Other People’s Fears

Acts that threaten the addressee’s sense of autonomy

Autonomy is freedom of action – being independent and free from pressure and imposition.

  • Utterances that put pressure on the hearer to act (or not to act) in a certain way: requests, suggestions, advice, reminders, orders, threats, warnings, dares. Watch videos on how to deliver criticism, and how to accept criticism.
  • Utterances that express that the speaker may want the hearer’s belongings: compliments, expressions of envy or admiration towards the hearer or their belongings.
  • Expressions of strong negative emotion towards the hearer: anger, hatred, lust. An angry speaker expresses his want to limit or modify the hearer’s behavior.
  • Suggestions to give something to the hearer, thus putting them in debt to the speaker: offers, promises. If you don’t see offers that way, read about the handicap principle.

Displaying deference signals that the speaker does not intend to impede on the hearer’s freedom of action. It does so by showing respect, emphasizing the importance of the other’s time or concerns, and possibly apologizing for the encumbrance or interruption.

Some acts are a threat to both independence and social inclusion.

Acts that threaten the addressee’s social inclusion

Social inclusion means being viewed in a positive light and being socially accepted. This is also related to social status.

  • Direct expression of dislike: disapproval, criticism, insult, accusation, complaint, ridicule.
  • Indirect expression of dislike: disagreement, contradiction, challenge.
  • Behavior that suggest a willing to disregard the emotional well being of the hearer:
    • Out of control expression of emotions that may cause embarrassment or fear to the hearer.
    • Boasting; Belittling the hearer.
    • Raising taboo topics, including topics that are inappropriate in the context. Irreverence.
    • Raising a socially sensitive topic, which increases the possibility of a face-threatening act to occur. Examples: politics, sex, religion.
    • Blatant non-cooperation: disruptive interruptions, non-sequiturs, showing inattention. Watch how to politely interrupt someone.
    • Misuse of address terms in an offensive or embarrassing way, intentionally of accidentally. For example, addressing a young woman as “ma’am” instead of “miss”. [2]

A threat to social inclusion doesn’t have to be verbal – you can threaten someone’s sense of acceptance with a disapproving look, a stare, a tone of voice, by body language that communicates you are not interested (yawning) or don’t care to potentially offend them (awkward behavior, scratching in public, sloppy dress, being late to a meeting), or by ignoring them (lack of eye contact, being busy with a cellphone).

Acts that threaten the speaker’s autonomy

  • Expressing thanks. The speaker is acknowledging a debt to the hearer. Watch a video on how to say thanks.
  • Accepting thanks or an apology. “The speaker may feel constrained to minimize the hearer debt or transgression, as in ‘It was nothing, don’t mention it.'” [1]
  • Acceptance of an offer. The speaker is taking upon himself a future debt.
  • Commitment, offer.

Acts that threaten the speaker’s social inclusion

  • Apology, confessions, admission of guilt or responsibility.
  • Accepting a compliment. The speaker may feel constrained to discount the compliment or to compliment the hearer in return. Read some advice on How to take a complement.
  • Loss of physical control. Examples: stumbling, falling down.
  • Loss of emotional control. Examples: showing signs of fear or anxiety, uncontrolled laughter or tears.
  • Self-deprecating statements.

To learn how people minimize the perceived threat but still communicate their wishes, read more on Showing Friendliness and Showing Deference.

[1] Politeness: Some Universals in Language Usage. Penelope Brown and Stephen Levinson. Cambridge University Press, 1987.
[2] Politeness Theory on Wikipedia.

More Recommended Readings:
The section Evaluating Face Threats and particularly the Exercises for this section on the Social Communication site by Dr. Mary Shapiro
Being polite? OK, but how? Simona Petrescu.

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