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Politeness Strategies of Involvement and Independence

Now that we have given you a general introduction to the concept of face in interpersonal communication, we hope that we can make this discussion clearer by giving a number of examples of actual linguistic strategies which are used to communicate these different face strategies.

The most extreme contrast between involvement and independence is the difference between speaking (or communicating) and silence (or noncommunication). Any form of communication at all is somewhat on the side of involvement. In order to communicate at all, the participants must share some aspects of symbolic systems which they can interpret in shared ways. If I speak to you and you are able to answer me, we have already shared some small degree of involvement. As a result we would classify speech on the side of involvement, and silence (or better still, non-communication) on the side of independence.

Perhaps it is important to clarify that there are silences which can be interpreted as high involvement as well. We know that two people who share a very intimate situation can communicate to each other a high degree of involvement while remaining completely silent. That is why we have rephrased “silence” as “non-communication” above. It is the silence of noncommunication to which we refer when we say it is at the independence end of the continuum. One grants (and claims for oneself ) the highest level of independence by having no communication with the other. Taciturnity and volubility are somewhat lesser extremes of noncommunication and communication. Taciturnity means, simply, not talking very much. Volubility is the other side of the coin, “talking a lot.” Both of these are highly relative terms. There is no absolute amount of speech which can be classed as taciturn or as voluble. The same is true for individuals; there are no absolutely taciturn or voluble individuals. Likewise there are no absolutely taciturn or voluble groups, or societies, or cultures.

Nevertheless, one aspect of the grammar of context is expectations of the amount of speech. For example, many religious rites or ceremonies are very restricted in the amount of incidental conversational or non-formal speech expected. In such a situation, a person who was speaking at all might be perceived as being very voluble. On the other hand, at a friendly dinner party among close friends, a person who was speaking, but not to any great extent, might be considered to be taciturn, because the expectations are for a good bit of conversational exchange.

Psychological studies of conversational exchanges and formal interviews have shown that the more talk there is, the more these exchanges are perceived as “warm” or “affiliative.” In contrast, the less talk there is, the more they are perceived as “cold” or “non-affiliative.” On the basis of this designation of “affiliative,” we believe that it is best to consider more talk, volubility, to be an involvement strategy, and less talk, taciturnity, to be an independence strategy.

From the point of view of face relationships, we have said above that any communication is based on sharing a symbolic system, and that such a
sharing is already to some degree an expression of involvement. Therefore, the question of what language to use is a crucial one in international business and government relationships as well as within bilingual or multilingual speech communities. If negotiations are conducted among participants using different languages (but, of course, with translators), this is a situation of lesser involvement or of higher independence than if negotiations are conducted using the same language. Therefore, it is a question of face relationships to decide whether discussions should go on in separate languages mediated by translators or whether they should go on in a common language. Naturally, of course, if the negotiations go on in the native language of one of the participants (or group of participants) that will tip the balance of involvement toward their side. It will give the other participants a sense of having their own independence limited, perhaps even unduly. At the same time, an insistence on the use of separate languages to overcome this problem can produce a sense of too great an independence, which can be felt as hostility or unwillingness to come to a common ground of agreement. The choice of language in discourse is not simply a matter of practical choice governed by efficiency of communication of information. Every such choice is also a matter of the negotiation of the face of the participants.