Politeness, Face and Apologies

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Positive- and Negative-Politeness Strategies: Apologizing in the
Speech Community of Cuernavaca, Mexico

Lisa C. Wagner

University of Louisville


Based upon a theoretical framework of politeness and face-threatening acts
(FTAs), an ethnographic investigation of naturally occurring apologies and politeness
strategies in Cuernavaca Spanish was accomplished. Using a modified version of Blum-
Kulka et al.’s (1989) Cross-Cultural Speech Act Realization Project Coding Manual for
Apologies and a corpus of (200) naturally occurring apology events, the basic strategies
and sub-strategies used by members of the Cuernavaca speech community to apologize
for a wide range of offenses were identified and discussed. Both positive- and negative-
politeness strategies within the apology acts were noted. Finally, the findings from this
sample were compared with the findings of previously conducted studies on apologizing
and politeness in other varieties of Spanish. Results from this investigation dispel Brown
and Levinson’s claim that negative politeness is the universally preferred approach for
doing facework, and it is advocated that additional investigations of (FTAs) and
politeness using culturally-sensitive models of interaction be used.

Politeness Theory

The theoretical framework of the present investigation is comprised of many of
the concepts and discussions presented in Brown and Levinson’s (1978) original face-
saving model of politeness and their subsequent (1987) revised version. Brown and
Levinson’s Politeness Model is founded on the notions of “face” offered by Goffman and
‘conversational logic’ proposed by Grice. “Face” refers to two basic wants of every
individual: (1) to be approved of by others (positive face), and (2) to have his / her
actions and thoughts unimpeded by others (negative face). The face-saving view of
politeness places emphasis on the wants of the participants involved in a given interaction
rather than on the interaction itself or the norms operating in society. Face is “something
that is emotionally invested, and can be lost, maintained, or enhanced, and must be
constantly attended to in interaction” (Brown & Levinson, 1978, p. 66).

Brown and Levinson (1978) constructed their theory of politeness on the premise
that many speech acts are intrinsically threatening to face. Speech acts are threatening in
that they do not support the face wants of the speaker (S) and / or those of the addressee
(A). Brown and Levinson (pp. 65-67) defined face-threatening acts (FTAs) according to
two basic parameters: (1) Whose face is being threatened (the speaker’s or the
addressee’s), and (2) Which type of face is being threatened (positive- or negative- face).
Acts that threaten an addressee’s positive face include those acts in which a speaker
demonstrates that he/she does not approve of or support the addressee’s positive face or
self image (e.g., complaints, criticisms, accusations, mention of taboo topics,
interruptions). Acts that threaten an addressee’s negative face include instances in which
the addressee is pressured to accept or to reject a future act of the speaker (e.g., offers,
promises), or when the addressee has reason to believe that his/her goods are being


coveted by the speaker. Examples of FTAs to the speaker’s positive face include
apologies, acceptance of a compliment, self-humiliations, and confessions. Some of the
FTAs that are threatening to the speaker’s negative face include expressing gratitude,
accepting a thank-you, an apology or an offer, and making promises.
While Brown and Levinson believed the notion of face to be universal, they
explained “in any particular society we would expect [face] to be the subject of much
cultural elaboration” (p. 13). Brown and Levinson’s model assessed the seriousness of a
FTA using the following factors: (1) The social distance (D) of speaker (S) and hearer (H);
(2) The relative power (P) of (S) and (H); and (3) The absolute ranking (R) of imposition
in the particular culture.
An apology is an attempt by the speaker to make up for a previous action that interfered
with the addressee’s face-wants (Brown & Levinson, 1978, p. 187). Thus, the aim of
apologizing is to restore equilibrium between speaker and addressee (Leech, 1983, p.
125). As Blum-Kulka, House, and Kasper (1989, p.12) described, an apology is the
acknowledgement by the speaker that a violation has been committed and an admission
that he or she is at least partially involved in its cause. An apology may be considered a
“post-event,” for it signals that the event has already taken place. Apologies count as
remedial work and have been traditionally regarded as hearer supportive, as they provide
some benefit to the addressee at cost to the speaker (Fraser & Nolan, 1981; Goffman,
1972; Leech, 1983; Owen, 1983). Holmes (1995) extended the question of face benefit to
the speaker as well, for she claims that apologies are face-supporting acts in general.
Brown and Levinson’s Politeness Model regards apologies as “negative
politeness strategies” in that they convey respect, deference, and distance rather than
friendliness and involvement. Negative politeness is an avoidance-based, on-record
strategy of self-effacement and restraint. Evidence of negative politeness can be seen in
both the apology strategies themselves (e.g., avoiding responsibility), as well as
individual linguistic and extralinguistic elements which constitute these strategies (e.g.,
agent-less verbal constructs with se in Spanish, third-person verbal forms with the subject
and its referent undefined (e.g., me robaron el carro, “They [no specific referent] stole
my car”), and intonation.
In performing an apology, the speaker acknowledges the addressee’s face-want
not to be offended. Apologizing is face threatening for the speaker and face-saving for
the addressee. In contrast with negative politeness, positive politeness is an involvement-
based approach made by the speaker to ratify, understand, approve of, and admire the
positive image of the addressee. Brown and Levinson (1987, p. 75) referred to the
function of positive politeness strategies as one of minimizing the potential threat of an
FTA by assuring the address that the speaker (S) has a positive regard for him or her and
wants at least some of the wants of the addressee. Holmes (1995) claimed that apologies
can also function as positive politeness strategies for the addressee (A) since the S
supports A’s need for positive feelings and affirmation from others. Examples of an
apology act functioning as positive politeness are: (1) a speaker admitting that the
addressee is right to feel offended by the infraction; (2) a speaker demonstrating his
commitment to remedying the situation and appeasing the addressee through an offer of
repair and (3) a speaker using deference markers such as titles or forms of address (Dr.,
Sir, Ma’am) or formal verb forms and corresponding pronouns (T-V forms). Brown and
Levinson’s Politeness Theory assumes that negative politeness is the universally preferred
approach to facework: “It is safer to assume that H (hearer) prefers his peace and self-
determination more than he prefers your expressions of regard, unless you are certain to
the contrary” (p. 74). In agreement with other scholars (Ho,1994; Lavandera, 1988;
Márquez Reiter, 2000; Nwoye, 1992; Placencia, 1992; Ruzickova, 1998; Scollon &
Scollon, 1981; Vázquez-Orta, 1995), I do not support this as a valid assumption.


Many societies do not value negative-politeness over positive politeness, and
may even have an overriding preference for avoidance-based, off-record verbal behavior
or other means of addressing face. The present research study parts from the idea that
universality may not be the most effective approach for investigating the relationship
between face, politeness and face-threatening acts (FTAs). Instead, I believe a better
understanding of apologies will result from analyzing the apology event as it is performed
in its natural, immediate context. Such an approach encourages a deeper contemplation
of many important dynamic contextual factors excluded from Brown and Levinson’s
model (e.g., the interactional goal of apologizing, the level of responsibility the speaker
feels for the infraction, the level and type of redress the speaker feels the addressee can
reasonably expect from him or her).
Apologies have been investigated within numerous theoretical disciplines, ranging from
the sociopragmatic domains of the current study, to those of psycholinguistics,
information processing, communication, sociology and cultural anthropology. The brief
review of literature offered here is not meant to be exhaustive, but rather to provide the
reader with a summary of findings from studies on politeness and the act of apologizing
in cross-cultural pragmatics, specifically those investigations targeting Spanish-speaking
populations. García (1989) compared apologies performed by non-native speakers of
English from Venezuela with those of native speakers of English in open-ended role-
plays. Findings from the analysis of these role-plays showed that when informants
apologized to their host for not having attended his party, the Venezuelan informants used
a positive-politeness approach, while the native English-speaking informants preferred a
negative-politeness approach. The apologies offered by the Venezuelans included
explanations for not attending, avoiding disagreement with the host, repetition of the
host’s words and in-group identity markers, while the apologies offered by the native
American English speakers included paying deference to the host, self-effacing behavior,
and devices to maintain social distance.
Mir’s (1992) work focused on how native speakers of Spanish were found to
increase the frequency with which they apologized in English (L2) as a reaction to what
they perceived as a greater frequency of apologies on the part of native speakers of
English. Mir found that native English speakers used more repair strategies than did their
Spanish-speaking counterparts in both Spanish (L1) and English (L2). In her investigation
of apologies in Cuban Spanish, Ruzickova (1998) found that Cubans overwhelmingly
prefer to employ an IFID (89%) when apologizing. She also found that speakers of
Cuban Spanish employ more positive-politeness devices than negative-politeness devices
when apologizing.
Márquez Reiter (2000) cross-culturally investigated requests and apologies
within the speech communities of Montevideo, Uruguay and London, England using
open-ended role-plays. Each contained an infraction designed to elicit an apology, and
were encoded with social and situational variables in the form of social distance and
social power between participants, and the seriousness of the offense. Márquez Reiter
found the principal variable in determining apology behavior in British English and
Uruguayan Spanish to be related to the “severity of offence” in correlation with “social
power.” The less social power the speaker had in relation to the addressee and the more
severe the infraction, the more likely the speaker was to apologize (p. 178). Similarly, the
more social power the speaker had in relation to the addressee and the lesser the infraction,
the less likely the speaker was to apologize (p. 178). When the participants have equal
social power, Márquez Reiter (2000, p. 179) found that the “severity of offence” variable
gains importance and ultimately determines the performance and shape of an apology.
Márquez Reiter’s (2000) results on the use of specific apology strategies
supported those findings of Blum-Kulka et al.: “IFIDs” (Illocutionary Force Indicating


Devices) and “expression of responsibility” emerged as situationally independent apology
strategies in that their use is documented across many different situations. In terms of
other apology strategies, the data show that British used more explanations than did
Uruguayans. Offers of repair were not frequently employed by either cultural group of
participants and were used only when actual severe damage had occurred. However, the
British informants chose this strategy more often than did their Uruguayan counterparts.
Finally, the strategy “Promise of Forbearance” was rarely used by both target groups in
this investigation. With respect to the incidence of positive- versus negative-politeness in
the apology behavior of speakers of Uruguayan Spanish versus that of speakers of British
English, Márquez Reiter (2000, p.180) found that Uruguayans did not seem to value
negative-politeness as highly as do the British.


The current research project was conducted in Cuernavaca, Mexico, the capital
city of the state of Morelos. Located approximately one hour to the south of Mexico City,
Cuernavaca is considered part of Central Mexico. Cuernavaca is a large metropolitan
area with a population of approximately one million inhabitants
<http://www.giga.com/cuahua/cuernav.html.1996> and
http://www.mexicorealty.com/cuernavaca.htm. This community was selected as the
target site for the current investigation because no previous study on apologies or
politeness had been conducted there and my previous work experience in this community
allowed for easy access.

A corpus of 200 apologies was collected from live encounters characterized by
natural speech. These apologies were manually recorded in the exact language in which
they occurred. Pertinent contextual information such as setting, the nature of the
infraction triggering the apology, the gender of the participants, the known or perceived
social relationship between the participants (family/friends/acquaintences [known] versus
strangers [unknown]), as well as kenesics and intonational patterns were noted. Due to
the difficulty in predicting the systematic occurrence of apologies across a wide range of
contexts between different participants, I chose to ethnographically record instances of
apologies using a tool traditionally associated with cultural anthropology: the notebook.
While this technique may somewhat compromise validity, it yields a variety of situtions
in which apologies are made between individuals of varying social status and distance,
and results in a large sample of tokens from natural speech.

Samples of naturally ocurring speech were encoded using a modified
version of the apology strategy typology outlined in the CCSARP Coding Manual for
Apologies (Blum-Kulka et al., 1989, pp. 289-294). The modifications were made to
capture several salient linguistic structures within the present corpus:

Table 1
Apology Strategy and Sub-Strategy Coding


1. Illocutionary Force Indicating Device (IFID)
a. direct IFIDs: Performatives

I apologize
b. Indirect IFIDs: Formulaic Expressions
I am sorry
2. Taking Responsibility (+agency)

a. Explicit Self-Blame

It was my fault


b. Lack of intent

It wasn’ t my intention

c. Hearer justification

You have a right to be
d. Expression of Embarrassment

I’m so embarrassed
3. Explanation or account

There was a lot of traffic
Repair I’ll
5. Promise of Forbearance

It won’ t happen again
6. No Taking Responsibility

a. Unplanned occurrence (with se)
It fell > Se cayó
b. Speaker as victim (se +
Indirect object pronoun)

It fell (on me) > Se me

c. 3rd person plural form, - referent
They made me wait >

Me hicieron esperar

The following coding scheme was used for positive- and negative politeness

Table 2

Positive- and Negative Politeness Strategies Coding

Positive Politeness Strategies
Conveying In-Group Membership
Showing Solidarity (T-form, inclusive “we”)
Exaggeration of Concern for Addressee
Offer of Repair
Promise of Forbearance

Negative Politeness Strategies
Paying Deference (V-form, Formal Address Labels)
Use of se with Unplanned Occurrence
Use of Indirect Pronoun to Demonstrate Victimization with se
Third Person Plural, No Referent
Dismissal of Addressee’s Wants as Unreasonable

The research questions I pose in the current investigation are: (1) What are the
basic strategies and sub-strategies used by members of the Cuernavaca speech community
to apologize in naturally occurring speech and to what frequency are they employed?; (2)
What type of politeness (positive or negative) is more prevalent in the apologies of these
subjects; and (3) How do these findings compare with previous findings on apologizing in
other varieties of Spanish and what implications do they hold for a language- or culture-
specific theory of politeness?
Members of the Cuernavaca speech community preferred to use an IFID (47.4%)
to any other strategy when apologizing, supporting the results of previously conducted
research. The second most frequently employed strategy used by these subjects was
“Explanation or Account” (23%). In third place, members of the Cuernavaca speech


community preferred the strategy “No Responsibility.” If we are to accept the definition
of an apology offered by Blum-Kulka et al. (1989, p. 12) in which the speaker must admit
that he / she is at least partially to blame for the infraction, this strategy does not fulfil this
criterion. In fact, by using this type of strategy, the speaker places blame on another
person or circumstances beyond his/her control and may even portray him/herself as a
victim. Consider the following exchange between two strangers involved in an auto
S: (Backs into A’s car causing slight damage) (Gets out and looks at damage)

No lo vi

I didn’t see it…
A: No miró
You (formal) didn’t look…

S: Es que me robaron el espejo y no…¿qué hacemos?

It’s just that they stole my mirror and (neg.)…What should we do?

Here, the speaker blames a third party (“they”) for stealing his mirror and portrays
himself as a victim by including an indirect object pronoun (“me”). Without his mirror,
his vision was impaired and he had an accident. The three remaining strategies, “Taking
Responsibility,” “Offer of Repair,” and “Promise of Forbearance” were used very
infrequently, with none of these strategies constituting more than 7% of the overall corpus
of apologies collected.

Table 3
Frequency of Strategy / Substrategy Use


Percentage %
1. Illocutionary Force Indicating Device (IFID)

2. Taking Responsibility (speaker = +agency)







6. No Taking Responsibility
(Speaker ,-Agency)

Upon careful examination of the data, it was interesting to note that “offers of
repair” and “promises of forbearance” were only offered by subjects under two conditions:
(1) visible damage of high cost to the addressee had occurred as a result of the
transgression, and (2) the relationship between the parties involved in the situation was
one of friends or acquaintances. These observations suggest that the variables “severity of
offence” and “social relationship between participants” influence the use of “offers of
repair” and “promise of forbearance.” It may be the case that community members regard
these two strategies as highly face-threatening for the speaker and thus choose to employ
them to correct an infraction with visible damage that they have committed toward
someone with whom they have much invested socially.

In terms of positive- and negative-politeness strategies, members of the
Cuernavaca speech community preferred negative-politeness strategies (62%)
over positive-politeness strategies (38%). These results stand in contrast to Márquez
Reiter’s findings for politeness preference type in Uruguayan Spanish and Ruzickova’s
findings for politeness in Cuban Spanish. Although the research methodology and data
collection techniques of these two investigations differ from those utilized in the current


research project, the data suggested the absence of a one-to-one correspondence between
language and politeness preference type when apologizing. While Uruguayans, Cubans
and Mexicans are often grouped together as speakers of Latin American Spanish who
embody Latin American Culture, these parameters of language and culture appear to be
grossly inadequate for characterizing politeness.

Table 4
Positive- and Negative Politeness Strategies Used by Members of the
Cuernavaca Speech Community

Positive Politeness Strategies

Conveying In-Group Membership
Showing Solidarity (T-form, inclusive “we” )

Exaggeration of Concern for Addressee

Offer of Repair



Promise of Forbearance


Negative Politeness Strategies

Paying Deference (V-form, Formal Address Labels)
Use of se with Unplanned Occurrence

Use of Indirect Pronoun to Demonstrate Victimization with se 5%
Third Person Plural, No Referent


Dismissal of Addressee’s Wants as Unreasonable



In this investigation of naturally occurring apologies in Cuernavaca Spanish, I
sought to discover which apology strategies and sub-strategies were used most often by
speech community members and what types of positive and negative politeness strategies
they used to realize this speech act. Speakers of Cuernavaca Spanish, like their Cuban
and Uruguayan counterparts, preferred to use an IFID to apologize. Also highly preferred
was the strategy “explanation or account.” Cuernavaca speech community members
differed from Uruguayan and Cuban speech community members in that their apologies
included many instances of “no responsibility.” While the linguistic items used to form
apology strategies of “no responsibility” are part of the Spanish Language, the
Uruguayans and Cubans did not choose to use them with great frequency in their
apologies. This difference may be part of an even bigger issue of blame and how it is
dealt with in each culture. Next, I calculated the frequency with which positive- and
negative-politeness strategies were employed in apologies. Speakers within the
Cuernavaca speech community clearly preferred negative-politeness markers, while
results from previously conducted research on Spanish speaking populations has shown
the opposite to be true. At this point, one must ask if other the realization patterns of other
types of speech acts reflect this politeness type preference, or if it is the interplay between
apologies and the high cost of accepting blame in Mexican culture. Ideas for further
investigation include addressing which factors are salient in determining what the strategy
or strategies a speaker uses to apologize, discovering which types of FTAs are most
threatening for the speaker and how this perception affects his/her strategy selection and


speech act performance, and studying other speech acts to see if similar politeness
preference types are discovered.


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