Gender and Politeness

So far, this discussion has focused on gender differences in the use of languages, codes, or verbal genres. Pragmatic stances are also a domain in which many kinds of social differentiations are manifest. Politeness is:

[A] special way of treating people, saying and doing things in such a way as to take into account the other person's feelings. On the whole that means that what one says politely will be less straightforward or more complicated than what one would say if one wasn't taking the other's feelings into account. (Brown, 1980, p. 114)

In societies where politeness is normatively valued or seen as a skill, or where acquisition of politeness is not an automatic part of language learning but requires additional training, men tend to be understood as more polite, and women are understood as impolite (Malagasy) or too polite (Java). In societies where directness is valued, and politeness is seen as a form of deference rather than a skill, women tend to be more polite, or at least are perceived as more polite (many groups in the United States, certain Mayan women—e.g., Brown, 1980). In certain cases, at certain times, women challenge such dominant views of their actions.

Keenan (1974) studied a village in Malagasy in which there were two politeness systems, one perceived as traditional and the other perceived as European, and in which both men and women believed that men were more skillful polite speakers. Men and women actually shared the traditional politeness system, which included long winding speeches associated with traditional values placed on personal relationships, the use of traditional metaphoric sayings, positive politeness markers, use of stand-ins to make requests, indirect ways of giving orders, and avoidance of outright expressions of anger or criticism. However, since women did not, engage in the ritually-oriented interactions that had to do with village-to-village negotiations, dispute resolution, and marriage requests, they were perceived as less skilled at politeness. Women were also perceived as less polite because the devalued European politeness system was consigned to them (men use it only when ordering around cows). They used this system in marketplace transactions associated with bargaining about and selling food and at times when a village member had behaved in an unacceptable way and had to be more directly approached. Men deputized their wives to handle such situations.

In Java, the politeness system is quite complicated and elaborate, with every utterance being marked for respect, so that properly mastering how to be deferential means mastering a skill that allows one to control others and express authority (Smith-Hefner, 1988). Men are seen in this society, too, as being more adept and skillful at using politeness forms. By producing polite forms for an inferior, a speaker can force the interactant to respond politely in turn—or lose face. The coercive-ness of the act is hidden, and thus difficult to challenge. Because people must be explicitly drilled in the more intricate politeness forms (they are not learned along with the rest of the language), an educated man who uses politeness forms can reduce a man not so educated to silence—or at least agreement (disagreement would require explanation and skillful use of politeness forms). Javanese women are understood by men as less skillful in using politeness—not because they are not polite enough, but because they are too polite. Women who are mothers are often more polite than befits their status because they are modeling the production of politeness forms for their children and are using forms which are appropriate for children to use toward their elders. Furthermore, in situations in which it is unclear which politeness forms to chose, women tend to speak (choosing the more polite forms to be on the safe side) and men remain silent. Here again is a complementary system similar to that in Malagasy, where men can use women's actions to preserve their own status. Women interpret their own actions differently than men do, however, in ways that point out the importance of considering how all members of a group interpret a given act. Women take advantage of the polysemy of politeness to understand their kinds of politeness not as subservient but as refined.

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