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classical Latin polītus, past participle of polīre to smooth, to polish, also as adjective in figurative senses (of people, their manners, or their appearance, or of writings or activities) polished, elegant, accomplished, refined, cultivated, courteous


b : marked by refined cultural interests and pursuits especially in arts and belles lettres
  • 2a : showing or characterized by correct social usage
b : marked by an appearance of consideration, tact, deference, or courtesy
c : marked by a lack of roughness or crudities <polite literature>


Politeness is best expressed as the practical application of good manners or etiquette. It is a culturally-defined phenomenon, and therefore what is considered polite in one culture can sometimes be quite rude or simply eccentric in another cultural context.

While the goal of politeness is to make all of the parties relaxed and comfortable with one another, these culturally-defined standards at times may be manipulated to inflict shame on a designated party.

The British social anthropologists Penelope Brown and Stephen Levinson identified two kinds of politeness, deriving from Erving Goffman's concept of face:

  • Negative politeness: Making a request less infringing, such as "If you don't mind..." or "If it isn't too much trouble..."; respects a person's right to act freely. In other words, deference. There is a greater use of indirect speech acts.
  • Positive politeness: Seeks to establish a positive relationship between parties; respects a person's need to be liked and understood. Direct speech acts, swearing and flouting Grice's maxims can be considered aspects of positive politeness because:
1) they show an awareness that the relationship is strong enough to cope with what would normally be considered impolite (in the popular understanding of the term);
2) they articulate an awareness of the other person's values, which fulfills the person's desire to be accepted.

Some cultures seem to prefer one of these kinds of politeness over the other. In this way politeness is culturally-bound.[1]