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Gratitude And Politeness From Cross-cultural Pragmatic Perspectives

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There are many definitions for the word gratitude but combining them we can say that gratitude is the feeling of appreciation towards people for something they have done. Historically, gratitude has been a matter of thought for philosophers as well as it has had a special role in religions. For example, there is a “Gratitude to God” in the Bible and in Koran and in Buddhism gratitude is expressed by the concept of independence. (

The ways of expressing gratitude varies from culture to culture, in some cultures it is expressed frequently and for all occasions and in some cultures people are not inclined to express gratitude very often. As it has been stated by both scientists and ordinary people the main means of expressing gratitude is through thanking. Thanking is an action, something achieved through not only by uttering words but also by performing action.

J. Austin suggests calling such actions performatives which is derived from the word “perform” the noun of which is “action” (Austin, 1975). Actions performed via utterances are generally called speech acts (Yule, 1996:47).

According to J. Austin a speech act comprises the following levels:

  1. The locutionary level-utterance acts and propositional acts make up this level. This means uttering a certain sentence with a certain meaning. This is the basic level of act.
  2. The illocutionary level-When people produce a certain utterance they have an intention in their minds. The transformation of speaker’s intention is the illocutionary level of speech acts. Illocutionary acts may have various forces that denote the intention of a speaker (advice, order, request, complaint, question, etc.).
  3. The perlocutionary level-Along with the intention in mind, the speaker also wants to bring about various effects on the listener, which comprises the perlocutionary level of speech acts. Surprising, frightening, persuading, scaring, etc. are also considered to be perlocutionary effects.

For instance, the sentence Could I have some whisky, please? may have the illocutionary force of request, but the perlocutionary effect of getting the addressee to do something in favour of the speaker, persuading or annoying him.

The classification of sentences and of speech acts is a complicated phenomenon as it has caused many discussions. One of the accepted versions of classification is suggested by J. Searle. According to him there are five types of speech acts: assertives, directives, commissives, expressives, declarations. Representatives are speech acts that state what the speaker believes to be the case or not: stating, asserting, denying, confessing, admitting, notifying, concluding, predicting. For example, The earth is round; It was a sunny day.

Directives are speech acts that the speakers use to get someone else to do something. They express what the speaker wants: requesting, ordering, forbidding, warning, advising, suggesting, insisting, recommending, instructing, suggesting, urging, permitting. They can be positive and negative: Shut the door; Don’t go there.

Questions are speech acts used to get the hearer to provide information: asking, inquiring: Is this your bag? You don’t smoke, do you? Expressives are speech acts that state what the speaker feels, they express the emotional state of the speaker: apologizing, thanking, congratulating, condoling, welcoming, compliment, deploring, objecting: What a great day! My congratulations!

Declaratives are speech acts that change the status of some entity via their utterance: appointing, naming, resigning, baptizing, marrying, firing, surrendering, excommunicating, arresting: I now pronounce you husband and wife; We find the defendant guilty.

Commissives are speech acts that speakers use to commit themselves to some future action. They express what the speaker intends: promising, vowing, volunteering, offering, guaranteeing, pledging, betting. They can be performed by a speaker alone or as a member of a group: Let me help you; We will not do that; I’m going to get it right in a week. Commissives can be very strong or easily hedged in either positive or negative directions. Women are thought to be more hedged commissives than men.

Coming to expressives the part of which forms the speech act of thanking we can mention the main characteristic features of this type. The point of this class is to express the psychological state specified in the sincerity condition about a state of affairs specified in the propositional content (Searle, 1975:12). Expressive verbs include “thank”, “congratulate”, “apologize”, “condole”, “deplore”, “welcome”. In expressives there is no direction of fit as the speaker neither tries to get the world to match the words nor the words to match the world. When someone apologizes, for example for hitting somebody’s shoulder he or she does not have the purpose to claim that their shoulder was hit. This is reflected in English syntax in the way that these kinds of sentences are not formed by that clauses but by gerund: instead of saying I thank you that you have come with me we say I thank you for coming with me.

The act of thanking is frequently compared with that of apology. Studying the similarities of apologies and expressing gratitude F. Coulmas mentioned that the main likeness between the two was indebtedness. As he mentions, thanking expresses a speaker’s indebtedness as a recipient of a benefit and apologies express the speaker’s indebtedness towards the listener to whom he or she has done any harm. The closeness of this two is mainly expressed in Japanese culture where the word sumimasen is used for the cases of both thanking and apology (Bardovi-Harling, 2008).

As Eisenstein and Bodman state expressing gratitude in an important factor in creating or strengthening social links among people. They speak about the value of gratitude in mainly American culture saying that one indication of its importance is that it is one of the few functions that most speakers can remember being explicitly taught as children. Used frequently in a wide range of interpersonal relationships, this function, when appropriately expressed, can engender feelings of warmth and solidarity among interlocutors. Conversely, the failure to express gratitude adequately can have negative consequences for the relationship of speaker and listener (Eisenstein & Bodman 1993: 64).

There are conditions called “appropriate circumstances” by J. Austin that decide true or false being of speech acts. To thank, for example is not about just uttering words, but about acting as well. And yet, even if someone says “Thank you” in a certain situation we may say that he or she did not succeed in thanking. The reason of this may be some conditions that may go wrong, that is to say, the utterance is not false but unhappy. So, the conditions refer to the existence of certain people, certain utterances and certain circumstances; to the execution of the procedure by all participants, etc. We may infer that when the procedure is invoked in inappropriate circumstances and where the procedure is faultily executed or incompletely executed we deal with the of infelicities or unhappy conditions.

When the procedure is designed for use by persons having certain thoughts, feelings or intentions, then it is important that the person participating in the procedure have those certain feelings, thoughts and intentions. Sometimes it happens that people utter something without having the requisite feelings or intentions. For example, someone says “I thank you” but he or she is not in a mood or something else happened. In this case the utterance is true but insincere, as it is just said because there is a need to say.

Speech acts can be direct and indirect. When there is a direct relationship between the structure and function of speech acts we deal with a direct act. And in case we have an indirect relationship between structure and form we have an indirect speech act. Indirectness can function as a form of politeness. It is defined by G. Yule as a system of interpersonal relations designed to facilitate interaction by minimizing the potential for conflict and confrontation inherent in all human interchange (Yule, 1996:106).

It seems that we all are able to communicate without conflicts, one says something that the other wants to hear and gets the same response, and this is a continuous process as the needs of both sides is met. But there are some situations when it is not possible to satisfy the need of all sides, so there is a breakdown of communication. And politeness strategies come to preserve harmony or at least make everything seem natural and normal (Yule, 1996).

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Sometimes language is a good way to insure politeness. Due to the use of some grammatical forms (like passive forms and impersonal forms, for example, one) people are becoming less personally involved in a discussion which in its turn reduces the possibility of breakdown of a conversation. The manifestation and the extent of politeness differ from culture to culture. In some cultures, certain types of linguistic action are more frequently used than in others. Acts that are beneficial for the hearer like complimenting or thanking are more regularly used in Western cultures (the USA, for example) than in Asian cultures (in China). This implies that Americans have a strong positive politeness orientation and that Chinese people think that everyone acts according to their social positions and responsibilities.

Within a culture we can treat politeness as a fixed concept, and define certain principles for being polite in a particular culture like being tactful, generous or sympathetic towards others. But within an interaction, there is a narrowly specified type of politeness at work. In order to describe it, we need to firstly deal with another concept – the concept of face.

In an interaction politeness can be defined as the means employed to show awareness of another person’s face (Yule, 1996:60). Here, politeness can be viewed from the point of view of social distance and closeness. When we show awareness for another person’s face and that person is socially distant, we deal with respect. And when we show awareness for someone’s face who is socially close, we deal with friendship or solidarity. This infers that there might be different kinds of politeness associated with the speculation of social distance or closeness. In English speaking contexts speakers have to determine the extent of social distance or their “face wants” (Yule, 1996).

In everyday communication situations people mainly behave thinking that their public safe image or their face wants will be respected. If a speaker says something that threats another person’s expectations of being respected, this is a case of face threatening act. And if the speaker knows that someone’s expectations of being respected would be threatened by uttering certain sentences, the speaker may say something in order to lessen the possible threat. This is a face saving act.

As G. Yule mentions, a person’s negative face is the need to be independent, to have freedom of action, and not to be imposed on by others. And a positive face is the need to be accepted, even liked, to be treated as a member of the same group and to know that his or her wants are shared by others. Accordingly, a face saving act that is oriented to the person’s negative face will show difference. This is also called negative politeness. And a face saving act that is oriented to the person’s positive face will try to show solidarity and emphasize that both speakers want the same thing. This is a positive politeness.

Avoiding a face threatening act is accomplished by face saving acts which use positive or negative politeness strategies. A positive politeness strategy leads the requester to appeal to a common goal and even friendship by expressions like how about doing something, or I would appreciate if you did something (Yule 1996:64). In order to assure better result the requester may start with asking some questions like How are you or something like this to start up a conversation and then come to the main topic.

English-speaking contexts mainly have the face saving act represented by a negative politeness strategy. One of the best examples of this is the use of modal verbs in a sentence like I’m sorry, can I take your pen? Negative politeness is very often expressed by questions and this gives opportunity to the speaker to answer negatively but with less refusal effect as refusing is not done directly.

Now let us briefly speak about the strategies of positive and negative politeness (Brown, Levinson, 1978). The first positive politeness strategy is that of notice. The speaker starts with remarking something new in the aspects of the hearer’s condition. Asking about changes or anything that the hearer may want the speaker to notice is one of the ways like in the sentence Wow, you have changed your hair colour, that’s nice!

Next is exaggeration strategy. This is mainly achieved by intonation and stress. For example, while describing a situation or saying something as a compliment one uses stressed words and sentences, he or she gives an example of positive strategy. Another strategy is about intensifying interest to the hearer. This is done through telling a “good story” by mainly using the present simple tense in order to bring the hearer to the middle of the events and increasing their interest towards the speaker.

The use of in-group identity markers helps to claim a common ground between the speaker and the hearer. This is done by using address forms (mate, dear, cutie, etc.) or dialect (switching from one language to another or two varieties of a language). Then comes the seek agreement strategy which helps the speaker to find possible ways to contact with the hearer. One of the ways is the so-called safe topics. These topics help to make the hearer believe that they are right. An example of a safe topic can be that of weather or the beauty of gardens, nature, etc.

Another way to ensure agreement is the use of repetition: the speaker repeats what the hearer said thus stressing the emotional agreement with the statement. Avoiding disagreement I achieved through token agreement. This implies expressing disagreement by saying “Yes, but…” rather than directly saying “no”.

White lies are another way of avoiding disagreement. This is the case when the speaker prefers to state an “innocent” lie rather that to destroy the hearer’s positive face. Hedging opinions are sometimes used by the speakers in order to make their opinions vague so that not to be seen to disagree. Words like kind of, sort of, like, etc. are used to make the utterances vague.

The next strategy is about presupposing/raising/asserting common ground. Gossips or small talks can be highly effective for the speaker to be with the hearer. As a mark of friendship or interest the speaker starts to speak about topics unrelated to the main topic. Presupposing manipulations help to make the statements mutually assumed by the speaker whether in fact those statements were not mutually assumed. Presupposing knowledge of the hearer’s wants and attitudes are used to indicate that the speaker knows a lot about the hearer. Presupposition also includes accepting the hearer’s values as the values of the speaker.

The strategy of joke is mainly based on the shared knowledge and values of the speaker and the hearer. Joke is a very useful positive politeness technique as it helps to get the hearer “at ease”. The second type of positive politeness techniques is connected with the want to make the speaker and the hearer cooperators. One of the ways of achieving this is by asserting knowledge of the hearer’s wants and willingness.

Other strategies are about offers and promises (claiming that whatever the hearer wants the speaker will help to obtain); being optimistic (the speaker assumes the hearer will cooperate with him/her); including both the speaker and the hearer in the activity (using “we” instead of “you” and “me” can be good for further cooperation); giving reasons (to make sure why the speaker wants to cooperate with the hearer); asserting reciprocity (give proofs of reciprocal rights and obligations between the speaker and the hearer); giving gifts to the hearer including goods, sympathy or understanding (satisfy the face wants of the hearer by satisfying some of their wants).

Negative politeness brings about cases of being direct or indirect. And these cases are solved by the so-called conventional indirectness- sentences that have unambiguous meanings are used.

Face is being at risk when the self needs to accomplish something involving other (Yule 1996:67). And one of avoiding the risk is to give an opportunity to the other to stop the act that may potentially be at risk. When one wants to ask for something it is better to make sure whether the other is ready for that request or there may be hindering aspects. For example, when asking someone to take a view over a sheet of paper it is better to first ask if he or she is busy or not. This is called a pre-request. The pre-request can have either a “go ahead” response or a “stop response’’ thus making the speaker understand whether it is good to come to the main request or not.

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Gratitude And Politeness From Cross-cultural Pragmatic Perspectives. (2022, February 21). Edubirdie. Retrieved March 21, 2023, from
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