“You cannot possibly be that arrogant!” – Impoliteness in The Big Bang Theory
— A linguistics workshop at the Gymnasium zum Altenforst in Troisdorf.
At the end of May 2017, we did a workshop on the topic of impoliteness and how to find it in the TV series “The Big Bang Theory”. We, that is Pawel Sickinger, research assistant in our department “Bonn Applied English Linguistics” (BAEL), and me, student of the Masters program “Applied Linguistics” and student assistant in the same department. The workshop we moderated was part of a linguistics project course organised by teacher Dr. Marja Meinl in a cooperation between the University of Bonn and the Gymnasium zum Altenforst in Troisdorf.
But before we could actually start talking about impoliteness, we introduced something that provided the basis for impoliteness research: politeness research!
As always in linguistics, there is not only one theory that is set in stone and accepted by all researchers. One of the most relevant theories in politeness research, though, is the politeness theory developed by Brown & Levinson. It is built on the concept of ‘face’. But, what is ‘face’ in this linguistic sense?
Brown & Levinson (1987: 61) say that “all competent adult members of a society have (and know each other to have) (…) ‘face’, the public self-image that every member wants to claim for himself”. In easy words: Face is our self-image that we want to show the world.
There are two different faces that Brown & Levinson differentiate: positive face and negative face. Positive face is a person’s desire to be liked by others and to be integrated into the social community. After all, you would like to be invited to get ice cream with your friends, and not be the only one who’s NOT invited, right? In contrast, negative face refers to the desire of a person to act autonomously, without anyone else disturbing them or telling them what to do. For example, I’m sure you’d sometimes rather be alone in your room watching Netflix than help your mom do the chores. Although the terms ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ might be confusing, you can see that the distinction has nothing to do with ‘good’ or ’bad’.
Based on this notion of face, Brown and Levinson identified five major politeness strategies. I will not go into detail here, because what we are really interested in (if you remember), is IMpoliteness. The linguist Jonathan Culpeper was one of the first researchers who studied impolite (linguistic) behaviour. He based his impoliteness strategies on the politeness strategies proposed by Brown and Levinson. Down here, you can find a short overview which summarizes these strategies:
So much for the theory. But of course, we didn’t just do the workshop to lecture the pupils on dry linguistic theories; we also had a fun task for them to do. Have a look at this video of a scene from the popular TV show “The Big Bang Theory”. Start at minute 1:20. You can even find the script of the episode here. In this scene you can see the two main characters, Leonard and Sheldon, fighting about a presentation that Leonard gave on the topic of a scientific paper that they both wrote together.
This gave us and the pupils plenty of material to analyse. To help the pupils with their first impoliteness research project (and give them an idea of what a linguist might actually look at when analysing impoliteness), we introduced some “impoliteness output strategies”. These are specific strategies of impolite verbal behavior to look for in a conversation. The strategies were also proposed by the same linguist we already know, Culpeper. He specified each of them to belong to one of the two categories: positive or negative impoliteness.
This is a list of only some of the output strategies described in Culpeper (1996), with examples from the scene from “The Big Bang Theory”, but of course there are many more:
So, if you want to do your own analysis of this scene, you might want to use this short list as a start. But, of course, don’t limit yourself to it – there are so many more impolite patterns of behaviour, and you will also find some in the scene from “The Big Bang Theory” that are not on this list. If you try it out, make sure you use the transcript of the scene for which I gave you the link earlier. It will make it easier for you to focus on every aspect of impoliteness you can find.
Another idea for analysis: In the end, Leonard and Sheldon start fighting physically. Sheldon first tries to explode Leonard’s brain through mind control, then Leonard starts hitting Sheldon to make him stop. Why does this happen? What is the (linguistic) breaking point that leads to this violence? These are some of the questions that we also asked the pupils in the workshop. And if they can find that out, I’m sure that you can too!
Brown, P. and Levinson, S. C. (1987). Politeness: Some Universals in Language Usage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Culpeper, J. (1996). Towards an anatomy of impoliteness. In: Journal of Pragmatics 25 (3), 349-367.
Featured Image: “Wütend, Verärgert, Schmollen” by komposita (Pixabay CC0). All other images by the author.
Hanna (Yurana) Bruns did her Bachelor in English Studies in Dresden before moving to Bonn to do her Master in “Applied Linguistics”. She is currently in her 2nd semester and also works as a student assistant in the department of “Bonn Applied English Linguistics”.