Rethinking politeness: Using silence and laughter to create common ground

31 May 2024
Room F1

Rethinking politeness: Using silence and laughter to create common ground

Misunderstanding is unavoidable in communication due to interlocutors’ restricted access to similarities, conventions, standards, and norms. Naturally, interlocutors would change pathways to prevent the predicted misunderstanding and establish successful communication (Kecskes and Zhang, 2009). Thus, the interpretation of polite remarks to save face is dependent not only on the semantic content of the speech, but also on the surrounding non-verbal cues—vocal, kinesic, and facial—that situate the utterance (Ambady et al., 1996). We investigate the possible variation of the use of paralinguistic features such as silence and laughter by Nigerian students in southeast Nigeria and southern Italy, and set out to answer questions bordering on how select Nigerian students in southeast Nigeria and southern Italy negotiate common ground during interaction; the profound ways they use silence and laughter; the pragmatic function(s) silence and laughter perform in their speech and the implication for conflict avoidance (Lakoff, 1973). Adopting content analysis research design to determine the presence of silence and laughter in the transcripts of recorded naturally occurring talk-in-interaction and informal semi-structured interviews, and considering social variables such as age and gender, and sociopragmatic variables such as power and social distance, the data are drawn from four spontaneous informal interactions each of four groups of 75 Nigerian students in southeast Nigeria and southern Italy. The analysis is framed by politeness theory and conversation analysis. The study reveals that silence and other seek agreement strategies such as membership categorisation unanimously function to create new and sustain existing common ground, and demonstrate opinion-reticence. Equally, both intra-turn and inter-turn pauses introduce pseudo-agreement responses to avoid disagreement.



Ambady, N., Koo, J., Lee, F., & Rosenthal, R. (1996). More than words: Linguistic          and nonlinguistic politeness in two cultures. Journal of Personality and Social            Psychology,70(5), 996–1011.

Kecskes, I. & Zhang, F. (2009). Activating, seeking, and creating common ground: A      socio-  cognitive approach. Pragmatics and Cognition, 172(2):331-355. Doi: 10.1075/p&c.17.2.06kec

Lakoff, R.T. (1973): The logic of politeness: Minding your P’s and Q’s. Pap. from            Reg. Meet. Chicago Linguist. Soc. 9, 292–305.