Examining Brown and Levinson`s Theory of Linguistic Politeness Primarily Findings in the Indonesian Context


Particular groups of people have different ways of speaking. In social settings, most people usually use a variety of linguistic expressions to show politeness and deference to those they know well or even to colleagues they are familiar with. Linguistic politeness accounts for the type of linguistic behaviour that people use to express concern for, and interest in others. The present study aims to investigate politeness strategies in Indonesian cultures. Specifically, I wish to examine Brown and Levinson`s influential theory in the area of linguistic politeness. Basically, the Brown and Levinson’s theory is based on three principle notions: face, face-threatening act (FTA), and politeness strategies (Bowe and Martin 2009, p. 27).

In fact, Brown and Levinson conducted their research in three different languages and cultures: English, Tamil (a Dravidian language) and Tzeltal (a language of the Mayan family of Central America). This notion of politeness offered by Brown and Levinson may be contentious because it claims universal applicability. Therefore, the objective of this study is to explore the validity of the Brown and Levinson’s theory in the Indonesian context, particularly in relation to request patterns (direct and indirect strategies) which are influenced by sociocultural variables: social distance (D), power (P), and ranking of the imposition (R) between the speakers.

The significance of politeness strategy research in the Indonesian context is to make a positive contribution practically and theoretically. In practice, this investigation may provide contextualisation cues on how to deal with Indonesian people in a wide range of social activities. It also aims to contribute positively to the academic discussion in order to inform people from different cultural backgrounds so as to they are properly informed about what is considered to be socially polite or impolite in the Indonesian’s settings.

Politeness strategies refer to behaviour that can preserve a person’s positive self-image and avoid imposing on a person’s freedom (Bowe and Martin 2009, p. 28). In term of familiarity, for instance, we are expected to show our politeness by avoiding a direct request from people with whom we lack of degree of familiarity. By this research as a result, communication across culture can be better achieved, or at least, potential personal friction and misunderstandings in intercultural communication can be minimised.

I will investigate the linguistic politeness (request patterns) through a series of Indonesian films; Ada Apa Dengan Cinta? (AADC mentioned further) and Berbagi Suami (BS mentioned further). The appropriate and relevant data will subsequently be collected and analysed using the tool of Brown and Levison’s linguistic politeness theory. Since the Brown and Levinson theory applied in this investigation, however, I also applied the Leech’s and Kulka’s theories in approaching politeness issues. Both Leech and Kulka’s theories are also concerned about the notion of request related to the politeness. Based on my observation as a social actor, I hypothesis that Brown and Levinson’s theory may be relevant to sociocultural context in Indonesia.


Politeness means having or showing good manners and respect for the feelings of others (Wehmeier 2000, p. 976). Brown and Levinson’s theory of linguistic politeness construes the formulation of an individual’s face as a public self-image. According to Brown and Levinson, people’s faces are human properties that are broadly comparable to self-esteem (Grundy 2008, p. 195). According to Kitamura (2000, p. 1), Brown and Levinson classified two notion of “face”: positive and negative face. Positive face indicates the similarities among interactants and appreciates the interlocutor’s self image.

On the other hand, negative face can be expressed by preserving personal’s right of freedom of action and freedom from imposition. Socially inappropriate behaviour is a potential threat to people’s faces as they may be risk being humiliated or embarrassed. Holmes (2006, p. 685) argues that we can never know what people are actually feeling or thinking in a conversational situation. Consequently, all people can do is to attempt to interpret what speakers or listeners wish to convey through verbal or non-verbal communication.

In order to avoid conflict and respect people’s freedom of thought, and thus maintain the harmonious relations with others, politeness strategies can be implemented in conversation. For example, people can soften a request by avoiding bare imperatives to maintain a positive or negative face in a conversational situation. Therefore, it is suggested that behaving appropriately, that is assuming to match the speakers and addressees’ need or wish, can preserve either positive or negative self-image of the speaker or the hearer. This is because, according to Bowe and Martin (2007, p. 28), face is something that can be lost, maintained or enhanced in which it can be monitored during the interaction.

According to Brown and Levinson (in Bowe and Martin 2009, p. 28), the seriousness of face-threatening that is caused by an inappropriate behaviour can be assessed. The factors that influence to that face-threatening involve three fundamental sociocultural variables: the social distance (D) between the participants, the power (P) that the addressee has over the speaker, and the ranking of the imposition (R) expressed in the utterance in the relevant culture (Holmes 2006, p. 687). Based on this standpoint, Brown and Levinson (1987, p. 74 cited in Bowe and Martin 2009, p. 28) firmly believe that through these variables, the seriousness of a face-threatening act (FTA) within the speaker and listener can be assessed or measured.

The so-called universality of Brown and Levinson’s theory does not go without being unchallenged. It has been the subject of much subsequent research and of some criticism. One of the reasons is that the Brown and Levinson’s theory is only based on three countries; English, Tamil, and Tzeltal (Bowe and Martin 2009, p. 27 and Holmes 2006, p. 689). Meanwhile, it is a fact that there are other cultures in the world, such Asian and Polynisian cultures, among many others. To account for language and cultural diversities for instance, Holmes (2006, p. 685) believes that different cultures have different ways of expressing considerations for others.

Based on the wide range of cultural diversity in the world, the notion of individual’s face as a public self-image proposed by Brown and Levinson reflects the culturally biased conceptual framework to evaluate the politeness more objectively and empirically (Mao 1993, p.452). Matsumoto (1989, in Mao 1993, p.452) argues that the interactional focusing on non-western countries, for example the Japanese’s concept of etiquette is oriented towards group agreement, not towards individualism. In another word, the notion of the rules of politeness is a collective knowledge that is shared by the members of society.

Much comment on the Brown and Levinson’s theory suggests numbers of alternative approaches to politeness. Some linguists such as Grice and Leech dedicated their research on the complexity of politeness issues. Grice proposed the conversational ‘maxim’ as normative rules of interaction: quantity, quality, relevance and manner. Maxim means a well-known phrase that expresses something that is usually true or that people think is a rule for sensible behaviour (Wehmeier 2000, p. 791). Leech, after elaborating Grice`s maxims, sets a politeness principle that offers the more general model than Grice’s maxims. Leech identifies the maxims of tact, generosity, approbation, modesty, agreement and sympathy (Bowe and Martin 2009, p. 33 & Holmes 2006, p. 690).

What makes Leech’s principle of politeness somewhat different from Grice and Brown and Levinson’ theories are that he more addressed the issue of “why people are often so indirect in conveying what they mean” (Holmes, 2006, p. 690). For example, my niece asked me if I like her new shoes – bright pink plastic sandals, decorated with glitter. Even though they were so ghastly, I would still reply, “They look really cool” rather than saying “I think they`re awful”.

Another theory, aside from Leech’s politeness principle that I used in this investigation, is Kulka’s framework. Kulka re-examined the notions of indirectness and politeness applied in request. Accordingly, the two notions, indirectness and politeness, do not represent parallel dimensions. Kulka (1987, p. 1) argues that indirectness does not necessarily imply politeness. Indirect pattern in request that is assumed to entail the degree of politeness seems to be associated with the former but not necessarily with the later. Kulka (1987, p. 1) firmly believes that the essential part of politeness is the need of pragmatic clarity and non-coerciveness.


In gathering the primary data, I used an ethnography approach. The term ethnography has become a synonym for qualitative research where the intent is to provide a detailed, in-depth description of everyday life (Gegeo 1988, p. 575). Raw data taken from Indonesian’s popular movies ‘Ada Apa Dengan Cinta?’ directed by Rudi Soedjarwo and ‘Berbagi Suami’ directed by Nia Di Nata. Films may address particular themes that may facilitate the use of specific sociocultural linguistic features. Those movies tend to capture the reality of social life taking place in Indonesia.

Many aspects covered in those films. Ada Apa Dengan Cinta? which broke the box office records in Indonesia in 2001, discloses the portrait of young generation attitudes toward love and friendship. In addition, ‘Berbagi Suami’ questions the morality of the polygamy practice. Religious belief that Salma (one of women characters) strongly clings to leads her to an inevitable polygamous fate. However, I will focus my research on the politeness strategies particularly request patterns that the characters use by implementing the Brown and Levinson’s politeness theory.

In collecting the data, I watched those films several times. I did it purposefully to ensure that I got relevant data. When those appeared, I paused the film and classified those data into three sociocultural categories influencing the politeness behaviour: social distance (D), power (P), and the ranking of imposition (R). Subsequently, the relevant data was analysed based on politeness theories of Brown and Levinson. Finally, from the evidence obtained, I attempted to conclude whether Brown and Levinson’s claim is relevant to Indonesian context or not.


This section presents and analysises the data of request patterns (direct or indirect messages) applied by characters in Ada Apa Dengan Cinta and Berbagi Suami. I will look at and find out on how sociocultural variables (social distance (D), power (P), and the rank of imposition (R)) can influence the use of request patterns in social activities. The language of the excerpt of conversation is Indonesian language which has been contextually translated into English.


A request is a directive act in which the goal of the request utterance is to bring about a future act of the hearer. The term ‘direct’ and ‘indirect’ request are assumed to be closely related to the politeness behaviour. It has been argued that the notion of indirect style employed in request, indicates the higher level of politeness. In other words, the more indirect of utterance, the saver of both speaker’s and hearer’s face. According to Brown & Levinson (1987 cited in Brasdefer 2005, p. 1), requests are intrinsically face threatening because they are intended to threaten the addressee’s negative face.

This investigation indicates how the film characters in AADC and BS employed the request strategies that are influenced by sociocultural factors; distance, power, and rank of the imposition. Indeed, each of these components contributes to the relative seriousness of the face-threatening face (Holmes 2006, p. 687). Thus, it is important to employ the appropriate strategies in communication.

Brown and Levinson believed that that request something indirectly can save both negative and positive face of the speaker and the hearer. However, the less values of D, P, and R can reduce the possibility of face-threatening between the speaker and the hearer. For example, Alya, one of the characters in AADC film, tends to use direct request style when she demands her closed friends to stir the conversation rather than talking about her father’s heartless behaviour which causes injured in her shoulder.

A : Jangan bahas itu terus. Ngomongin yang lain, please?! (Don’t keep talking about that. Let’s talk about something else, please?!)

This utterance indeed takes place in Cinta’s room where Alya and the other closed friends, Maura, Karmen, and Milly, are gathering. Based on their relationship, they tend to have small values in regards to the P, D, and R variables. The speaker and hearer know each other. Therefore, the speaker (Alya) performs a direct communication rather than indirect style to express the speaker’s intended message without being worried that her utterance will potentially impedes the addressee’s freedom of action.

Brown and Levinson acknowledged the degree of face-threatening. Therefore they suggest the redressive strategies to be employed when the utterance is perceived as face-threatening. Redressive strategies mean the strategies applied by the speaker to overcome any possible damage of form the face-threatening act by modifying their behaviour such as stirring the conversation to other topics (Bowe and Martin 2009, p. 31). This investigation demonstrates that Alyia performs her redressive action by saying:

A: Ngomongin yang lain, please?! (Let’s talk about something else, please?!)

Another politeness behaviour (request) also demonstrated by Salma (one character in BS film). This can be seen from the conversational event between Salma and her son, Nadin.

S : Jangan kelamaan ngambek. (Don’t be cranky too long.)
N : Aku gag ngambek. Cuma gag ngerti jalan pikiran Umi aja. (I am not sulky. I just don’t understand Umi’s (your) way of thinking.)

This conversational event takes place in the horse field that belongs to Salma after Salma’s talk show on the television. In relation to their relationship (parent-children), the speaker (Salma) as a parent tends to have P over the addressee. Indeed, the P variable is great while D and R variables are low. The direct request style applied by Salma as a parent whose has more power than addressee (son), is in contrary when that utterance (Jangan kelamaan ngambek. (Don’t be cranky too long.) is uttered by person that is socially lowered position. In term of relative power between the speaker and hearer, indirect style tends to be used where the speaker and the hearer are unequal in P (Brown and Levinson 1987, p. 80 cited in Bowe and Martin 2009, p. 29).

Meanwhile the presence of D and P variables between the speaker and hearer influence to the level of relative seriousness of face threatening. Therefore, the politeness strategies that are applied by the speaker will be different when s/he is communication with which the D, P, and R do not present. It can be seen from the example how Alya asking an Airport Security Guard to talk with to allow Cinta to access the airport boarding hall.

A : Pak, bisa bicara sebentar? (Sir, can we speak a moment, please?)
AS : Yes.

The conversation between Alya and an Airport Security Guard takes place in the main entrance of the airport when she, Cinta, and the rest of their closed friends chase Rangga who will fly to New York. Actually, Alya can apply bare imperative like ‘Sini Pak, saya ingin bicara. (Come here Sir, I want to talk with you’). However, because of the presence of D and P, Alya tends to request indirectly to save her positive face and negative face of the hearer.

Another example of indirect style employed is when Rangga, one of the stars in AADC film, asks Cinta to have a private conversation after unfortunate event happened at the second handbook store.

R : Bisa bicara sebentar?. (Can we speak for a second?)
C : Kita ngomong di sini. (We’ll talk here.)

In this case, it could not be found the relative P and D variables between the interactants. However, the R presents between the speaker and the hearer. Rangga feels guilty to inappropriately behave to Cinta when she asked to get home earlier to watch music concert held in their school. Because of his guilty feeling, he is therefore likely to select indirect pattern of asking this favour.

However, the sociocultural variables (D, P, and R) proposed by Brown and Levinson are not the only social elements that can measure or assess the degree of politeness. Leech and Kulka provide the alternative variables that, according to them, are related to the politeness strategies as well. Leech (1983, p. 80 cited in Holmes 2006, p. 690) suggested a politeness principle (PP). One of this PP is the agreement ‘maxim’. Meaning the speaker should minimise the disagreement between him/herself with addressee. Otherwise, s/he should maximise agreement between him/herself and addressee.

This idea can be seen from the example shown by Rangga in AADC film when he allowed or agreed with a mother’s (Ibu) request to get the taxi that has been hailed by him.

I : Nak, taksinya buat Ibu, bisa nggak Nak? Ibu udah kemaleman. Bisa Nak? (Dear, can I get this taxi, please? I’ve been running late. Can I, please?)

The agreement maxim is also exemplified in conversational event between Salma and Nadin at BS film. It happened when Salma asks Nadin to be absent to her school because Nadin is getting sick.

S : Hari ini gag usah sekolah dulu. (You don’t need to go to school today.)
N : Ya. Naik kuda tetap boleh kan? (Yes. But riding a horse is still Ok, isn’t it?)

Indeed, the agreement shown by Nadin, based on this perspective, also show the politeness.

Kulka, on the other hand, puts a greater importance of pragmatic clarity in communication. He (1987, p. 1) argues that indirectness does not necessarily mean to increase the degree of politeness used by the speaker and the hearer. This politeness framework can be seen from the example provided by Rangga, in AADC film.

R : Baca halaman terakhir! (Read the last page!)

Another example is taken from BS movie uttered by Nadin when he asked his father to bring his step sister closer.

N : Aba, sini Aba. Bawa adek dekat-dekat. (Aba, come here. Bring young little sister closer.)

Two examples above indicate how direct strategies imply the clarity of messages conveyed by the speaker. Kulka argues that indirectness is not always related to the concept of politeness because the essential part of politeness is the clarity of the message itself.

On the basis of my evaluation, I found that there are a certain number of similarities and differences between Brown and Levinson and Leech in term of the notion of indirectness. They all indicate that the more indirect strategies in communication perceived the higher degree of politeness. Leech’s perspective may be different from the Brown and Levinson because he addresses the issue of indirectness in his analytical framework as a measure of politeness. Meanwhile, the Brown and Levinson’s theory clearly denote the sociocultural variables (D, P, and R) that can measure the degree of politeness.

In contrary with Leech, Brown and Levinson, Kulka argues that the two notions, indirectness and politeness do not represent the parallel dimension. He (1987, p. 1) defines the politeness as the interactional balance achieved between the need for pragmatic clarity and the need for non-coerciveness. Accordingly, direct strategies can be perceived as impolite, if it is seen from the Leech and Brown and Levinson’s perspective, because they indicate lack of concern with face or lower the degree of optionality. Meanwhile, indirect strategies, in Kulka’s point of view, can be remarked as impolite because they point out a lack of concerns of pragmatic clarity.


From evidence above, we can conclude that the Brown and Levinson theory seems applicable in the Indonesian settings represented in AADC and BS movies. The findings indicate that the cultural variables (D, P, and R) proposed by Brown and Levinson can influence the request pattern applied by characters both in AADC and BS films. How the presence of social distance and power between Alya (one of the characters in AADC film) and the airport security guard contribute to the indirect strategies employed in their conversation.

On the other hand, the limitation of sociocultural variables proposed by Brown and Levinson seem inadequate to measure and assess the face-threatening or politeness itself. Therefore, I present the other politeness theories suggested by Leech and Kulka. Regarding Leech perspective, agreement maxim as one of variables in measuring the politeness also found in this investigation. The interaction between Rangga and Ibu (mother) in AADC film indicates how agreement to get taxi is made. In Leech’s point of view, maximising the agreement between the speaker and the hearer can also indicate the politeness.

Furthermore, Kulka’s standpoint that put a greater importance of pragmatic clarity in communication also discovered in those film. It can be seen from the evidence of conversational event between Nadin and his Aba (his father) presented in BS. Nadin directly asks his father to bring his step sister, Icha, to get closer to him. In Kulka’s perspective, transparency/clarity is important in conveying the message because this is the essential part of the politeness.

In this final section, I also want to apparently denote that this research is open-ended. I personally believed that further research related to this topic may be highly needed to find out the more comprehensive and the more significant contribution theoretically and practically. This is because the primary data taken from those films, AADC and BS are certainly inadequate to jump into conclusion whether Brown and Levinson theory is relevant or irrelevant in the Indonesian’s social settings. Indeed, a wide range of cultures in Indonesia may employ politeness strategies differently which less represented in those selected films; AADC and BS.



Bowe, H & Martin K 2007, Communication across cultures: mutual understanding in a global world, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne.

Brasdefer, JCF 2005, ‘Indirectness and politeness in mexican request’, Selected Proceeding of the 7th Hispanic Linguistics Symposium, viewed 31 May 2011, .

Gegeo, WAK 1988, ‘Ethnography in ESL: defining the essentials’, TESOL Quarterly, vol. 22, no. 4, p. 575, viewed 26 April 2011, .

Grundy, P 2008, Doing pracmatics, Hodder Education, London.

Holmes, J 2006, ‘Politeness strategies as linguistic variables’, Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics, p. 684.

Kitamura, N 2000, ‘Adapting Brown and Levinson’s ‘politeness’ theory to the analysis of casual conversation’, Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics, p. 1.

Kulka, SB 1987, ‘Indirectness and politeness in requests: same or different?’ScienceDirect, viewed 8 2011, .

Mao, LR 1994, ‘Beyond politeness theory: ‘face’ revisited and renewed’, ScienceDirect, viewed 15 June 2011, .

Wehmeier 2000, Oxford advanced learner’s dictionary, Oxford University Press, New York.


Ada Apa Dengan Cinta (What’s Up With Cinta)


Cinta = C
Rangga = R
Alya = A
Maura = M
Karmen = K
Milly = M
Cinta’s father = CF
Cintas’s mother = CM
Ibu = I
Airport’s security guard = AS

A : Jangan bahas itu terus. Ngomongin yang lain, please?! (Don’t keep talking about that. Let’s talk about something else, please?!)

A: Ngomongin yang lain, please?! (Let’s talk about something else, please?!)

A : Pak, bisa bicara sebentar? (Sir, can we speak a moment, please?)
AS : Yes.

R : Bisa bicara sebentar?. (Can we speak for a second?)
C : Kita ngomong di sini. (We’ll talk here.)

I : Nak, taksinya buat Ibu, bisa nggak Nak? Ibu udah kemaleman. Bisa Nak? (Dear, can I get this taxi, please? I’ve been running late. Can I, please?)

R : Baca halaman terakhir! (Read the last page!)

Berbagi Suami (Love for Share)


Salma : S
Nadin : N
Aba : A
Indri : I
Icha : Ic

S : Jangan kelamaan ngambek. (Don’t be cranky too long.)
N : Aku gag ngambek. Cuma gag ngerti jalan pikiran Umi aja. (I am not sulky. I just don’t understand Umi’s (your) way of thinking.)

S : Hari ini gag usah sekolah dulu. (You don’t need to go to school today.)
N : Ya. Naik kuda tetap boleh kan? (Yes. But riding a horse is still Ok, isn’t it?)

N : Aba, sini Aba. Bawa adek dekat-dekat. (Aba, come here. Bring young little sister closer.)

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About Halili

Indonesian student of Master of Language Studies at Flinders University, South Australia.
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