Polar Politeness

If you have a minute, would you mind reading this article?

Still reading? You've been taken in by negative politeness, a communication style that can effectively get your boss's attention.

Negative politeness is often used to make a request seem less infringing, says David A. Morand, Ph.D., a Pennsylvania State University associate management professor. It can include apologetic language ("Sorry to bother you, but…"), verbal hedges ("I wonder if you could...") and honorific terms like "Dr." Morand's research, published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior, shows that negative politeness is often preferable to positive politeness, which usually begins with a personal question or compliment and assumes that subordinate and boss share common interests, are part of the same team and can operate on familiar terms. This approach can appear pushy or presumptuous, and "in the workplace, it's important to show deference and regard for territory," Morand says.

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While any type of excessive politeness can imply subservience and cause ambiguity, Morand warns, in general, negative politeness verbally disarms a superior. "The communicator isn't just being obsequious," he explains. "It shows that he knows their time is important."

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