Communicating Effectively With Politeness

Activism, as can seen by the International March for Science, is growing in the sciences. It’s always been there with topics of science and society, science policy, and people in the sciences consulting for politicians on changes in society. But, political activism isn’t just about standing around with a sign and yelling. It’s about getting politely engaging with the world — including political leaders.  

The keyword for this piece is “politely”. It’s a bit trickier than just remembering your Ps and Qs. It’s also a lot more influential than most think at first glance.

Politeness as a construct

Politeness isn’t just an old-fashioned idea handed down from our elders, but it’s a sociological concept called politeness theory (Brown, Penelope and Levinson, Stephen, 1978). Overall this is a social concept that we humans have developed that helps another “save face”. Goffman (1967) noted that there are three things that go into this concept:

  1. When we want to fulfil our own desires, we acknowledge our pride.
  2. Our emotional and physical attitude in social interaction works with our dignity.
  3. Our duties towards the society are defined as honour.

Sound familiar? These are basic things we all appeal to as human beings. When we appeal to them in others, we are being polite (or as our grandparents would say, kind and courteous).

Most of us are taught basic strategies for what Goffman calls face-work. This is brought to us by both our upbringing and social conditioning of our peers. The first, and most common, of these strategies are defensive strategies. This is basically avoiding bringing up topics we are uncomfortable with, and if you are trying to be courteous of another in the group, avoiding topics they would be uncomfortable with.

Goffman uses other terms for protecting strategies (modifying your voice, phrasing, etc.), preventive acts (warnings for potential awkwardness), and feigning ignorance (ignoring noises from the body). These are all very common ways we interact politely with one another.

Using politeness to influence

Through experience and guidance, we realise this dance is always a give and take in communication built upon social contrivances, mutual respect between the participants, and open-mindedness to grow together. What we don’t realise is the impact this dance can have on our desire to effect change.

In science policy it’s no difference. You can’t just start screaming about what you want and expect to get it. That’s the level of politeness that toddlers, not adults, use. It’s necessary to open your ears and mind and listen to what’s going on. You’ll see that there are a lot of problems to contend with — all of which serve you and the community. This falls under defensive strategies because you must wait till other’s minds are in a place where you can communicate with them more effectively.

And sometimes that means coming out of your own agenda to help with more mundane problems of making sure the community is running smoothly. For example, in Indianapolis, a recent major focus was on how to pay for road construction and keep potholes at bay. Not improve it beyond where it was, but make sure we could keep up the bare minimum.

Clearly, I could bring up ideas of science (runoff, roadside clean-up, city heating, etc.), it wasn’t the time because that would add more complexity to the current overwhelming problem. If we wanted to address those science issues, we’d have to come up with extra money — or a different way — and bring it up at a later date.

It pays to not spout off about yourself and your needs right away. Once you help solve the major problem in someone’s mind, their minds free up to move on to other things. This is where you’d insert a suggestion of your ideas and desires.


Brown, Penelope und Levinson, Stephen (1978): Universals in Language Usage: Politeness Phenomena. In: Goody, E. N. [Hrsg.]: Questions and Politeness: Strategies in Social Interaction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 56-311.

Goffman, Erving (1967): On Face-Work. An Analysis of Ritual Elements in Social Interaction. In: Ders.: Interaction Ritual. New York: Doubleday. 5-45.

Grace Conyers

Grace is a soil scientist, researcher, educator, and science communicator. She spends a lot of her day alternating between teaching, dancing in a lab while waiting for chemical reactions, reading, and plotting business adventures. She is the owner and a co-founder of Insanitek Research and Development. Grace can be found on social media on Minds, Google+, and She invites you to meet up with her on any of these platforms.

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