Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

Politeness Strategies in the 1992 Vice Presidential and Presidential Debates

Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

Politeness Strategies in the 1992 Vice Presidential and Presidential Debates

Article excerpt

Since the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debates, researchers have assessed audience members' use of information regarding a candidate's personality, advocacy skills, ideology, political image, political record, vision of leadership, stand on the issues, as well as other aspects of leadership potential. However, one type of information that has not been investigated in studies of political debates concerns the politeness of the candidates, the degree to which they attack and defend the political face of opposing candidates. This study develops an approach to political debates based on the idea that politeness is an important dimension of political leadership and contributes to an audience's understanding of political image, a central concern in the evaluation of a political candidate. To determine if candidates utilized different politeness strategies, we examined the 1992 vice presidential and presidential debates using Kline's operationalization of Brown and Levinson's politeness theory.

While politeness has been studied mainly within interpersonal contexts, the prevailing conditions of disagreement in the ritualized confrontations of a political debate place positive face resources of participating candidates at risk. Political debate discourse can be understood as contests about presidential character, political image, and candidate self-esteem--all elements of positive face as defined by Brown and Levinson. To illustrate how debates threaten positive face, we review Brown and Levinson's concepts of positive and negative face, explain why positive face dominates candidate concerns in the debates, and consider how examining positive face in debates extends Brown and Levinson's theory beyond interpersonal contexts.


Brown and Levinson's politeness theory is based on Goffman's (1967) claim that selfimage is an important element of human interaction. Face-saving is defined in terms of identity management--the need to preserve one's self-esteem or face wants in interaction. Brown and Levinson assert that face-saving strategies are recognized universally as necessary for interactions to proceed. While interactants may recognize the need and importance of maintaining the face wants of all involved, Brown and Levinson argue that face-threatening acts are routinely committed.

Two types of face wants have been studied. Positive face is the need for a person to maintain a favorable self-image; negative face is the expectation that one will be free of imposition or obligations in pursuing one's goals. Positive face is threatened when disagreement occurs. Negative face is threatened when requests occur. Three social factors are theorized to account for differences in perceptions of how serious a face-threatening act (FTA) is in a transaction: relative power (P), distance (D), and ranking of imposition (R).

Positive face is at risk when interactants hold equal power. In this circumstance, disagreement threatens the positive face of the interactants (Holtgraves, 1997). Presuming the disagreement can be resolved, one or the other will be wrong in his/her claims. The risk of arguing and disagreeing naturally calls into question interactants' competence as advocates. Negative face is at risk when there is an asymmetrical relationship of power between interactants. If a subordinate makes a request of a superior, the subordinate must frame and phrase the request in such a way that it does not impede the superior's freedom or autonomy in the interaction.

Positive face is most relevant for the study of political debates. Political candidates are equal on the stage of debate--the mystery of office is unavailable to incumbents when they stand beside the challenger. A debate presumes each person is equal in power so that the deciding difference is measured in terms of one's arguments, not wealth, title, or prestige. The debate is held to reveal and test the candidates' position on the issues. …

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