Academic journal article Communication Studies

Modal Expressions in Refusals of Friends' Interpersonal Requests: Politeness and Effectiveness

Academic journal article Communication Studies

Modal Expressions in Refusals of Friends' Interpersonal Requests: Politeness and Effectiveness

Article excerpt

Politeness is important across many social contexts, including personal relationships, business interactions, and institutionalized forms of communication such as international diplomacy. It is little wonder, then, that even the smallest children are routinely advised to "say please and thank you" and to "mind your manners."

Politeness, however, involves more than adding "please" or "thank you," as indicated by the large body of scholarship devoted to examining how people communicate politeness to others. The ways that humans use language to convey politeness have been examined by scholars in linguistics (e.g., Nelson, Al Batal, & El Bakary, 2002; Turnbull & Saxton, 1997), sociology (e.g., Fritsche, 2002), psychology (e.g., Kuczynski & Kochanska, 1990), and communication (e.g., Johnson, Roloff, & Riffee, 2004a; Kline & Floyd, 1990).

Much of the extant research on politeness is guided by Brown and Levinson's (1987) politeness theory. Within the framework of politeness theory, Brown and Levinson identified the types of messages that create threats to an interactant's face needs and strategies for redressing face threats. Particular concern has focused on speech acts that are inherently face threatening, such as requests (e.g., Wilson, Aleman, & Leatham, 1998) and refusals (e.g., Johnson et al., 2004a; Van Wie & Gross, 2001). Although the magnitude of face threat presented by a given speech act varies, interactants often engage in facework designed to minimize the threat to face that occurs when performing one of these acts.

The present investigation focuses on conversational refusals and on how such refusals might be constructed to lessen their face-threatening potential. The next section examines research on the multiple ways that politeness is conveyed and then centers on one particular method of generating politeness: the use of modal expressions.

Refusal Messages and Politeness

Research has examined several ways that refusal messages can convey politeness. One body of research focuses on the reasons given for refusal of a request. Folkes (1982), for instance, concluded that impersonal, unstable reasons for date refusal (e.g., "I have to attend a family event that evening") are more likely to be stated than negative personal characteristics of the requester (e.g., "You are physically unattractive"). Johnson et al. (2004a) found that combinations of dimensions of the reasons given for refusal (willingness-unwillingness, ability-inability, and focus-on-focus away from the requester) were associated with different types of face threats such that, for example, the interaction of the willingness and focus on requester dimensions predicted threat to a refuser's positive face.

Other scholars have looked at the linguistic structure of refusals. In fact, Goldsmith (2000) described politeness theory as emphasizing "linguistic forms as the primary resource for saving face" (p. 1). Research has established that refusals contain multiple components (Besson, Roloff, & Paulson, 1998; Nelson et al., 2002) and that they often serve politeness functions. For example, Besson et al. (1998) identified apologies, expressions of concern for the requester's feelings, and expressions of interest in the requester as components of date request refusals.

Modal Expressions in Refusal Messages

In addition to general linguistic forms such as those examined by Besson et al. (1998) and reasons for refusal, another way of conveying politeness in refusals is to use modal expressions, expressions that qualify a speaker's commitment to what he or she says. For example, "I think that I'm too busy," qualifies commitment more than the declarative statement "I am too busy." Turnbull and Saxton (1997) discussed the use of modal expressions (e.g., can, may, must, would, and should) in refusals, arguing that modal expressions convey the likelihood that an event (either compliance with a request or an intervening event that prevents compliance) will occur. …

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