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R. Lemberg, immigrant @RoseLemberg
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OK, a thread about "civility" (politeness) and power. I meant to do this for years, bc people in my community kept asking me about social face (hi again, @tithenai!), but it was not the time. Now is the time.

This is an informational thread. I am a working sociolinguist.
The concept of social face, coined by Goffman, is important here.

Face is the positive social value a person claims when interacting with other people.

Face is related to respectability, pride, and sense of self-worth.
Face is related to social status and to identity.

What kind of face we can claim directly relates to who we are and what kind of social power we hold.

People surrounding you are CRUCIAL to maintaining or not maintaining the kind of power we want/expect to project.
Example: in the workplace, a medical doctor expects to be addressed as Dr., expects respect and deference from nurses and patients.

The MD is likely to get this deference. A person who is not a MD cannot expect to project this kind of authority - people will not play along.
Social status is maintained in a community. It can also be disrupted by a community. If a queen finds herself in a situation where nobody bows, nobody addresses her as "your majesty," and nobody shows any deference, it would not be easy to feel very royal.
People - groups - societies - must maintain existing social norms and power relations. People must play along, or the relations of power are disrupted.
Example of power differential impacting a face one might project: a man MD and a woman MD who have equal education and medical expertise might not be able to command the same amount of respect because people will not play along --
- the surrounding people might not afford the same level of respect because the society is gendered, so e.g. cis women might be assumed to hold less power regardless of education + expertise. Same is true along racial lines in societies like the US.
Again, it is very important to understand that OTHER PEOPLE maintain or threaten one's social face, and therefore one's social standing, one's power.
Studying how this happens in discourse is a major subdiscipline within pragmatics (a branch of linguistics). We do "face work" with language all the time, all day every day.

Roughly, politeness is how we maintain face.
According to major theorists of politeness (Brown and Levinson, Politeness, 1987), people have two kinds of face wants:

1) positive, or your desire to be approved by others.

2) negative, or the desire to be unimpeded in your actions.
You already saw how this plays out in our MD example: the MD wants to be approved of by others (respect from nurses, patients), the MD wants to be unimpeded (e.g. to have orders carried out without disruption). People must play along for this to work.
More on positive face wants: people want to be accepted and approved by their family, social circle.

More on negative face wants: people don't want to be told not to do the things they want to do.
The more power one holds, the more one expects to have these face wants maintained.

Maintaining face wants preserves the existing power relations.

You have to be polite to people with more power, you do not have to be as polite to people with less power.
What is, then, politeness?

Politeness is playing along with what is expected in terms of power.

Politeness is maintaining the social power of people who already have social power (e.g. showing deference to doctors, politicians, etc) - this is positive politeness;
and politeness is also not impeding the actions of other people, e.g. not resisting or questioning orders from power-holders - this is negative politeness.
Can you see how politeness is all about maintaining the existing social power in discourse?
So what happens if a power-holder's face wants include:

1) universal admiration no matter what this person is doing (positive politeness),

2) a desire to be unimpeded in one's actions, no matter how horrible (negative politeness)?
If you are not able to deliver either 1) universal admiration no matter what or 2) let them do whatever they want without protest, the power-holder will think that you are impolite.
What happens if a person/people with lesser power do not maintain the face of a person/people with greater power?

There are repercussions. There are punishments. There might be threats to life, liberty, safety.

Because the power holders have the power.
You are polite to people with greater power because if you don't do what they want, they can harm you. That's power relations and politeness it in a nutshell.
In the example of Sanders, she was upset that as a person with a lot of power she was not shown an unquestioning deference/acceptance (positive face want), and she was impeded in her desire to eat wherever she pleased regardless of her actions (negative face wants).
She has so many supporters why? Because these people feel their face, their power, is threatened. Power holders come together to maintain power (in discourse, in actions).
What we are seeing now is repercussions. Because a power holder's face wants were not maintained by people with less power.
What are the current lamentations about "lack of civility" about, then?

This is about the disruption of power relations.

It's lamenting the lack of desire of people with lesser power to maintain the face of people with more power -- *because of their immoral actions*.
"Return to civility" is a request to play along with power which demands 1) universal admiration (positive politeness) even as the power harms you, 2) not to impede the power's actions (negative impoliteness), even when it's snatching babies from parents.
But that's not how it works.

Because "civility" only works when power holders play along as well. There are expectations of social conduct from *everybody*.
We have laws, moral codes, ethics and expectations because we want power holders TO HOLD POWER RESPONSIBLY. If the social agreements are not maintained, "civility" cannot hold either.

This is exactly where we find ourselves.
"Return to civility" will not help those with lesser power at this moment. It will only serve to maintain the status quo of power which people decided is overreaching.

"Civility" happens in society. Everybody must maintain it.
I hope this thread helped explain some of the social and linguistic mechanisms of what we are seeing.
This is the end of my thread. Thank you for reading and thinking about these issues.

If you liked the thread, please consider buying me a coffee:
Coffee keeps me going!
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