Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Mills: Gender and Politeness (2003)

The most interesting argument in this book by Sarah Mills is that we cannot treat politeness as a matter of form. Meaning is extremely context-dependent, and people often spend quite a lot of time and mental resources trying to figure out how whether something was a sarcastic jab, a polite compliment, or something completely different.

The Indeterminacy of Politeness

Front cover, from
As an example of such a case of very real uncertainty, Mills relates a story of a woman who asks a man whether he has any change for the payphone just as he exits the booth (p. 84). He tells her that there is 80p of credit left in the phone, and that she can use that, and she replies
  • Thank you VERY MUCH; thank you VERY MUCH.
The man, who was Libyan but experienced this incident in Britain, was later unsure what exactly to make of this comment. He wondered whether she thought that he "had been stupid to be so generous to a stranger" (p. 84). Possibly, she could also have been ironically remarking that the gift had been too small rather than too big. Or perhaps she really just meant to thank him.

A more straightforward example (p. 80) is that of a teacher telling her class,
  • Can you PLEASE be quiet?
Obviously, this is not a matter of the teacher subserviently bowing and scraping for the kids, but rather quite forcefully giving an order. (I'm sure you have heard an equivalent of this exact sentence back in your school days.) Mills attributes this example to Mark Jary (1998).

In both cases, the linguist can't simply sit on a mountaintop and claim to have special insights into the meaning and force of the things that people say. If you want to know whether something appears as polite or impolite to the participants in a conversation, you need to ask them.

Deep and Shallow Conversational Themes

The fifth chapter of the book, also called "Gender and Politeness," largely takes the form of a prolonged criticism of the book Men, Women, and Politeness (1995) by Janet Holmes.

Mills correctly criticizes her for having a way too superficial conception of the relation between form and function, and for ignoring or explaining away data that doesn't fit her theory. On a theoretical level, nothing is done here which has not already been done better and more pointed by Deborah Cameron, but it's perhaps still worth the time to see in detail where the seams come apart.

By way of illustration, Mills analyses two telling examples of mismatches between stereotypically "mannered speech" and the real motivations of the participants. One example is about excessive thanking between women (pp. 227–31), and the other is about two women having a discussion while a largely quiet man is also present in the home (pp. 231–34).

Lovely, Lovely

In the first of these examples, a woman codenamed "D" gives a Maori shell as a present to her hosts, who proceed to thank. One participant, codenamed "M," for instance shoots off this tirade (p. 228):
  • … oh, that's lovely. lovely, isn't it? […] oh, that's lovely, thank you very much, I love the colours …
On the face of it, this seems like a perfect example of stereotypical "women's speech," but in her interviews with the participants, Mills actually found that, during this exchange, the women were in fact trying to shut up D so that they could to get on with their lunch. This led to a kind of unfortunate spiraling effect, since D took thanking as an invitation to talking, and her talking led the other women to ramp up their thanking.

Again, had Mills been sitting in her office handing out judgments of what this or that utterance meant, she would probably only have added yet another layer of misunderstanding, and largely misread the subtext of the conversation.

Pointing the Camera the Wrong Way

The other example concerns a conversation between two participants, two women who are old friends, and the partner of one of them. The exchange centers around a misunderstanding — the woman codenamed A is visiting the couple, planning to go out with them, but the host couple then realize a bit too late that she didn't come by car as they first thought.

A then apologizes quite heavily (p. 232):
  • I'm sorry, I've, um, messed up all the plans.
Mills comments:
Focusing only on the way that A explicitly apologizes, which conventional politeness theories such as Holmes do, would not allow us to focus on the way that in this interaction questions of the sex of the participants is not particularly salient. (p. 234)
Instead, the exchanges surrounding the misunderstanding all could instead be seen as a collaborative project of building and maintaining intimacy, so that
… they can present themselves as a group of friends who get on well together because they can resolve conflicts jointly, not allowing difficulties and misunderstandings to threaten anyone's face. (p. 234)
So, looking for superficial cues like I'm sorry would very likely lead an analyst to think that A was very explicitly gendering herself in this dialogue. But in fact, one could just as well focus on the quite forceful way that the other female speaker asserts herself during the dialogue, or the much more withdrawn role of the male participant. From that perspective, the use of apologies, teasing, and irony would be seen much more as a product of the local context.

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