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Communication
Journal of Business and Technical

DOI: 10.1177/1050651903255401
2003; 17; 379 Journal of Business and Technical Communication

Priscilla S. Rogers and Song Mei Lee-Wong
Reporting

Reconceptualizing Politeness to Accommodate Dynamic Tensions in Subordinate-to-Superior

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10.1177/1050651903255401ARTICLEJBTC / October 2003 Rogers, Lee-Wong / RECONCEPTUALIZING POLITENESS

Reconceptualizing Politeness to
Accommodate Dynamic Tensions in
Subordinate-to-Superior Reporting

PRISCILLA S. ROGERS
University of Michigan
SONG MEI LEE-WONG
Nanyang Business School, Singapore

This research provides a framework identifying dynamic tensions that occur as subordi-
nates try to maintain a sufficient degree of politeness while reporting to superiors on
workplace tasks. Building on politeness theory, the framework suggests how conven-
tional politeness dimensions, such as deference, solidarity, and non-imposition are chal-
lenged by organizational obligations and workplace tasks requiring confidence, direc-
tion, and individuality. The framework evolved from a series of analyses of two samples:
one consisting of e-mail between international project teams and their domestically
located supervisors, the other of Asian and U.S. business undergraduates’ responses to
two workplace scenarios involving critiquing a superior’s work. Analyses revealed com-
peting communicative dimensions relevant to subordinate-to-superior interactions,
including dimensions that are underdeveloped in politeness literature. Examples from
these data suggest that managing a sufficient equilibrium between these dimensions
requires a substantial knowledge of rhetorical and linguistic alternatives.

Keywords: politeness; deference; tone; organization; subordinate reporting

A
representative of an international team wrote in an e-mail
to one of his supervisors, “To some extent, your feedback
contradicted feedback Sam gave us. Since Sam is working

379

Authors’ Note: This research was supported by the University of Michigan Business School
and Nanyang Business School, Singapore. We give special thanks to Nanyang’s Business Com-
munication Research Think Tank, October 2000-April 2001, a small group of teachers and
researchers whose investigation of assessment instruments for business education encouraged
this research; to Colin Clark, who assisted with the demographic data; to Nanyang’s head of
Strategy, Management, and Organization, Soon Ang, who put resources behind her conviction
that business communication research is crucial; and to Andy Lawlor who, as director of the
University of Michigan Business School’s international project teams, helped us obtain the
e-mail data for this study. We also greatly appreciate the thorough and positive editorial support
we received from Dorothy Winsor, Lori Peterson, and the two anonymous JBTC reviewers and
from Andrea Perry, Elizabeth Girsch, Pam Russell, and Cindy Wilson.

Journal of Business and Technical Communication, Vol. 17 No. 4 October 2003 379-412
DOI: 10.1177/1050651903255401
© 2003 Sage Publications

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Page 17

mendations with some measure of self-confidence? To be effective,
they argued, you need to find equilibrium between such competing
values in a way that is suited to the goals of the presentation and is
appropriate for the presentation situation.

The competing values operating in our data appeared to involve
relational needs on one hand and organizational obligations on the
other. The conventional politeness dimensions we had identified
addressed relational needs (as might be expected given the emphasis
on interpersonal communication in the politeness literature) but not
organizational obligations. Therefore, to identify the operative com-
peting values, we reviewed all the examples we had associated with
each of the conventional dimensions using the same process of indi-
vidual review and follow-up discussion. Eventually, we agreed on
three opposing dimensions, or competing values: Deference was chal-
lenged by the need to display ���������� in reporting, non-imposition
was opposed by the need for personal ��������� or expertise, and soli-
darity was tempered by the expectation of ������������ . Reviewing
the examples also helped us to define these new categories and refine
our preliminary definitions of the three conventional dimensions—in
other words, to draft the framework.

After drafting the framework, we checked it against the data, revis-
ing the definitions of the dimensions and considering possible new
examples for each. To do so, we each reviewed again all the data we
had used for prior analyses. In addition, we pulled a new sample of 51
scenario responses (25 U.S., 26 Asian). Nearly one half of this new
sample had scored highest (12 U.S., 13 Asian) and one half had scored
lowest (13 U.S., 13 Asian) on overall effectiveness in the original holis-
tic assessment. In pulling this sample, we assumed that the ability to
communicate politeness might correlate with the ability to communi-
cate overall, particularly because audience analysis was an important
criterion for the original holistic scoring. Our intent was not to test this
assumption but rather to build a conceptual framework. Thus, we
reviewed this new set of scenario responses receiving the highest and
lowest scores to determine whether the framework was addressing
issues of critical importance to these diverse groups. Furthermore, if
responses scoring low on overall effectiveness demonstrated diffi-
culty negotiating the dimensions in the framework, then perhaps the
framework could become the basis for developing an analytic tool for
empirical research involving statistical correlations between holistic
scores on overall effectiveness and analytic politeness scores. The
same might be true for responses with high scores. Overall, by

394 JBTC / October 2003

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Page 18

reviewing all our data plus this new sample, we were able to reexam-
ine the broad relevance of the framework, consider its research poten-
tial, and harvest some new examples. We also revised our definitions
again as a result of this review. In discussions following this review,
faculty agreed that the framework would be useful for training soon-
to-be new hires and that it had research potential.

Finally, the conceptual framework, which evolved through the
analyses summarized here, is neither the creation of an armchair theo-
rist nor the result of a highly systematic study involving statistical
rigor. Rather, the framework evolved as researchers with knowledge
of the literature examined subordinate reports (both solicited in an
academic setting as part of a program to provide student feedback
and acquired from real workplace projects) written by individuals for
whom subordinate reporting is consequential. Through a collabora-
tive process involving readings, rereadings, analyses, debates, and
characterizations of these data, the framework emerged. Thus, the
process was evolutionary, reflecting more than a year of our interac-
tions with each other and with faculty who expressed the need for
such a study.

������$�������(�
��+
������,��&�$�����������$#

Our proposed framework, shown in Figure 1, presents six com-
municative dimensions for subordinate reporting: deference, non-
imposition, and solidarity, on one side; confidence, direction, and
individuality, on the other. Dimensions on the left half of the frame-
work (deference, non-imposition, and solidarity) serve relational
needs; dimensions on the right (confidence, direction, and individu-
ality) serve organizational obligations. Figure 2 contains descriptions
of these six competing dimensions. Dimensions on the left, as empha-
sized in politeness literature, represent discourse strategies that com-
municators may use to protect the receiver’s face, or self-image, by
deferring to the receiver’s status and role. Meanwhile, dimensions on
the right represent qualities that communicators may display in order
to demonstrate they have the experience, expertise, or capabilities
that an organization requires. The juxtaposition of these dimensions
in the framework illustrates tensions that an individual may need to
negotiate in order to produce polite discourse that fulfills both rela-
tional needs and organizational obligations.

Rogers, Lee-Wong / RECONCEPTUALIZING POLITENESS 395

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