The verbal aspects of interpersonal relationships are regulated by a set of principles defining linguistic politeness:
Politeness refers to all aspects of the discourse, 1. which are governed by rules, 2. which intervene in the interpersonal relationship, 3. and which have the function of preserving an harmonious relationship (at worst: neutralizing potential conflicts and, at best, ensuring that each participant is as open to the other as possible). (Kerbrat-Orecchioni 1992, p. 159; 163)
Ordinary conversation is governed by the principle of preference for agreement. The interactionist theory of politeness (Brown and Levinson, 1978) defines the individual by his or her faces and territories. Polite intervention respects rules of positive politeness and rules of negative politeness, both towards oneself, and to- wards the interlocutor. In argumentative situations, this preference for agree- ment is transformed into a preference for disagreement (Bilmes 1991). Differences are maximized, which has consequences for all the components of the system of linguistic politeness. The case of the ad verecundiam argument is a typical illus- tration of this transformation, S. Modesty.
1. Politeness oriented towards the addressee
Negative politeness recommends the avoidance of face-threatening acts whilst positive politeness recommends that positive acts be enacted in relation to the territories and the face of the interlocutor (Kerbrat-Orecchioni 1992, p. 184).
The argumentative situation reverses these principles. The rules of positive politeness are not applied, whilst those of negative politeness are inverted. For example, the rule “avoid encroachments on the interlocutor’s private territo- ries” (id., p. 184) corresponds to a principle of non-aggression, “do not violate the territory of the other”. In an argumentative situation, there is necessarily a form of aggression and territorial conflict, with encroachments and counter- encroachments being made.
Another general rule of politeness recommends that parties “[refrain] from making disparaging remarks, too sharp criticisms, too radical refutations, too violent reproaches” (ibid.) – to their conversational partner; whereas, in a situation of argumentation, radical refutation is sought rather than avoided and negative challenging of the opponent is a standard strategy. Praise for the interloc- utor turns out to be an attack against the position he defends in the current interaction, S. Counter-argumentation.
The ban on personal attacks is a matter of politeness aimed at protecting the interlocutor, for aspects of his person that are not at stake in the debate.
2. Politeness oriented towards oneself
The principles of defense the speaker’s territory recommend that you “protect your territory as much as you can (resist over-invasive incursions, do not let yourself be dragged through the mud, do not allow your image to be unfairly degraded, respond to criticism, attacks and insults)” (ibid., p. 182-183). In argu- mentative situations, participants vigorously apply these protecting principles. In non-argumentative situations, the speaker territories must be protected, yet not unduly extended and praised, “our societies severely judge self-satisfaction and pro domo advocacy”, except in “exceptional circumstances” (ibid.). These exceptional circumstances are precisely those of argumentative situations, where speakers do not hesitate to praise their persons as well as their territories, that is, their point of views and arguments. The principles of moderation and self-valorization are thus put on hold. In non-argumentative interactions, “if you have to praise yourself, at least let it be in the attenuated mode of the un- derstatement” (id., 184); you can even “slightly damage your own territory, and practice light self-criticism” (id., 154). This principle requires that one be prepared to compromise and concede, all things that the arguing speaker can choose to do or not do, without being impolite.
The conclusion is that argumentative situations locally suspend the application of the rules of politeness in relation to the objects and persons involved in the discussion. This can even be seen as a fundamental characteristic, a defining criteria of such situations. The protagonists use a kind of “anti-system of politeness”, mirroring the system of politeness. Speaking of “a system of impo- liteness” however, would imply that all these interventions are felt to be impolite, which is not the case, notwithstanding the fact that, in such situations, the partners can engage in polemics about the “tone” of their interventions.
The redefinition of the system of politeness applies strictly to the aspects of the person, face and territories, which are engaged in the argumentative conflict. Outside these areas, politeness rules still apply. It is thus possible for an arguer to praise his or her personality and possessions and attack the standing or val- ues of those of his or her opponent in an argumentative interaction where his or her behavior will, independently, be polite or impolite.