Politeness is such a
culturally diverse concept that when Brown and Levinson (1987) introduced their
theory of politeness, it created much debate amongst academics both for and
against its claim of being universally applicable
McConnell-Ginet, 2015). This paper seeks to establish a connection between the
English and Vietnamese languages in terms of their expressions used to convey
messages of welcomes, goodbyes and offers, all of which are produced using the
bald on-record politeness strategy, part of the larger politeness theory. By
examining pairs of equivalent phrases having largely matching structures and
vocabularies and employed in performing the same speech acts in the same
socio-cultural contexts, we can arrive at a conclusion that, after all, Brown
and Levinson deserve credits for certain aspects of their theory, specifically
those that concern bald on-record expressions being applied in a given pair of
languages under study such as English and Vietnamese. It is worth noting that
the this study discuss only the kind of bald on-record phrases formulated in
cases where the face threats are implicitly mitigated and thus considered
polite. Finally, possible implications resulting from the research can be
observed in various areas like language learning, tourism and sociolinguistic
cases of studies involving cross-cultural perception of politeness.
Key words: politeness theory, bald
on-record strategy, face threats
A contrastive analysis of English and
Vietnamese polite expressions formulated using
bald on-record politeness strategies
English and Vietnamese
represent quite different cultures and norms, which heavily affects the way
each people expresses politeness in everyday conversations. To fully understand
each other, we must first appreciate the influences of our backgrounds and the
contexts in which we are conducting our exchanges. For one thing, Vietnamese
culture leans towards Eastern Asian cultures and embraces Confucian values that
could prove foreign to Westerners, including English people. Take honor or
‘face’ for instance, and we can easily imagine how different the stances each
side would take on a certain cultural issue. And in the context of this paper,
face happens to represent half of the equation, the other half being bald
on-record strategies specifically created to sort out and deal with most
situations involving speeches whose threats to the hearer’s (H) face have been
Better knowledge of bald
on-record politeness expressions usage in English and Vietnamese not only lead
to enhanced comprehension of the similarities and differences between the two
languages, but also improve awareness of politeness in conversations and reduce
instances of cross-cultural pragmatic failure. This includes appreciating both
the syntactical and semantic aspects of the two languages and the way one
culture perceives concepts of personal dignity, mutual respect and social
courtesy and manners.
How to show politeness when
talking is often one of the most distinguishing features when it comes to
examining a language pragmatically and comparing it to another. By carefully
considering all the works on this issue, we can gradually build a well-informed
set of perspectives on the breadth of Brown and Levinson’s politeness
strategies’ validity and usefulness, their shortcomings and areas of
improvement, which in turn would help to illuminate more clearly the case of
bald on-record strategies employed to formulate polite expressions. The
subtopics under discussion include definitions of politeness and face,
strategies often employed to demonstrate respect and deference, cases of
failure and misunderstanding, experts’ views on this phenomenon and suggested remedies.
Politeness is an effort
made by the speaker to avoid any unpleasant feelings or damage to self-respect
for the listener (Mills, 2003). Much as politeness is highly valued in
civilized societies and high classes, its history dates back to as recent as
the early 18th century. This was when Lord Shaftesbury first
dedicated a number of works to the topic of politeness (Klein, 1994),
contributing to a growing awareness of social etiquette in the middle class
whose members aspire to attach themselves to higher social strata. According to
Klein (1984), Shaftesbury defined politeness as the art of being
pleasing in company: “Politeness may be defined a dext’rous management of our
words and actions, whereby we make other people have better opinion of us and
themselves” (p. 186).
A very important view on
politeness was proposed by Brown and Levinson (1987), which states that there
exist positive politeness strategies and negative politeness strategies. These
strategies in turn are meant to deal with two kinds of face: positive face and
negative face. Positive face is defined as “the want of every member that
his wants be desirable to at least some others executors”, and negative
face as “the want of every ‘competent adult member’ that his actions be
unimpeded by others” (Brown & Levinson, 1987). These theories were
based on the theory of face introduced by Erving Goffman, claiming that face is
one’s perception of self-value and importance to others (Goffman, 1955).
There are four main kinds
of politeness strategies: bald on-record, positive politeness, negative
politeness and off-record. The first type, bald on-record, makes no effort to
minimize the damage to the listener’s face, so it is often used when the
speakers know each other well or when speed of exchange is essential. Positive
politeness is utilized to make the listener feel accepted as part of a group
(Foley, 1997). Negative politeness is intended to preserve the hearer’s sense
of independence (Maha, 2014). Lastly, off-record strategies are employed to only
mildly refer to the speaker’s intent.
Despite the desire of most
people that their face wants be respected, the decisive factor here remains
their unique upbringing, societal backgrounds and norms, which dictate what
qualify as “politeness” (Mao, 1994). For example, use of the Japanese honorific
system is not necessarily related to avoiding a face threatening act (Fukada
& Asato, 2004). Opinions to the contrary, however, cite the difference in
how Japanese and Westerners define “politeness”, a concept whose core the
former base heavily on group belonging while the latter on individualism (Mao,
1994). Thus, considering the Japanese context where a distinct set of
politeness rules apply, failure to properly use these terms of address does
constitute a positive face-threating act, thereby rendering the honorifics
system compatible with Brown and Levinson’s politeness paradigms.
Other points of contention
on this matter have to do with the four politeness strategies overlapping each
other in terms of usage and their effects on both the positive and negative
face of the hearer (Johnson, Roloff, & Riffee, 2004). Moreover,
various factors play a part in determining the effectiveness or choice of a
politeness strategy and also the perceived severity of a face threat, namely
body languages, the order of conversations and each person’s particular style
of communication dependent on their habits and emotions (Goldsmith,
In summary, all arguments
and viewpoints considered, a number of weaknesses in Brown and Levinson’s
politeness strategies stand out as most prominent: a certain lack of
cross-cultural applicability and oversight of contributing aspects apart from
the isolated speech acts themselves. Still, the point stands that credits are
awarded to Brown and Levinson for inspiring further research into this area of
communication studies by acting as pioneers and inviting others to search for
alternate theories that seek to improve on theirs where there exist
individuals stand to benefit from attempting to follow the guidelines set forth
in the politeness theory as a way of elevating their speeches’ quality and
propriety (Whaley &
This paper’s primary stance
is that of an observer absorbing the contributions of all sides, all the while
focusing predominantly on comparing the bald on-record politeness strategies
utilized by English and Vietnamese in light of the literature dedicated to this
subject. The final outcome derived from this research may help to shed more
light on how similar or different politeness strategies are used in English and
Vietnamese against their distinct sociolinguistic and cultural backdrops.
Although bald on-record
stands out as the only politeness strategy to not have any concern for threat
mitigation, there are circumstances when the straight utterances actually serve
to relieve the hearer’s anxiety about encroaching on the speaker’s free will.
Such situations entail welcomes, farewells and offers, where the hearer (H) is
most likely to threaten either the speaker’s (S) positive or negative face, and
where the bolder and firmer the expressions are, the more polite they will be
(Brown & Levinson, 1987).
Brown and Levinson list
some prime examples of bald on-record usage in everyday English conversations
which, together with their Vietnamese equivalents, form the basis of the
contrastive analysis model that follows. As stipulated above, the polite
expressions employed in this comparison fall under three categories, which will
be discussed, illustrated, and compared in turn.
First and perhaps most
common in all languages are cases of welcoming phrases that, according to Brown
and Levinson (1987), invite H to trespass on S’s negative face by allowing H to
enter into S’s premises, space and hospitality. And most often used of all the
different ways of extending one’s welcome to others is probably ‘Come in’
(Brown & Levinson, 1987), a typical bald on-record imperative in both
English and Vietnamese used to signal that H are received as guest of S.
Situations of use
S and H knows each other quite well
Vào ?i em.
Come on in.
H has high social status
Please come in, (Sir/Madam).
Xin m?i Ông/Bà vào.
Formal welcoming phrases for important guests or people.
Welcome to our restaurant.
Chào m?ng ??n nhà hàng chúng tôi.
A very warm welcome to all of you.
Xin g?i l?i
chào n?ng nhi?t
??n t?t c?
As can be seen, both
English and Vietnamese contain such phrases frequently reserved for
invitations, and most often they are uttered baldly on record by S to minimize
H’s reservation. The imperative mood is usually utilized to deliver these kinds
of polite commands, as they are well suited to circumstances where S and H know
each other well. When welcoming, saying goodbye or making offers to
unacquainted guests or those with higher social statuses, hedges and terms
showing respect such as “please”, “sir” or “madam” should be utilized to soften
the threat to H’s positive and negative faces (Brown & Levinson, 1987).
Last but not least, a small difference is that Vietnamese welcomes can
sometimes include pronouns like “anh”, “b?n”, “em”, “ch?”, etc., at the end of
the phrase to denote closeness and regard to H’s presence, which is often
unnecessary in English.
Quite similar to welcomes
are farewells, which S uses to make H less uncomfortable impinging on S’s
positive face by leaving S’s company. A variety of expressions in the form of
imperatives are available for S’s use to indicate that he has no problem with H
taking his leave, chief among which are:
Situations of use/ Context
Goodbye/ Bye-bye/ Bye.
T?m bi?t/ Chào nhé.
See you (later)/ Later.
H?n g?p l?i/ H?n d?p khác.
Used to say goodbye to those about to go on vacations
Have a nice/safe trip.
?i ch?i vui v?/ Th??ng l? bình an.
Informal parting phrases, showing care for H’s well-being
Take care/Be safe.
Said to those about to do something difficult or dangerous.
Good luck/Best of luck.
Chúc may m?n.
English and Vietnamese
share plenty of farewell phrases that are prototypically associated with
certain common situations of use as illustrated in the above examples ranging
from general partings to well-wishing before a trip. Bald on-record directions
are aimed at H as S attempts to be polite by insisting that H can leave without
being concerned about S’s feelings. Several structures with largely identical
meanings demonstrate the universality of these instances in both languages,
with the exception of some inherent syntactical distinctions setting them
The third category of bald on-record messages
with implicitly redressed negative face threats are offers. Some English
examples are from Brown and Levinson, together with their Vietnamese
Situations of use/ Contexts
S signal that H need not need care about certain
Don’t bother, I’ll clean it up.
Kh?i m?c công, ?? tôi d?n cho.
S relieves H of a duty.
Leave it to me.
?? ??y cho t?.
S wants H to continue receiving S’s hospitality
Have some more cake.
?n thêm mi?ng bánh n?a ?i.
S invites H to a close occasion.
Have dinner with us.
?n t?i v?i chúng tôi nhé.
Looking at these samples
syntactically, one cannot but notice the addition of words like “?i”, “nhé”,
“cho”, etc., at the end, serving as typical function markers of offers and
without which the Vietnamese phrases would lost their pleading character.
English offers do not need such extra words to convey otherwise similar
meanings. Other than this issue, it can be said that some English and
Vietnamese expressions of offer quite match each other in terms of where and
when they are used, given their diverse nature as opposed to welcomes or
farewells, which are relatively less abundant.
To best sum up the findings
of this contrastive analysis, we should note the following main similarities
and differences as pointed out earlier. First, it is safe to say that, despite
other distinct features native only to either English or Vietnamese, both
languages seem to behave in a fairly corresponding fashion when it comes to
expressing and perceiving bald on-record polite expressions. Many common sociocultural
contexts can be identified in which semantically identical set phrases in
popular use are closely linked with particular settings. This leaves only some
syntactical and grammatical discrepancies to be cited as unique to each
language. Most importantly, the universal validity can be said to be best
manifest in these specific aspects of English and Vietnamese, lending some more
support to Brown and Levinson’s politeness theory to say the least.
By realizing and taking
advantages of similarities in the ways both peoples show their welcomes, bid
farewells and offer to help, teachers can begin familiarizing English and
Vietnamese learners with the new language through highlighting common simple
phrases with similar grammatical structures and directly translated
vocabularies. This not only helps with easier association and comprehension of
new knowledge, but it also makes for a faster establishment of basic
conversational skills, especially in uncomplicated situations such as when
people first met, take their leaves or simply make short, straightforward
offers. Provided the appropriate circumstances apply, beginners benefit from
the simple sentences and expressions that helps them state clearly their
intentions without risking making errors or being misunderstood by foreigners,
which is often the case as they try using more complex, polite expressions
usually found in positive or negative politeness strategies, and especially
For those working in
hospitality or the tourism industry, specifically the ones serving as the first
points of contact with foreign tourists such as hotel receptionists or tour
guides, it is vital to make a good first impression by making guests feel
welcomed, through the proper use of welcoming phrases. Also, as tourists leave
after their stay, their last encounters with hotels’ or resorts’ staff should
be marked with well-placed, well-timed parting remarks. It goes without saying
that all personnel’s offers of help, service or assistance during guests’ stays
must be accompanied by hedges or produced in a way that display respectful and