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The dynamics of politeness: An experimental account

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What are the underlying mechanisms driving linguistic politeness? While opposing theoretical positions have argued for either strategic or socio-normative motivations for politeness, we propose to approach these as complementary components in an adaptive communicative process, in which individual strategic choices and collective requirements for social cohesion modulate each other. To substantiate these claims, we designed a laboratory experiment where pairs of human participants request objects from an ‘alien intelligence’ in an artificial laboratory language and compete for resources with simulated alien agents. Our findings suggest that both the functionality of politeness markers (i.e. the extent to which markers were associated with the probability of reward) and the relationships between agents (i.e. competitiveness between players) were predictive of participants' propensity to adapt to politeness markers in their linguistic environment and use them to win the game. While functionality was the stronger predictor of the two, the usage of politeness markers was found to increase in perfectly non-functional contexts, as long as participants were competing against each other. In addition, the experimental manipulations were found to affect participants' intuitions about the meaning of the alien politeness markers. We posit that this conceptual and experimental framework can inform fundamental discussions in politeness research.
Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of Pragmatics
Pages (from-to)118-130
Number of pages13
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2021

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