Exercises

Exercises for Power & Solidarity

 

Written Exercise: Evaluating Face Threats

 

For each of the following acts you might perform, consider whether there are face threats to the hearer’s sense of solidarity (i.e. positive face: the desire to be included, liked, appreciated) or sense of power (i.e. negative face: the desire to be independent and autonomous) or both. (There may also be face threats to yourself as speaker, but this exercise just focuses on the hearer.)

#1

You’re asking a co-worker, who’s going to the store anyway, to pick up a bag of baby carrots for you.

Answers

Small threat to hearer’s sense of power. If someone is going to the store anyway, it would hardly take any extra time or effort for them to pick this small thing up for you. Even if you’re not giving them the money up front, asking them to trust you to pay them back, the cost is minimal. Thus, this is a small imposition overall, if it’s not a frequent request. (Treating someone as your lackey or errand-boy would be a significant threat to their sense of power, but if this isn’t a usual request, it probably won’t come across as such a big deal.) This does not threaten the hearer’s sense of solidarity; on the contrary, you are assuming a certain level of friendship by making this request. Refusing to honor a request like this would be a bigger threat (to the requester’s positive face), as it would make the requester feel they had overestimated the strength of the relationship.

#2

 You’re asking someone to help you move into a new apartment across town. (You’ve rented a truck, but you need people to help you lift and carry furniture and boxes.)

Answers

Large threat to hearer’s sense of power. The request involves hours of difficult labor (even potential injury from lifting heavy items) and is thus a large imposition on the hearer. Presumably, you would only ask someone you know well and/or consider a friend to take on such a burden (so there is no threat to the hearer’s sense of solidarity), but no matter how good a friend the person is, you would want to use a lot of politeness to offset the face-threat. 

#3

You’re inviting someone to a party.

Answers

Small threat to hearer’s sense of power. Inviting someone is a kind, generous (and solidary) thing to do – but it does place the person being invited under an obligation either to spend time with you or to figure out how to refuse without hurting your feelings, which may make them feel very awkward. There is no threat to the hearer’s sense of solidarity.

#4

You’re refusing an invitation to a party.

Answers

Significant threat to hearer’s sense of solidarity. Refusing an invitation is likely to make the person feel rejected, unliked, to think that the two of you do not have a good relationship. Note that while you can threaten someone’s sense of power while flattering their sense of solidarity (as in inviting someone to a party), it is very difficult to threaten their sense of solidarity without also simultaneously threatening their sense of power. In this particular case, many subordinates do not feel they can politely refuse an invitation from a superior, so by refusing, you may seem to be placing yourself above the person inviting you. 

#5

You’re offering to help someone with a problem they seem to be having (e.g., helping a classmate with their homework, or helping a co-worker finish a task).

Answers

Threat to hearer’s sense of power. This is an act of kindness and solidarity, but it is nonetheless threatening to their sense of power, as it  may imply they cannot do something without assistance, and that you are in some way superior.

#6

You’re asking someone questions about their medical condition.

Answers

Threat to hearer’s sense of power. People can be quite embarrassed by the functioning of their bodies, and admitting weakness may work against a person’s feelings of independence. Vague questions such as “how are you?” or “are you feeling any better?”, etc., are only weak threats, and the threats to negative face are offset by the appeal to solidarity (that is, you must like them and care about them or you wouldn’t ask). A question asking for specific details is a greater threat, which even a close friend might have to do significant politeness work to accomplish. A question asking for specific details about a particularly embarrassing complaint (or one involving someone’s private parts) would be extremely face-threatening, and probably inappropriate under most circumstances.  Choosing to answer such a question is a sign of great solidarity.

#7

You’re telling someone you were offended by a joke or comment they made.

Answers

Threat to both solidarity and power.  You are explicitly telling the hearer that you don’t share or appreciate their sense of humor or point of view. This emphasizes your differences, not your common ground, so it threatens solidarity. As you are in some sense “correcting” them, or telling them what they should (and should not) say or think, you are putting yourself in a position of power over them, like a parent or a teacher, threatening their sense of power. 

#8

You’re telling a co-worker that you’re too busy to talk to them right now.

Answers

 Threat to hearer’s sense of solidarity. Not wanting to talk to someone is a kind of rejection, threatening solidarity. You’re telling them they’re not as important as whatever you’re busy with. Note that if it was your boss rather than your co-worker, it would be a huge threat to their sense of power as well. People in subordinate positions usually do not have the power to ignore someone in a superior position – so you would appear to be denying their power if you refuse to talk to them. This would be so face-threatening that it is hard to imagine an employee doing this if they want to keep the job!

#9

You’re asking someone to recommend you for a job.

Answers

Threat to hearer’s sense of power. This is an imposition on someone’s time and effort, although the size of the imposition varies depending on whether they have to actually write a letter of recommendation (time consuming and difficult) vs. spend a few minutes on the phone talking to your potential employer or fill out an online form (less onerous) vs. just be available for such a phone call that may never come. Normally, such a request may flatter the hearer’s sense of solidarity, unless they feel they can’t in good faith recommend you (because they can’t think of nice things to say about you, or think you’re wrong for the position), in which case it will threaten their sense of solidarity with you, too. 

#10

You’re asking someone to make a formal promise.

Answers

Threat to hearer’s sense of power and solidarity. Promises involve committing oneself to doing something, so you’re imposing on the hearer (the size of the imposition will vary according to what they’re promising to do), which threatens their sense of power. At the same time, the fact that you’re asking them to make a formal promise shows you don’t trust them to follow through otherwise, which threatens their sense of solidarity.

Video Exercise: Calculating Face-Threats

In this video, we asked people “What do you do if someone tells a joke, and you don’t get it?” and “What if you do get the joke, but you don’t think it’s funny?” First, consider what face-threats are involved here. Then, watch the video to see how people responded. Do you see any common trends? Can you think of situational factors that would make you respond one way or another?


Our Discussion

Joking is a solidarity-based politeness strategy. The person telling the joke assumes common ground (a similar sense of humor) and is trying to amuse you (which shows attention to your needs). Therefore, if you don’t laugh in response, you are threatening the sense of solidarity between you. This is why many people will laugh, whether or not they understand the joke or find it amusing. If the joke-teller is a good friend of yours, then the friendship can survive a threat of this sort, and you might feel free to say something like “I don’t get it” or “Why is that funny?” In doing so, you’re assuming that they will take the time to explain it to you (showing that they care about you), and the shared knowledge that may result from such explanations can create further solidarity for the future.

Notice that several people took care to distinguish between a joke that just fails to be amusing (where they would try to protect the joketeller’s feelings, and not reveal that they weren’t amused) and a joke that is offensive (which they would not reward with laughter). This makes sense — if the joke-teller isn’t taking care of your feelings (telling jokes that offend you), then why should you take care of theirs?

 

Written Exercise: Appealing to Solidarity

 

Going back to the examples in the previous exercise that threatened the hearer’s sense of solidarity, write out an utterance (which may be several sentences long) that you could use to achieve the goal, incorporating several different positive politeness strategies to offset the threats.

Note

Although many people use joking as a positive politeness strategy, we have not included that in our suggested responses, as it is a risky strategy, and not recommended if you’re not very sensitive to other people’s signs of discomfort. There are literally hundreds of appropriate options for each question, so don’t be surprised or upset if your responses differ from ours.

#1

Refusing an invitation to a party.

Answers

e.g., “I wish I could, Jen  [show reluctance to threaten face; use 1st name]
 but I already have plans.                 [give a reason]
You throw awesome parties.   [show appreciation, use informal language]
 I’ll come to the next one for sure!”     [promise]


#2

Telling someone you’re offended by their joke or comment.

Answers

e.g., “You’re a funny guy, John                                              [show appreciation, use 1st name]
but that was so not cool.                                                            [use informal language]
You know I take (that topic) very seriously.”                  [give reason, assume John knows and cares about you]


#3

Telling someone you’re too busy to talk to them right now.

Answers

e.g., “I’m sorry, Elwood,                                                                          [use 1st name]
I’d really like to talk to you tomorrow,                                              [offer]
but I’ve got to study for my math test now.                                     [give reasons]
You know I’m already on probation.”                          [show shared knowledge = common ground]

 

 

Note that the initial apology is actually a negative politeness (deference) strategy, but definitely one you want to use here, along with the appeals to solidarity.


#4

Asking someone to make a promise.

Answers

E.g., “Promise me you’ll be there on time, sweetie!                     [term of endearment]
You know my mother’s a fanatic about punctuality.                   [give a reason]
I know you’re really busy at work,                                              [show shared knowledge, give sympathy]
Do you want me to give you a reminder call?                                         [offer]


Written Exercise: Mixing Solidarity and Deference Strategies

For this exercise, we return to the first three speech acts of the first exercise.


Instructions

For each speech act, write out an utterance you could use to achieve the goal that incorporates several different politeness strategies to offset the threats. (Again, your utterance may consist of several sentences.) Be sure to consider whether the face-threats are to their sense of power, their sense of solidarity, or both, and use the strategies accordingly. (That is, a threat to someone’s sense of power should be minimized with negative politeness (deference) strategies, though you may certainly incorporate some positive politeness (solidarity) strategies as well. If there are threats to both positive and negative face, make sure you incorporate both positive and negative politeness strategies.

As in the previous exercises, there is no “right” answer. Yours may be very different from ours and be just as good! Discuss them with your friends, family, and confederates. Note that although using titles is a very common negative politeness strategy, it is not used in these examples, since they all seem to assume an established relationship of equals (more or less). The strategies shown are color-coded as positive politeness (solidarity) or negative politeness (deference).

Asking a co-worker who’s going to the store anyway to pick up a bag of baby carrots for you.

E.g.,

“Hey, Jones, um…. [informal language, informal use of last name
without title][hesitate to impose]
since you’re heading that way anyway, [minimize the imposition]
would you mind [question (don’t assume), and indirect request]
grabbing a bag of baby carrots for me?
Thanks!” [recognize the imposition]

Asking someone to help you move.

E.g.,

“Do you think it might be possible…. [question, be indirect, hedge]
I know it’s a lot to ask, [recognize the imposition]
but I’m moving on Saturday, and I really need a few people to help, [give reasons]
and I was hoping maybe you…. [be indirect]
It should only take a couple of hours. [minimize the imposition]
I’ll be buying the pizza and beer. [offer]
And I’d really owe you one.” [acknowledge the debt]

Inviting someone to a party

E.g., “I’m sorry this is kind of last minute, [apologize]
you’ve probably already got plans, [don’t presume, give an out]
but if you’re not busy, [give an out]
I’m having some people over on Saturday.
I think you’d like them! [attend to hearer’s needs]
I’d love it if you could come.” [approve of other person, assume that they care about pleasing you ]

Interview Exercise:

Choose two or three speech acts from the exercises above where your answers differed significantly from ours. Ask several other people you know how they would accomplish those speech acts, and discuss their answers with them. Why would they say it that way? Are they following the same basic strategies as you, but implementing them differently, or are they using different strategies altogether?

Written Exercise:

Instructions

On each tab, you’ll find a triplet of utterances, each of which could be used to accomplish the same speech act. Your task is to classify the utterances by how polite they are (and thus, how you would expect them to be used):

  • VERY POLITE (subordinate to superior and/or between strangers);
  • MIDDLING POLITE (between relative equals and/or between acquaintances);
  • or HARDLY POLITE (superior to subordinate and/or between intimates).

#1

(a) “Pass the stapler, wouldja?”
(b) “Wouldja pass the stapler for a sec, please?”
(c) “Excuse me, would you mind passing the stapler? Thanks.”

Answers

a: HARDLY POLITE (superior to subordinate and/or between intimates)
b: MIDDLING POLITE (between those relatively equal in power and/or between acquaintances)
c: VERY POLITE (subordinate to superior and/or between strangers)


#2

a) “Will you be coming to the office party, Sir?”
b) “You’re coming to the office party, aren’t you?”
c) “I expect you to be at the office party.”

Answers

a: VERY POLITE (subordinate to superior and/or between strangers)
b: MIDDLING POLITE (between those relatively equal in power and/or between acquaintances)
c: HARDLY POLITE (superior to subordinate and/or between intimates)


#3

a) “I’m sorry to disturb you, but I think the meeting was scheduled to start 10 minutes ago. Everyone is gathered in the conference room.”
b) “You’re late! Get to the conference room immediately!”
c) “Hey, Smith, I think you’re missing your meeting. The others are all in the conference room already.”

Answers

a: VERY POLITE (subordinate to superior and/or between strangers)
b: HARDLY POLITE (superior to subordinate and/or between intimates)
c: MIDDLING POLITE (between those relatively equal in power and/or between acquaintances)


#4

a) “How do you get to Wal-Mart?”
b) “Excuse me. I’m sorry to bother you, but could you help me? I am looking for Wal-Mart.”
c) “Do you know where Wal-Mart is? I get lost every time I try to go there!”

Answers

a: HARDLY POLITE (superior to subordinate and/or between intimates)
b: VERY POLITE (subordinate to superior and/or between strangers)
c: MIDDLING POLITE (between those relatively equal in power and/or between acquaintances)


#5

a) “Pardon me. Excuse me. Sorry.”
b) “Look out! Coming through!”
c) “Excuse me. I just need to squeeze through here.”

Answers

a: VERY POLITE (subordinate to superior and/or between strangers)
b: HARDLY POLITE (superior to subordinate and/or between intimates)
c: MIDDLING POLITE (between those relatively equal in power and/or between acquaintances)


Written Exercise:

Using the power & solidarity checklists, re-read a few pages of this website to identify which strategies I (the writer of this text) have used with you (the reader), to analyze how I have interpreted (or actively tried to construct!) our relationship.

My thoughts on my use of solidarity-based politeness

I tried hard to establish a sense of solidarity with you, using most of the solidarity devices available in print to an unknown audience. I’ve assumed and asserted common ground (by using “we” fairly often) and reciprocity (in the examples, sometimes “you” might be the one having problems, but sometimes “I” am, sometimes “you” are the superior, sometimes “I” am. ) Obviously, I can’t show direct knowledge of you as an individual or use your first name or nickname or terms of endearment, but I have done my best to use informal language (e.g. use of singular they (technically incorrect, but avoids the awkwardness of assuming gender and the wordiness of he or she), lots of split infinitives & ending sentences with prepositions, lots of contractions, some slang, etc.), and I have tried to show sympathy and concern for any social challenges you may be facing. (That is, obviously, the whole point of this website.) If you are actively taking the time to read and think about these issues, even working through the exercises, then I certainly do appreciate you! I can’t ask you for explanations, but I’ve certainly given you a ton of them. I have offered you opportunities via the exercises and invited you to take them, but I have been careful not to promise anything — because I can’t in good faith make you any honest promises. I may have joked a little here or there, because I’m a jokey sort of person, but I have been very careful about using that strategy (as I have recommended for you — another instance of reciprocity).

My thoughts on my use of deference-based politeness

I have tried to establish a sense of equality between us, although I realize this is a bit of a challenge, given that in the very act of presenting this website I am claiming to have expertise that you supposedly lack. Again, there are some limitations on the politeness strategies I can use, by virtue of this being in print and addressed to an unknown audience. Typically, to show equality, participants in a conversation would monitor the use of deference strategies, trying to keep their own usages at the same level as the other person’s. Obviously, I can’t do that here. But in general, I have tried to avoid using too much deference (because that would create social distance between us, and work against my solidarity goals), without purposefully avoiding it altogether, because there are times when I may be threatening your sense of power, e.g. by assuming you have particular social communication challenges.

To show equality, we would use reciprocal terms of address, use equal levels of formality in our speech, and talk about the same amount, but obviously this isn’t a “normal” conversation: you don’t get to talk at all! I have tried to show you some deference (not assuming too much about you), as I would expect you to do for me. I’ve tried to be direct — but that’s mainly because many people with social communication challenges have troubles decoding indirectness, not to challenge your sense of power! I have, however, hedged all over the place, to try to offset any threats to your sense of power. I am not aware of having particularly imposed on you, as I am not forcing you to use this website, to read parts you’d rather skip, to read in any particular order, or to do any exercises. Presumably, if you do engage with parts of the website, it’s because you want to, so I haven’t felt the need to go on record about incurring a debt or to apologize. (The website as a whole does contain a few direct apologies, for things we have chosen not to include, e.g. There are no easy answers to social communication challenges, but there are some issues that are particularly fraught with complications, and we have sometimes felt the need to apologize to you for our inability to help provide better guidance on these.)

Audio Exercise: Notice the Differences

The first audio file contains one side only of a phone conversation, in which we hear a university professor calling the registrar’s office to get some information that he needs. First, consider the face-threats and relationships involved and think about what forms of politeness you might expect him to use. Then use the power & solidarity checklists to see which power- and solidarity-based forms of politeness he actually uses, to see if he behaves as you would expect.

Answers

The person in the registrar’s office is not familiar to the caller, and for the purposes of this interaction has the power (of having knowledge the caller needs). While the imposition is not great, the social distance requires some deference (power-based politeness). The caller is therefore hesitant (both pausing and hedging with “sort of”, uses formal pronunciations (notice the pronunciation of “a question” in the first sentence, the crisp T at the end of one of the times he says “requirement”), is indirect (he wonders if he can ask her the question), and gives intensified thanks, acknowledging his debt  (“thank you so much!” and “I appreciate it”.) He doesn’t overdo the deference, however, because the imposition is so small — answering the phone and answering questions like this is part of the registrar’s job, after all. While we wouldn’t expect much solidarity-based politeness given the lack of a personal relationship, a small amount is appropriate to show that they are part of the same University community. Therefore, he also uses a bit of informality in the informal greeting (“hi”) and the idiomatic phrasal verb “to float by,” and has a very warm,friendly tone when ending the conversation.

Now, listen to the same man answering a call from a friend. Again, before you listen, consider what you expect to happen in terms of power and solidarity, and use the checklist to see if he behaves as expected.


Answers

He answers with the formal “hello?” (since he doesn’t yet know who is calling), but then immediately shifts when he realizes that it’s his friend James on the line. Now we would expect to find a great deal of solidarity-based politeness and very little deference (since they are peers), and this is exactly what occurs. He uses the friend’s first name, uses informal pronunciations (“Whatcha up to?”, “yeah”) while showing attention to and care for the friend. At this point, it appears that the friend invited our speaker to go out that evening, as our speaker gives explanations why he can’t go. Refusing an invitation is face-threatening to their sense of solidarity, of course, so our speaker has to increase his solidarity-based politeness. Giving explanations is one such strategy, but he also assumes common ground (shared knowledge: refers to “that conference,” which he clearly expects his friend to know about), offers/promises (“I will be in touch,” “we will really…”), uses first and second person pronouns and jokes (“it’s silliness!”). Nonetheless, power-based politeness is not entirely absent. We do get a little hedging (“sort of”) and he thanks his friend (presumably for the invitation). There are moments when he seems more formal than we might expect (especially when he says he is “having a wonderful conversation with Whitney right now”) but this is most likely because he is especially aware at that moment of Whitney as an overhearer, and he does not have the same kind of close personal relationship with her.

Video Exercise: Notice the Differences

In this video, we see the first few minutes of an advising session between a student and a faculty member. There are obvious inequalities in power (so we would expect to see her showing him more deference). What deference-based strategies do you notice her using? Which of them uses more solidarity-based politeness (and why do you suppose this is the case)?

Answers

She is indirect (“I was going to ask you….” — rather than just asking him directly, and “would you mind…?”), allows him to speak more (which, of course, she has invited him to do by asking him a question, recognizing his superior knowledge and flattering him), she gives a social laugh as if to apologize for offering information that he doesn’t have (“I have a list! Ha!”), and hedges a great deal (“a list of sorts,” “I just decided to ask for a little info packet,” etc.). He uses very few deference strategies (as we would expect). He does hedge a great deal, but this may simply be due to his not being sure of the information he’s giving her. (Notice that he corrects himself at one point (“Is that true? No!”), and asks himself a few questions, such as “Who else teaches there?”)

She doesn’t do much solidarity-based politeness (as this could be seen as presumptious, and work against the deference that she shows him), but he uses a great deal, to try to make her feel more comfortable (and perhaps to signal that her use of deference-based politeness is unnecessary). In particular, he uses informal pronunciations throughout (“Whaddayagot there?”, e.g., pronouncing “and” as the single sound /n/, etc.) and some informal words (“cool”, “checkin’ out”), assumes reciprocity by assuming that she’ll be interested in details of his life, shows his knowledge of her (“you would really like…”), and shows approval of her (“Cool!”).

Self-Reflection Exercise:

Identify three face-threatening acts you often feel uncomfortable performing. Consider why these make you feel uncomfortable. Are the acts themselves highly threatening, making you feel uncomfortable no matter who you are talking with? This might include asking for a big favor that requires a lot of time and effort, asking someone on a date, or refusing a request. Is it the nature of the relationship that causes you to feel uncomfortable? For example, with a friend or family member, you might not mind excusing yourself to go to the bathroom, but you might feel awkward about saying this to someone you don’t know well.
For each of the face-threatening acts you identified, script out a couple of different utterances incorporating various politeness strategies that could help you accomplish the act. Which would you rather say? Why?

Self-Reflection Exercise:

Find the last few e-mail messages you sent. (Or, if you’ve written more old-fashioned letters or memos, you can use these for this exercise.) What was the purpose of the e-mail (or letter or memo)? What was the relationship you have with the person you were writing to (in terms of power and solidarity)? Based on what you learned in this module, do you now think you used the right amount of solidarity and/or deference-based politeness? Think of a few ways you could have added in more appeals to solidarity to create a more interpersonal feel to the written communication.

Role Play/Video Modeling Exercise:

For the face-threatening acts you identified in the previous exercise, practice accomplishing the acts using your preferred scripts, with your confederate playing the role of the other person, at least three times each. Do you feel a difference? (That is, are you feeling more comfortable with increased practice?) If you can, find a different confederate to practice with as well.

Eavesdropping Exercise:

With a confederate, go to a coffee shop or a restaurant where you can sit close enough to hear people interacting without interfering with others’ conversations or invading their privacy. In a coffee shop, you might sit with your back facing the people you are listening to. This is much less threatening than facing them and watching them converse. If you can’t sit with your back to them, at least make sure that you don’t make eye contact with them! People having a chat in a public setting like this know that people will overhear – there’s no expectation of privacy – but they will still be very uncomfortable if they notice you paying particular attention to their conversation. It will be easiest to keep track of the conversation if there are only two participants. (Don’t be too ambitious to start with.)

Using the power & solidarity checklists, keep track of the strategies used by the participants in a conversation. For each participant in the conversation, check the relevant box each time they use a particular strategy. Don’t worry if you miss some uses – conversations go fast, and people will use some of the same strategies over and over. Once you’ve checked a box several times, you don’t need to keep checking it: they obviously use that strategy a lot. Hopefully, it will look to other people in the coffee shop that you and your confederate are working on homework assignments or a project of some kind — which you are!

After you’ve listened for three or four minutes, you can stop listening and compare your checklist with your confederate’s. Did you spot the same politeness strategies? Discuss any differences in your lists in a whisper. (You don’t want the people you eavesdropped on to hear you discussing them — you may even want to leave the coffee shop or restaurant before you complete the rest of the exercise.)

Once you’ve come to a consensus about the politeness strategies that were used, discuss the pattern of checkmarks that you recorded: what does each participant’s pattern of politeness strategies tell you about how they view their relationship with the other person? Is one showing more deference than the other (telling you about their relative power status)? Do they seem to use equal amounts of solidarity, showing agreement about how close they are? If they do agree, are they using just a little bit of solidarity, a medium amount, or a whole lot of it? Does this information agree with what you gleaned about them from the actual semantic content of their conversation?

Did you find this exercise easier or harder than the one where you applied the checklists to the writing on this website, or the the videos? Real-life conversation flies by quickly, and you can’t go back to re-listen! On the other hand, face-to-face conversation offers opportunities for speakers to use strategies that are not available in written communications, and many more vocal cues for you to decode, many of which may be constant throughout the conversation.

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