Research Round-Up: Positive and Negative Politeness

By April 20, 2017R is for Research

Writers and tutors alike know that face-to-face appointments are sometimes saddled with awkwardness. How do you get to know someone in just half an hour? What do you say to make sure conversation doesn’t stagnate or feel weird?

In repeating appointments, that problem somehow seems to melt away over time. Conversation becomes natural and friendly, and each appointment feels more like a collaboration than a tutor-writer lecture. It’s clear that writers and tutors build rapport as they become acquainted with one another, but what exactly makes the process of rapport-building happen?

Student researchers at the University of Alabama at Huntsville decided to study interactions between their tutors and appointments. The purpose of this study was to talk about “positive politeness” and “negative politeness” and how the former helps tutors create connections with their recurring appointments. To do so, they studied two recurring tutorial relationships over six weeks, recording sessions to understand conversation patterns and the linguistic strategies employed by each party.


About the Article

At this point, you may be wondering what the researchers are referring to by the phrase “politeness strategies.” The authors define two prongs of the term: “negative” politeness and “positive” politeness strategies. Negative politeness relates to actions that take place within the context of “nondirective tutoring,” such as hedging or apologizing. Positive politeness is related to more “directive tutoring,” such as exaggerating interest and using terms of inclusivity (e.g. “we”).

The terms “negative” and “positive” seem to imply absence and presence in the sense that there is an absence of directive tutoring techniques in negative politeness, whereas it is present in positive politeness. However, the authors still seem to unconsciously postulate the two techniques using the traditional semantics of positive and negative in the way they portray negative politeness as the “bad” type of politeness. Though these are things we do at the writing center, the reason behind it, which we’ve chosen to call “building rapport,” feels more genuine. If you’re not genuinely interested in something, why exaggerate that?


So what?

Each of the techniques has its strengths when it comes to tackling an appointment; rather, it’s about what the writer needs and the intended outcome of said appointment.

Negative politeness seems to be the most ideal in helping the writer develop their own ideas because it places emphasis on shifting autonomy to the writer during the appointment rather than the tutor. It also may help tutors develop their own nondirective tutoring skills. For instance, if a writer seems to be at a loss for words or struggling to verbalize what they mean, a tutor could ask a few broad, open-ended questions that push the writer to synthesize their thoughts.

As for positive politeness, seemingly self-explanatory with some of the techniques mentioned, it has surprising applications to various appointment types. It goes beyond helping with technical issues, but may also help build a bridge between writer and tutor paved by empathy. For instance, positive politeness can be utilized to de-escalate a relatively stressful or touchy situation with a flustered writer through leveling with the writer and letting them know that we’ve all been there at one point.

How does this relate to the UCWbL?

The research done on both positive and negative politeness was quite reflective of some of the things we do here at the UCWbL. Whether or not we actively recognize the use of these strategies, as tutors we are constantly shifting our strategies to best assist the writer. If a writer is panicking over a deadline, we might use positive politeness by complementing the writer on their work (or something unrelated) to diffuse the situation. If a writer has ideas but is unsure how to organize and communicate them, we might opt for negative politeness to ask questions that help the writer arrive at their own conclusions.

In preparing to become tutors at the UCWbL, we all read articles that focus on the uses of directive and nondirective tutoring. This study of negative and positive politeness offers another perspective on tutoring strategies that is quite similar. Just as many tutors identify the need to maintain a balance between directive and nondirective tutoring, one of the largest takeaways from this paper was finding a balance between the two, which is integral to our own tenants. Since we do strive to maintain a friendly and collaborative environment, our approaches to tutoring do rely on finding that balance of both being open to writers and still maintaining a level of directiveness in order to guide the writer without taking full control over the finished product.

The UCWbL is a friendly place that emphasizes collaboration. This can further be achieved by practicing a balance of strategies. By learning about these different terms and applying our knowledge of them, we can strive to be tutors that are flexible in order to encourage and support writers.


Future steps

In the article’s study, researchers monitored rapport as it developed between pairs of writers and tutors in weekly appointments over a semester. They found that over time, tutors tended to rely less on negative politeness, and slowly shift toward using more positive politeness.  

This creates some complications in developing applicable conclusions for us. Because of the size and scope of the UCWbL, it can often be difficult to meet multiple times with one writer, let alone weekly for an entire quarter. That leaves us with the question: How can we apply these techniques and achieve an effective balance when we might be working with a one-time-only 30-minute appointment?

The first step we can take is to try to be informed. Simply reading about these different ideas and strategies can help us gain more ideas and insights into our own tutoring practices. We can recognize when we use positive and negative politeness in our existing appointments, and identify if we need to attempt to achieve a greater balance.

When the Research Team met to discuss this article, one of the main topics discussed was the actual research conducted and how the topic could be pursued further. We proposed potential additional follow-up studies and determined it would be useful to interview Writing Fellows about their strategies with repeating writers over time. It would also be interesting to conduct a study which followed tutors who were trained in either positive or negative politeness or received neither type of training. From such a study, it could be determined just how useful it is to be aware of these strategies, rather than just working with them instinctually.



For experienced tutors, this article might be more relatable than groundbreaking in any sense. The conclusions drawn by the researchers seem to fall in line with most discussion on the subject. However, it does seem like it could be useful material to newer tutors for several reasons. First, it gives future tutors a sense of what to expect in their sessions. It highlights the power dynamics and potential difficulties in navigating between the roles of ‘peer’ and ‘tutor’. It further provides strategies for building rapport and emphasizes the need to encourage writers to—borrowing the article’s terminology—‘save face’  

However, we should note that this article might be misleading on some levels. The labels “positive” and “negative” politeness seem to imply one is better than the other. The Research Team proposed that, if this were taught and shared with tutors, the terms should be adjusted to reflect that both are useful strategies in specific situations.

Overall, this study introduces some interesting ideas about politeness theory. While they may not exactly follow our own practices and theories, these strategies add new layers to what we do that are useful to consider.  They emphasize building strong and helpful rapport, which is something that we are already striving for here at the UCWbL.

After reading the article, how do you think that the UCWbL can work to build better rapport with writers through politeness, even in shorter one-time sessions?  Do you employ any of the techniques discussed during your appointments?