Positive and Negative Politeness in Russian Business Communication

Igor Pustovoit, State University of New York, Stony Brook

Last year at the AATSEEL Conference in Toronto it was suggested that Business Russian can be viewed as an extension of Russian Formal Style. Formal situations are an essential part of everyday communication. Thus, it is no exaggeration to say that the study of Russian should be conducted along the parameters of formal vs.informal style before turning to Language for Specific Purposes. Gradual development of stylistic proficiency can be achieved as the students move from everyday formal situations to communication on the professional level. Descriptions of linguistic markers of formality, such as lexical devices, passivization, nominalization, and syntactic restrictions have received a fair ammount of attention from scholars, and in this paper I concentrate on the sociological parameters of formality, and more specifically, on politeness strategies (Brown, Levinson 1987).

A formal situation can be described in terms of power and authority, whenever a speaker communicates with a person of different social standing. However, politeness strategies are used to maintain a social face (Goffman 1967) of the interactant despite the social standing of the counterpart. I show, how politeness strategies go far beyond the use of polite forms and how they constitute an essential part of socio-cultural proficiency. Positive politeness relates to the maintaining of a positive image of the interactant while negative politeness serves as a distancing device. Each employs specific strategies, which are claimed to be universals of language use (Brown, Lewinson 1987).

Thus this paper describes the cultural importance of specific politeness strategies in Russian Business Communication. I discuss the claim of their universality, and present the results of a survey of both Americans and Russians with experience in the business sphere. In conclusion I provide some practical suggestions for the classroom.