Unit 8: Im/politeness and aggression

In A8.8 (see especially p93) we highlighted the ongoing ‘concern over labelling within the im/politeness research’ literature. Researchers who adopt a postmodern or discursive approach, in particular, are concerned that labels like ‘polite’/‘politeness’ and ‘impolite’/‘impoliteness’ are used to describe behaviour that, in context, may not constitute actual im/politeness for lay members of a given community. Their concern can be explained, in part, by their vociferous opposition to ‘second-order approaches’, as it is their contention that – when seeking to identify im/politeness – we should be led by the perceptions of the participants involved in a given activity (i.e. first-order approaches) and not by any academic view of what is and is not im/polite.

In the following sections, you’ll have the opportunity to: investigate impoliteness synonyms; think in detail about the relationship between verbal aggression and impoliteness; consider whether verbal aggression might be a problematic term in itself; and look at trolling as a case study (as a means of deciding whether it constitutes verbal aggression or impoliteness –  or, indeed, potentially combines elements of both). 1

1 The authors would like to thank Claire Hardaker for her input in regard to the trolling section of 8.4.

8.1. Investigating impoliteness synonyms

In his monograph, Impoliteness: Using language to cause offence, Culpeper (2011) suggests that the terms ‘impolite’ and ‘impoliteness’ are not as problematic as postmodern researchers would have us believe, as the terms (i) are technical ones, and (ii) tend not to be used as much as we might imagine in everyday conversation. In fact, Culpeper suggests they have ‘almost no currency in the English language’ generally (2011: 24). This is because other terms tend to be used instead.


Culpeper provides the following list of possible alternatives to ‘impoliteness’ (taken from http://thesaurus.reference.com/):

bad manners, boldness, boorishness, brusqueness, coarseness, contempt, contumely, discourtesy, discourteousness, dishonour, disrespect, flippancy, hardihood, impertinence, impiety, impudence, incivility, inurbanity, inconsideration, insolence, insolency, insolentness, irreverence, lack of respect, profanation, rudeness, sacrilege, unmannerliness (2011: 24)

Search for these items in the BNC and COCA and make a note of their frequencies:

  •  Which term is the most used in (i) the BNC, (ii) COCA, (iii) overall?
  • Is the most-used term (from the above list) more frequent or less frequent than the terms impolite and impoliteness? What explanations can you offer for this finding?
  • Which of these terms do you, personally, associate with impoliteness?
  • Are there any that you would not associate with impoliteness and, if so, why?
  • Investigate the concordance results for the items that you do not regard as denoting impoliteness, again using the BNC and COCA, and determine whether they are, in fact, used ‘impolitely’ in context.
  • Are any of the items you’ve searched for very rarely used (or not used at all) in the BNC or COCA? Why do you think this is?


  • Culpeper, J. (2011) Impoliteness: Using language to cause offence. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (especially Chapter 3, ‘Impoliteness metadiscourse’, pp71–112)

8.2 Defining verbal aggression in relation to im/politeness

According to Culpeper (2011), the term verbal aggression is most commonly associated with the academic discipline of social psychology. Within that discipline, a further distinction is made between verbal aggression that is hostile and verbal aggression that is instrumental. Jay spells out the difference for us, in relation to cursing:

In hostile verbal aggression, the goal of cursing is to harm a person who has hurt the speaker or damaged the speaker’s self-esteem. In instrumental verbal aggression, the goal of cursing is to obtain some reward through the use of aggressive speech. Instrumental cursing might result in gaining the admiration of peers for the speaker or, when used to bully or threaten, might result in getting money from a target of the cursing. (2000: 57)

A linguistic facework study outlined in A8.8 – Archer (2008) – also makes use of the term, verbal aggression. Archer makes use of this term as a means of distinguishing face damage within in a courtroom context that is incidental (Goffman 1967: 14) – that is, not calculated to cause face damage (even though face damage might be an anticipated by-product) – from face damage that is intentional (ibid.) – that is, blatantly spiteful/malicious – and therefore impolite. Archer (2011c) has since expanded her 2008 approach: she has developed a face aggravation scale made up of Goffman’s (1967) intentionaland incidentallevels of face threat, and a third strategically ambivalent zone (which sits between them):


Face Aggravation Scale (Archer 2011c)

The strategically ambivalent zone allows Archer to account for instances when lawyers deliberately problematize their facework-intention during cross-examinations. They might use an indirect strategy to threaten face, for example, and in a way that indicates ‘some degree of contempt’ (Penman 1990: 21) on their part (cf. Goffman’s incidentalface threat level, where face damage, while anticipated, remains unplanned). The fact that lawyers need to avoid legal censure, however, ensures that one attributable intention does not clearly outweigh any others they may have; thereby allowing them to maintain that – even though their face-aggravating actions are more planned than Goffmanian incidental facework seems to permit – their primary motive is not to assail their interlocutors. Rather, it is to get to the ‘truth’ (Lakoff 1989).


To reiterate, Archer’s (2011c) strategically ambivalent zone captures face-threatening acts (FTAs) that use indirectness and multifunctionality in a planned but not an overtly ‘spiteful way’; the incidental zone captures FTAs that are not calculated to cause – but which the speaker anticipates may nevertheless lead to – face damage (following Goffman 1967: 14); and the intentional zone captures FTAs that blatantly inflict spiteful/malicious face damage on the target (also following Goffman 1967: 14).

  • Can you think of other activity types (conflictive and non-conflictive) where (i) questions-and-answers are common, yet (ii) spiteful/malicious face damage is frowned upon?
  • How useful would Archer’s (2011c) model be in accounting for face aggravation in such contexts?

When making your considerations, you might find it useful to re-read A8.8 and A8.9.


  •  Archer, D. (2008) ‘Verbal aggression and impoliteness: related or synonymous?’, in D. Bousfield and M. Locher (eds) Impoliteness in language: studies in its interplay with power in theory and practice, Berlin and New York: Mouton de Gruyter,  pp181–207
  • Archer, D. (2011c) ‘Cross-examining lawyers, facework and the adversarial courtroom’, Journal of Pragmatics 43(13): 3216–30
  • Culpeper, J. (2011) Impoliteness: Using language to cause offence. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (especially Chapter 3, ‘Impoliteness metadiscourse’, pp71–112)
  • Goffman, E. 1967. Interaction ritual: essays on face-to-face behavior. Garden City, NY: Anchor Books
  • Jay, T. (2000) Why We Curse: A new-psycho-social theory of speech. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins
  • Lakoff, R. (1989) ‘The limits of politeness’. Multilingua 8 (2/3): 101–129
  • Penman, R. (1990) ‘Facework and politeness: Multiple goals in courtroom discourse’ in K. Tracy and N. Coupland (eds.), Multiple goals in discourse, Clevedon and Philadelphia: Multilingual Matters Ltd, pp15–38

8.3. Verbal aggression – a problematic term?

In A8.8, we suggest that using verbal aggression to describe a specific type of facework may be problematic in some contexts – the workplace, for example – because of the connotations of the lexical term, aggression (see, e.g., Pearson et al. 2001). Jay’s (2000) use of verbal aggression (see above) also suggests an element of blatant hostility that would not be apt in some activity types. 


In your view, does Jay’s more specific term of instrumental aggression therefore work better than the more general term verbal aggression?

  • How problematic is it, for example, to have to choose between hostile and verbal aggression? And would it be more helpful, therefore, to consider aggression along a cline (following Archer 2011c)? 

When debating this, you might find it helpful to consider the following exchange, from the UK version of the X Factor: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P9UOyaImQyA.

  •  Is the contestant’s attack on Tulisa, the judge, an example of hostile aggression (i.e. a reflexive response to Tulisa, who drew first blood by telling him he was crap)?
  • Is it an example of instrumental aggression (i.e. a strategic attempt, on the contestant’s part, to recover some lost face)?
  • Or is it something in-between?

If the term aggression proves to be too problematic (because of its connotations), what term would you use to capture behaviour that does not transgress the norms of acceptability or appropriacy (as dictated by the activity type) but which does use facework in a strategic way, to the detriment of the target?


  •  Archer, D. (2011c) ‘Cross-examining lawyers, facework and the adversarial courtroom’, Journal of Pragmatics 43(13): 3216–30
  • Jay, T. (2000) Why We Curse: A new-psycho-social theory of speech. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins
  • Pearson, C.M., L.M. Andersson and J.W. Wenger. (2001) ‘When workers flout convention: a study of workplace incivility’. Human Relations 54(11): 1387–420

8.4. Verbal aggression or impoliteness?: trolling as a case study

To date, much of the study of im/politeness and verbal aggression has tended to focus on situations where the participants are face to face, such as everyday chat (e.g. Beebe 1995), adolescent interaction (e.g. Labov 1972), the family home (e.g. Vuchinich 1990), the workplace (e.g. Andersson & Pearson 1999), politics (e.g. Harris 2001), doctor–patient interactions (e.g. Mehan 1990), therapy sessions (e.g. Labov and Fanshel 1977), army training (e.g. Culpeper 1996) and criminal investigations and law enforcement (e.g. Archer 2008). There has also been interest in dramatized conflict produced for the purposes of entertainment, such as that found in fiction, prose and drama (e.g. Culpeper 1996), and in the media (e.g. Bousfield 2008).1

In both face-to-face and media-produced conflict, the behaviour of the participants is likely to be moderated by their awareness of the social and legal consequences that may befall them if their behaviour becomes too threatening, offensive or hurtful. On the internet, though, the sense of anonymity that the online environment provides may make the risks of being socially ostracized or even criminally prosecuted seem remote.

One behaviour found online that has no real offline equivalent is that of trolling. To troll means to go online and cause disruption, hurt, offence, etc., for amusement’s sake. Trolling may be carried out as an end in itself, for example simply to amuse the troll and possibly also to impress others (cf. Jay’s notion of instrumental verbal aggression) or it may be carried out as a means to an end, for example to attack a political figure or peer or business (cf. Jay’s notion of hostile verbal aggression). Trolling can thus occur at the ‘intentional’ pole of Archer’s face aggravation scale (2011c). For example, a troll may post an offensive message about a deceased person on their tribute site – a behaviour that is very difficult to pass off as unintentional or accidental. It can also occur in the strategically ambivalent zone of Archer’s face aggravation scale. For example, the troll may ask for help in dealing with a sensitive (and usually entirely fictional) problem, and phrase it in such a way as to trigger exasperated responses, or ignite a forum-wide disagreement on the best solution to the supposed problem. In turn, the forum members may be unable to confidently decide whether they are dealing with a sincere user who has accidentally caused disruption, or an insincere user who is deliberately trolling.


  •  To what extent is the activity of trolling already captured by the terms verbal aggression and im/politeness? Which term (if any) seems most apt, in your view? Why?
  • What is the best means of capturing ‘off-record’ trolling? As we saw above, some forms of trolling can be highly deceptive, in that the troll seeks to appear sincere (for however brief a period). In some cases, the troll may be so successful that his/her intention to cause trouble may not be recognized by the group for many weeks, or may never be recognized at all. Can we, therefore, call this particular type of behaviour verbal aggression or im/politeness?


  • Andersson, L. and C. Pearson (1999) ‘Tit for Tat? The Spiraling Effect of Incivility in the Workplace’ Academy of Management Review 24: 452–71
  • Archer, D. (2008) ‘Verbal aggression and impoliteness: related or synonymous?’ in D. Bousfield and M. Locher (eds) Impoliteness in language: studies in its interplay with power in theory and practice, Berlin and New York: Mouton de Gruyter, pp181–207
  • Archer, D. (2011c) ‘Cross-examining lawyers, facework and the adversarial courtroom’, Journal of Pragmatics 43(13): 3216–30
  • Beebe, L.M. (1995) ‘Polite Fictions: Instrumental Rudeness as Pragmatic Competence’ in J.E.E. Alatis, C.A. Straehle and B. Gallenberger (eds.) Linguistics and the Education of Language Teachers: Ethnolinguistic, Psycholinguistics and Sociolinguistic Aspects, Georgetown University Round Table on Languages and Linguistics, Georgetown: Georgetown University Press, pp154–68
  • Bousfield, D. (2008) Impoliteness in interaction. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins
  • Culpeper, J. (1996) ‘Towards an anatomy of impoliteness’. Journal of Pragmatics 25: 349–67
  • Donath, J.S. (1999) ‘Identity and deception in the virtual community’ in M.A. Smith and P. Kollock (eds.) Communities in Cyberspace, London: Routledge, pp29–59
  • Hardaker, C. (2010) ‘Trolling in asynchronous computer-mediated communication: From user discussions to academic definitions’, Journal of Politeness Research. Language, Behaviour, Culture 6: 215–42
  • Harris, J. (2001) The Effects of Computer Games on Young Children: A Review of the Research, Great Britain, Home Office, Research, Development and Statistics Directorate
  • Herring, S.C., K. Job-Sluder, R. Scheckler and S. Barab (2002) ‘Searching for safety online: Managing “trolling” in a feminist forum’, The Information Society 18: 371–84
  • Labov, W. (1972) Language in the inner city: studies in the Black English vernacular, Oxford: Blackwell
  • Labov, W. and D. Fanshel. (1977) Therapeutic discourse. Psychotherapy as conversation. New York: Academic Press
  • Mehan, H. (1990) ‘Rules Versus Relationships in Small Claims Disputes’ in A.D. Grimshaw (ed.) Conflict Talk: Sociolinguistic Investigations of Arguments and Conversations, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp160–77
  • Vuchinich, S. (1990) ‘The sequential organization of closing in verbal family conflict’, in A.D. Grimshaw (ed.) Conflict talk: sociolinguistic investigations of arguments and conversations, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp118–38

1 The authors would like to thank Claire Hardaker for her input in regard to this trolling section.