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Every society establishes communicative norms and rules to regulate people’s interaction. Researchers state that mutual politeness is a universal tool for promoting effective communication and avoiding communicative failure [Leech 1983]. When utilized in discourse, polite communicative behavior produces pleasant background to a communicative situation and thus helps making the interaction smooth and productive. However, researchers also note that ideas of polite communicative behavior can vary greatly from culture to culture and from one social group to another within the same culture [Ларина 2003]. Communicative strategies differ due to communicants’ age, gender, educational level, occupation, social status, character traits, etc [Земская 1993]. In this paper, we should like to analyze some cases of gender-related variation of politeness in American communicative culture. The aim of our study is find out whether the standards of polite communicative behavior are subject to gender-related variation in informal interaction. In this paper the term ‘gender’ is used to denote stereotypic qualities and conventional norms of behavior, ascribed to a person by culture and society on the basis of his or her sex [Кирилина 1999].
Linguistic studies show that gender can influence people’s communicative behavior [Coates 1986; Кирилина 1999]. Men and women are believed to practice overlapping but still differing styles of communication. In traditional terms, masculine style is described as competition and feminine style – as cooperation [Coates 1986]. It is also said that communication between men and women is very close to intercultural communication, because men and women belong to different communicative cultures [Maltz 1982]. On this basis, one may assume that men and women have different perceptions of what kind of communicative behavior can be considered polite in an informal conversation. It should be said here that this paper does not deal with etiquette rituals. We define politeness as a normative element of socially approved communicative behavior, based on communicative partners’ mutual respect. We believe that to some extent the category of politeness is verbalized in every communicative act and politeness standards can be observed in the use of verbal and nonverbal means in a given social group. [man1] Jim waved away the explanation. “Later for botany, Spock. You look preoccupied. What is it with the spectra, anyway?” [man1] “Answer me.” As one may see, the first man’s speech is very insistent. He repeats his question three times, thus urging the other one to break down and disclose the information (Who killed them, Gavin?; Who killed them, and why?; Who did it?). The man continues to question his communicative partner, ignoring his many attempts to change the topic. This male character does not use imperatives such as Tell me or Answer me, but the repetition conveys the meaning of an urgent request just as well. Insistence of this kind constitutes a break in polite communication, as the speaker shows no respect for the other speaker’s rights and wishes. In an attempt to avoid unpleasant interrogation and protect his independence, the other man resorts to aggressive verbal moves too. His questions invade the first man’s private zone on purpose (What’s her name again?; When do I meet her?; Has she moved in?) and this leads to the use of invectives (None of your damned business). Thus, communicative partners become rivals; each one tries to lead the conversation and overpower his interlocutor. They are not inclined to compromise and continue their conversation until the second partner is forced to disclose at least some bits of information. At this point, the first partner changes the topic; both communicants are satisfied and neither finds his partner’s behavior unpleasant enough to break the dialogue. Both characters are law students of approximately the same age. They meet accidentally at a break between classes, so the communicative situation does not call for much formality. Still one of the women addresses the other one in a very polite way. Her request starts with a smile and an apology (excuse me). These are nonverbal and verbal means, aimed at making the following request as noninvasive as possible. The request itself is nonbinding because the communicant utilizes a syntactic pattern with Subjunctive 4 and the verb to happen (Would you happen to…?). The uncertainty of this phrase makes it very easy for the other woman to give a negative answer without damaging her image. The second request (Could you point her out?) is also indirect and rather uncertain, though a negative answer is unlikely at this stage. The use of the past form of a modal verb (could) and the interrogative quality of the sentence make it polite and minimize the possibility of a refusal. Overall, our material shows that male and female characters have different perceptions of what is considered polite or acceptable in an informal conversation. This concerns a speaker’s manner of choosing topics, making interruptions, expressing aggression, verbalizing one’s wishes, etc. by verbal and nonverbal means of communication. Because of the gender-related differences in the characters’ strategies, communicative behavior, found quite polite by one group can be seen as norm-breaking and impolite by the other group. Interpreting other communicants’ phrases within the listener’s own frame of reference and regardless of the speaker’s gender can result in misunderstanding. Thus, directness, persuasive manners, categorical speech, calm and reserved behavior of male characters can make the speakers appear abrupt, aggressive, authoritarian, imperceptive, demanding, etc. when communicating to female characters. At the same time, excessive politeness, indirectness, mildness, pliability, unwillingness to conflict that seem to be a norm of female characters’ speech can hamper communication with male characters, because these traits may be interpreted as vagueness, uncertainty, indecisiveness, inability to prove a point, etc. It is important to note that gender is not the only cause for differences in the characters’ communicative behavior. As a rule, gender interacts with other biological and social characteristics of a person, such as age, nationality, race, character traits, educational level, occupation, etc. [Земская 1993]. The dialogues that we chose for this study are selected from American novels that reflect social values and moral imperatives, characteristic of American society. As researchers note [Стернин 2001], American culture belongs to the group of I-identity based cultures to which the highest values are independence, democracy, and respect for rights and liberties of an individual. Therefore, the norms of polite communicative behavior prescribe people to exercise tact, consideration for people’s privacy, noninvasiveness, benevolence, etc. As one may see, the first man uses an introductory phrase (I think) to voice his opinion. In this case, I think indicates doubt and uncertainty that the character feels at the moment. His partner does not agree with the man’s assessment of the situation. He has a very good reason to believe that the other man is wrong (We don’t have grey ships), but still he begins his phrase by indicating some uncertainty by means of I think. Thus, he makes his disagreement less categorical, avoiding further argument and possible conflict. Instead of asserting himself, this man takes care of his partners self-esteem. His polite turn of a phrase and unimposing tactics allow the other man to correct himself without much damage to his manly image. Overall, the characters in the male-to-male dialogues in question tend to be indirect, uncategorical, and respectful for communicative partner’s independence and right of free choice. Unwilling to impose their wishes or views on a partner, they avoid criticism, negative assessments and show considerable respect for other character’s privacy. The characters also utilize polite clichés in order to minimize direct influence on a partner. Thus, we may say that male characters’ speech comes to resemble that of female characters, because the two gender groups share common social values and follow imperatives of American communicative culture in general.
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