strategies used by a member of a community that is more involvement oriented. The recognition of two types of face politeness systems and the strategies used to mitigate them is an important contribution of the face-saving view to politeness. It provides a framework for better understanding the range of strategies that are employed by particular language users at the level of face-to-face interaction.

Future Research

The findings presented here clarify how these two groups of language users manage requests and rejections. Although this study has helped to clarify many of these issues, future research is needed in at least three related areas.

First, more research is needed regarding the politeness strategies used by a variety of signed language users. These include signers of other signed languages, second language users of ASL (especially considering the findings of the pilot study reported in chapter 7), and ASL signers of various dialects, including blue-collar (grassroots) ASL signers and ASL signers who differ in their ethnicity, race, gender, and regional backgrounds. More research is also needed regarding various dialects of English, second language users of English, and other spoken languages.

Second, use of politeness strategies in settings other than the workplace should be researched. Research into casual conversations, medical appointments, the classroom setting, or other settings should help reveal how requests and rejections are handled differently as determined in part by the speech event, sociolinguistic differences, and variables that determine the weight of the imposition: power, social distance, and ranking.

Third, researchers should investigate how ASL signers mitigate other speech acts, such as complaints, compliments, and so on. There is a particular need for empirical investigation into the mitigation of other speech acts by second language users of ASL and signers of various ASL dialects.


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