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The Relationship Between Language And New Media

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This paper is going to discuss the use of impoliteness in the YouTube comments of a video advertisement. Impoliteness can be best summarised as behaviour that is face-aggravating in a particular context (Locher & Bousfield, 2008). YouTube is an online platform where users can post and comment on videos with a user-name. Impoliteness is arguably greater in computer mediated discourse because of the anonymity that the internet and such user-names can provide. According to Suler (2004) when people can separate their actions online with their lifestyle and identity they feel less vulnerable about acting out. The advert that will be considered is from the company Gillette which sells men’s shaving products. For the past thirty years they have used the tag-line: “The Best Men Can Get,” but in 2019 they questioned masculine stereotypes and updated their tag-line to “The Best Men Can Be.” The research question for this paper is to investigate how impoliteness is perceived by analysing the impoliteness meta-language in each of the comment sections in light of the different contexts of each video. Meta-language in the broad sense refers to examples of language which focus on the language itself (Culpeper, 2011, p.73).

Literature Review

Background on Politeness Theory

Although not the first, Brown and Levinsons (1987) research was one of the most influential in the realm of politeness theory. They drew on Goffman’s (1959) notion of ‘face’ stating that all interlocutor’s have an interest in maintaining face during an interaction. They distinguished between a positive face which is the consistent self-image that people have of themselves and a negative face which is the personal right to non-distraction. A face-threatening act is therefore an act which challenges these face wants. Similarly, they presented politeness to also have a dual nature, where positive politeness is used to indicate similarities and show awareness of the interlocutor’s self-image and negative politeness is used to minimise imposition (Brown & Levinson, 1987 in Kitamura, 2000, p.1).

Brown and Levinsons (1987) work has been greatly critiqued and has been used as the foundation for future work on politeness theory. One critique made by Eelen (2001) is that the theory is too universalising because it only considers one form of politeness in one culture. Culpeper (2011) went on to argue that all research on impoliteness needs to capture the fact that people have different values and that these values lie at the heart of impoliteness. Politeness theory can be divided into first and second order approaches. Brown and Levinson (1987) adopt a second order approach because the researcher applies an analytical framework to the data (Locher & Bousfield, 2008, p.5). This approach has limitations because as stated by Eelen (2001) and Culpeper (2011) it does not consider the norms of the context in question.

Current research often adopts more of a first order approach where the focus is on judgments about the behaviour that are made by the social actor themselves. The interlocutor arrives at these judgments according to the norms of their particular discursive practice (Locher & Bousfield, 2008, p.5). Haugh (2007) suggests that when analysing for impoliteness one should focus on the ways in which participants interpret and understand one another’s verbal conduct. Watts (2003) also argues that impoliteness should not be viewed as a one-sided interpretation but rather as a language behaviour that is realised through the context of interaction. This paper will adopt a first order approach by analysing how the user perceives impoliteness through their impoliteness meta-language.

Studies on Impoliteness

Shum and Lee (2013) led an investigation on impoliteness in two popular internet discourse forums in Hong Kong. In order to conduct their study, a questionnaire was administered to browsers of the discussion forum where they were asked to rate certain disagreements found in the forum for aspects such as impoliteness and inappropriateness on a 5-point scale. Shum and Lee (2013) concluded that on the internet, negative politeness often involves posting long low-content messages and the most prominent violation of positive politeness is on-line flaming. Flaming has been defined by Turnage (2008) as instances of hostility, aggression, insults and sarcasm.

Culpeper (2011) stated that when people express opinions about language that they consider to be impolite they use what he refers to as ‘impoliteness meta-pragmatic comments.’ According to Culpeper, by analysing the metalanguage relating to a particular linguistic or communicative area, we have a way of tapping into impoliteness related attitudes. In order to analyse these meta-pragmatic comments, Culpeper asked informants to provide labels for conversations that they reported made them feel bad. He then sifted through these metalinguistic labels and formed groups on the basis of the semantic similarities. He concluded that regularly occurring meta-language acts as a window to the persistent frames of interpreting impoliteness (Culpeper, 2011, p.74).

Both of these studies have shown how individuals categorise impoliteness in computer mediated discourse. However, this paper is going to develop the work of Culpeper (2011) and will analyse the YouTube comment section for impoliteness meta-pragmatic comments rather than just looking at how people describe the language upon reflection.

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The data that will be used for this paper is the YouTube comments from a video advert from the brand Gillette. The data is publically available but for the purpose of this paper all user-names will be anonymised. In order to collect the data, I will use the YouTube scraper tool to convert the comments into a TXT file. I will then use AntConc to compare the comments from the video to the Baby BNC as a reference corpus in order to generate a key-word list. A key-word list identifies any word that has an unusually high frequency when compared to its frequency in the reference corpus (Scott, 2010). From the key-word list I will then identify the two most frequent examples of impoliteness meta-pragmatic comments. In order to identify these comments, I will follow Culpeper’s (2011) definition of impoliteness as a blanket term and that impoliteness meta-language includes any synonyms of the word impoliteness.

Having identified the two examples, I will conduct a close analysis of a sample of four concordance lines to discuss how the user has perceived impoliteness and what effect this has in light of the different contexts. Culpeper (2011) notes that context is a hugely valuable source of participate understandings. Evaluating something as impolite with explicit impoliteness meta-pragmatic comments gives us good evidence that impoliteness was perceived.

Corpus methods are useful in preventing examples from being ‘cherry-picked’ from the data-set. However, due to space and time constraints a limited amount of data will be analysed and thus this paper cannot provide a full picture of the data. Future research could perhaps allow more space to analyse a larger sample of impoliteness meta-pragmatic comments and concordance lines.

P&G are a toxic corporation

P&G stands for Proctor and Gamble and is the name of the mother company that owns many big brands such as Gillette, Always and Ariel. The fact that this user has extended their negative evaluation to not just Gillette but to the whole “toxic corporation” indicates the negative repercussions of this advert has had to the whole company. In describing the corporation as “toxic” the user has copied language from the advert of ‘toxic masculinity’ and flipped it so that it mocks and negatively presents P&G.

This concordance line contains another example of sarcasm, where the use of laugher with the colloquial phrase “haha” contrasts to the word “toxic.” Similar to example 6 with the discussion of a “corporation” this user is also showing disapproval to the whole “billion-dollar company.” Hoffman (2014) found that millennials give more credit to brands that use corporate social responsibility appeals. However, in this instance these attempts have failed because the users have seen through the over-arching purpose of such an advert, to make money. Impoliteness often involves a clash with expectations (Culpeper, 2011, p.14), in this instance there is a clash between what is expected of an advert, to sell something, and their attempt at “changing the world.” An awareness of this “billion-dollar company” has led customers to question the sincerity of this advert.

In this final concordance line the user has shown the failings of the advert. In presenting their customers in a negative way it has meant that this one man “will no longer support your company.” This advert has been generally criticised for presenting all males negatively and as we can see above examples discussed above people do not like being criticised like this; particularly by a money influenced company.


In conclusion, having analysed the use of impoliteness meta-pragmatic comments we have been able to see how the users perceive impoliteness in the advert and how they have responded to this in the comment section. Despite the positive goals of the advert, that being to question masculine stereotypes, we can see that the response has led to some very negative reactions with a main theme in the concordance line that users are choosing to no longer shop at Gillette. Gillette have attempted to tackle such a taboo issue and as can be seen from the analysis this has led to a negative perception of the brand. However, this paper has only focused on a very small sample of the data and so future work could analyse a larger sample of the meta-pragmatic comments and concordance lines in order to get a larger picture of the data and draw broader conclusions.


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  3. Culpeper, J. (2011) Impoliteness, Using Language to Cause Offence, Cambridge University Press
  4. Brown, P. & Levinson, S.C. (1987) Politeness, Some Universals in Language Usage, Cambridge University Press
  5. Kitamura, N. (2000) Adapting Brown and Levinsons politeness theory to the analysis of casual conversation, Conference of the Australian Linguistic Society
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