Politeness, Impoliteness, and Ritual: An Interface Area
Two Opening Anecdotes
This book explores the interface area that exists between politeness, impoliteness, and ritual. Politeness and impoliteness play a fundamental role in interpersonal interaction, as the extensive research that has been done on (im)politeness phenomena in the past three decades demonstrates. The intriguing nature of (im)politeness resides, in my view, in that it helps researchers capture the way in which interpersonal relationships are worked out via a wide range of pragmatic phenomena, spanning friendly small talk, through instances of socialising humour, to deference, and in a variety of situated interactions. Examining the management of interpersonal relationships – aka (im)politeness – implies that the research on (im)politeness involves the study of phenomena beyond what counts as ‘obviously’ polite or impolite in a popular sense, and, similarly important, the study of phenomena that have complex relationships with (im)politeness. Consequently, politeness research has intrinsic interfaces with the research of other interactional phenomena, and there is a need to examine such interface areas, and face the challenges that their study imposes on politeness theory. Many such interface phenomena are too complex and ambiguous to be captured as (im)politeness per se, without the risk of oversimplifying our analytic model(s), but they are clearly related to (im)politeness behaviour and so cannot be ignored either. In particular, many interactions are ritual by nature – a phenomenon which is at the centre of this study. The reader will have to bear with me for some pages until I provide a detailed definition of ritual. Let us contend here that ritual is an interactionally salient action, which transforms and/or reinforces interpersonal relationships.
The following two anecdotes illustrate the complexity that surrounds some polite and impolite interactions. British universities have a traditional and invisible border between ‘academics’ and ‘admin people’ – this is the status quo in that most administrators are friendly to academic staff and go far to help them; academics also tend to treat administrators with the respect due to their status as professionals. As a result of the status quo, it can be difficult to create personal relationships in the ‘other camp’. A few years ago, an administrative colleague whom academics particularly liked as a person retired, and a short farewell gathering had been organised, at which the gift which had been bought for the retiring colleague would be presented.