Society for Linguistic Anthropology
Oral Presentation Session
One avenue for exploring a concept such as "politeness" is to look at it relationally: to investigate contrasts and co-occurrences, and to situate usages in time and place. La Politesse, the essay by Henri Bergson that serves as stimulus for this panel, offers a set of contrasts among different possible senses of the term -- different possible definitions of "politeness" -- rather than with forms of impoliteness (although those are mentioned too). Which is "true" politeness, for him, and why? After a brief look at Bergson's three types, I consider his audience and his historical moment, then compare his types with discourse in some other times and places, such as: European royal courts and a rising bourgeoisie, rural communities in Senegal, an encounter in early 19th century America, 17th century Quakers, and youth movements in the 1960s. What these cases show is the importance of social positioning and differences in point of view, such that "politeness" is entangled in a clash of values. At issue are the relationships among conventions of manners, sincerity and truth, and the possibilities of critique and social change.