Impoliteness in Media Discourse

by Anna Bączkowska (Volume editor)
©2017 Edited Collection 258 Pages
Series: Interfaces, Volume 5


The book presents the issue of impoliteness in media discourse found in television debates, films and computer-mediated communication. The phenomenon is viewed from different theoretical perspectives, namely prosody studies, corpus linguistics, media studies and audiovisual translation, neo-Gricean approaches, reception-oriented investigations and context-bound interpretations. Authors from ten different countries – Sweden, USA, Norway, New Zealand, Mexico, Georgia, France, Poland, India, and UAE – analyse data from nine languages – English, Swedish, Georgian, Polish, Arabic, Persian, French, Croatian and Montenegrin.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the Editor
  • About the Book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Impolite prosody in Swedish and the importance of context (Åsa Abelin)
  • ‘If you can’t share the road, then find yourself some other planet’: Impoliteness in a corpus of newspaper blog comments (Daniel Ginsberg)
  • Realizations and functions of impoliteness in discourse about language and identity in Croatian and Montenegrin media (Ljiljana Šarić / Tatjana Radanović Felberg)
  • Rude Language in Personal Apologies for a Political Event (Elizabeth Riddle / Mai Kuha)
  • ‘That was a bit daft though, wasn’t it?’ Strategic use of impoliteness in a post-match media interview (Kieran A. File)
  • Face Attacks, offence and plastic Brits: intentional British media impoliteness (Gerrard Mugford)
  • Face-attack in Georgian political discourse. Using examples from TV debates between female politicians during the pre-election campaign for the Parliamentary elections of 2012 (Manana Rusieshvili-Cartledge)
  • Impoliteness in the ‘casse-toi pauv’ con’ incident: a discursive case-study (Célia Schneebeli)
  • Impoliteness in the media and its reception (Iwona Benenowska)
  • Spread of impoliteness through media in the society Case in Iranian serial Qahveye Talkh (Bitter Coffee) (Marzieh Bashirpour / S. Imtiaz Hasnain)
  • Translation of Taboo Expressions in Arabic Subtitling (Sattar Izwaini)
  • Series index

Åsa Abelin

Impolite prosody in Swedish and the importance of context


This article discusses whether there can be such a thing as context-independent impolite prosody, and presents a possible method for studying prosody and impoliteness in natural speech. The corpus of written Swedish, KORP, was excerpted for the words ‘oartig’ (‘impolite’) and ‘oartighet’ (‘impoliteness’), and these excerpts were analysed to determine which communicative actions are generally associated with impoliteness among Swedish speakers. According to the corpus, one of the more impolite communicative actions is interrupting someone and preventing them from finishing their sentence. Incidents of explicit verbal expression of interruptions, which could be considered impolite expressions, were extracted from the Swedish television talk show Debatt, and the contexts of these interruptions were analysed auditorily to find prosodic cues to perceived impoliteness. It is suggested that a method for studying impolite prosody could consist of excerption of crucial passages in the debates for acoustic analysis of prosodic traits. Corpus studies should be used to identify the crucial passages.

Keywords: prosody, Swedish, television debates

1.     Background

The role of prosody in impoliteness has not yet been studied to any great extent (Culpeper 2012). The question is whether there is such a thing as impolite prosody per se, or whether the experience of impoliteness depends on the interactional context. I will begin with a Swedish example of prosody, or sound, which might be considered impolite in the wrong context. In some parts of Sweden, it is common to say ‘ja’ or ‘jo’ (‘yes’) on inhalation. However, it is not a complete synonym to ‘ja’ on exhalation in all contexts. If someone asks you if you love them, you should not answer ‘ja’ on inhalation. Analyses of ‘ja’ on inhalation (Eklund 2008) have shown that it indicates indifference. In other words, in Swedish the specific voice trait of ‘ja’ on inhalation is impolite in certain situations, but not in others. ← 13 | 14 →

The purpose of this article is to examine impolite prosody in a Swedish television talk show that is generally considered to contain a large amount of impoliteness. This talk show includes a discussion on a specific subject for approximately 15 minutes, in which debaters of opposite opinions confront each other. The host of the program often interrupts the participants, and the participants express their opinions strongly. By Swedish standards, the atmosphere of this discussion is rather impolite, but it is normal for the program and is accepted by the participants. The question of impoliteness thus comes up when participants express opinions concerning the impoliteness of other debating participants. The study is based on excerpts from concordances in a corpus of written Swedish, KORP. An additional aim of the study is to present a possible method for studying prosody and impoliteness in natural speech.

The first question to consider is this: what is the relation between expressed impoliteness and words, interactional context, grammar, and prosody? Is there such a thing as impolite prosody per se? Do negative words or expressions become more impolite with certain prosody? According to Culpeper (2012), interpretation of so-called impolite prosody could even depend on whether the prosody is matched or mismatched with the syntax.

Impoliteness is often strongly connected with turn taking; one way of being impolite is to interrupt someone or to extend one’s own turn (Culpeper 2003). Interrupting someone, for example by starting to talk with one’s voice raised, is impolite. Extending one’s turn and refusing to let someone else into the conversation, for example by speaking fast, not pausing, not having final pitch falls, and not lowering one’s voice level, is also considered impolite. One can also invade another person’s auditory space (Culpeper 2003) by raising one’s voice, which involves a rise in both loudness and pitch.

The second question is: given that there could be an impolite prosody per se, how is this related to the prosody which expresses emotions? Impolite prosody could be connected with the expression of negative emotions, such as slow speech (typical of disgust), low pitch (typical of aggression or dominance), or monotonous pitch (typical of disinterest). On the other hand, happy prosody (e.g. with large pitch variation) could be considered impolite in the wrong context. For an overview of emotional prosody, see for example Scherer (2003).

Abelin (2010) showed that different emotions were prevalent in different discursive contexts; for example, negotiations between salesmen and clients in a travel agency showed predominantly happy emotional expressions. It was also shown that emotions are generally expressed by prosody and not by words. It is ← 14 | 15 → expected that impolite prosody in a certain context (e.g. travel agencies) will be judged more seriously than in an informal conversation. The expression of disgust, anger, or even irritation would be considered impolite in a business negotiation. Negative emotional prosody, such as prosody for anger, boredom, or disgust, could be crucial in the expression of impoliteness.

Emotions and emotional prosody can be seen both as having a physiological basis or, at the other end of the scale, as a social construction. Emotional prosody has the traits of non-arbitrariness and indexicality, and it is related to the frequency code (Ohala 1994). Ohala has shown that the expression of emotions and attitudes such as dominance and submissiveness is common to animals and humans, and can thus be considered universal. Dominance is expressed by low, falling pitch and strong intensity, while submission is expressed by high, rising pitch and weak intensity. However, it is hardly possible that there is a completely universally impolite prosody, since there are culture-specific conceptions of what politeness is and cross-linguistic differences in how emotional prosody is expressed and interpreted.

Normally, there is accommodation between voices in factors such as pitch and loudness (e.g. Couper-Kuhlen 1996), and a speaker who fails to ensure this is denying common ground and signalling non-compliant behaviour. The alignment is not, however, exact in terms of pitch-matching, which could be interpreted as mimicry and experienced as negative. Culpeper (2008) poses the question of whether certain utterances would have been understood as impolite without the prosody. Could just a few verbal cues be enough in a context where impoliteness is expected? Culpeper (2008) states that it is highly likely that potential instances of impoliteness would be more ambiguous without prosody, and that some would be missed.

Of particular methodological interest for the present type of study is the work of Couper-Kuhlen (2009), who systematically examined the prosody of the specific response particle (interjection) oh in a specific sequential location and who showed how emotional displays are consequential for interaction. She studied displays of disappointment through the expression oh following a rejection of a request or proposal. She analysed the acoustic-perceptual characteristics of these ohs (described as the gestalt ‘subdued’) and also showed, through CA (Conversational Analysis) transcripts, waveforms and pitch traces, how the co-participants in these interactions interpreted the ohs as expressing disappointment. She has also discussed how these oh responses expressing ← 15 | 16 → disappointment are more difficult to interpret out of context; they are interpreted as, for example, sympathy instead of disappointment.

Couper-Kuhlen (2009) argues that participants in a conversation interpret emotional displays according to the restricted set of emotions that are possible in a particular location. For example, a rejection of a request could be followed by either a display of disappointment, or by a display of surprise. These displays can then be distinguished from each other with the help of prosodic cues. Ruusuvuori (2013) points out that further studies should start focusing on a sequence of actions (such as the rejection of an offer) rather than on a particular emotion. The same method could generally be valid for studying attitudes like impoliteness.

Despite the many factors influencing the interpretation of impoliteness, studies have shown the possibility that polite/impolite prosody may exist as entities in themselves. Brown and Levinson (1987) and Loveday (1981) claim that polite utterances tend to be produced with a relatively high or rising voice pitch, whereas utterances spoken with a low or falling pitch contour are perceived as less polite (this can be compared with typical pitch curves for submission/dominance/etc. and the frequency code; see Ohala 1994). Decreased loudness may also signal greater politeness by reducing the imposition of the verbal message on the listeners’ auditory space (Culpeper, Bousfield and Wichmann 2003).

Ofuka et al. (2000) performed acoustic analyses of intonation and temporal aspects of polite and casual utterances of two question sentences, one with a more polite and one with a less polite formulation, in Japanese. The results showed that the way in which the final intonation of a sentence was spoken had a great effect on politeness judgments. In some cases, the duration and F0 movement of the final vowel changed the overall impression of the politeness of the utterance in such a way that fast speech would be more impolite than slow speech, and final fall would be less polite than final rise. (The formulation of the sentence in a more or less polite way had less effect than the final rise/fall). The speech rates of the listeners also affected their utterance rate preference; listeners preferred speech rates close to their own. The authors concluded that listener characteristics should be considered important in politeness speech research. Finally, the authors speculated that a sex difference revealed in their results could reflect social expectations that women should be more polite than men. ← 16 | 17 →

Nadeu and Prieto (2011) explored the contribution of pitch range to the expression of politeness in information-seeking yes/no questions in Catalan. The results from their first experiment showed that an increase of the pitch range at the end of two target intonation contours (rising or falling) gave a decrease in perceived politeness, whereas decreasing the pitch range had no effect. A second perception experiment showed that adding contextual (gestural) information reversed the tendency. The authors suggested that their results point to a complex interaction between prosodic cues and contextual information, especially facial gestures, and that there is nothing intrinsically polite about using an increased pitch range, unless it is accompanied by consistent contextual information. They concluded that, when assessing the degree of perceived politeness of an utterance, important factors include different prosodic aspects together with contextual and gestural information.

Monetta, Cheang, and Pell (2008) investigated how adults with Parkinson’s disease (PD) understand polite/impolite attitude from prosody. Nonsense utterances with attitudinal prosody were graded by PD patients and healthy controls. In one task, level of politeness was rated, and in another task, level of speaker confidence was rated. The results showed that the PD patients could accurately judge the level of polite/impolite attitude of the speaker from prosody alone, but they were less able than healthy controls to differentiate confidence/doubtfulness from prosody alone.

The present study explores this area of the Swedish language in the linguistic context of television debates. Acoustic studies will be performed as follow-ups.

2.     Method

In order to obtain information about the general opinions among Swedish speakers on what impolite behaviour consists of, the Swedish written language corpus KORP (http://spraakbanken.gu.se/korp/) was searched for the words ‘oartig’ (‘impolite’) and ‘oartighet’ (‘impoliteness’). At the time of the search, KORP contained 1 207 2 92 words from 102 sub-corpora, based on sources such as novels, newspaper articles, and internet blogs. A total of 842 sentences were extracted containing tokens of the word ‘oartig’ and 94 sentences were extracted containing tokens of the word ‘oartighet’. These were analysed to reveal whether the words referred to prosody (and in what way), to emotions, to non-verbal communication, to words (language), or to linguistic interaction. ← 17 | 18 →

After the corpus analysis, a number of episodes of the television talk show Debatt from the spring of 2013 were studied with regard to expressions of impoliteness. This talk show was chosen because it is considered to carry quite a large amount of ‘impoliteness’ as expressed by many native speakers of Swedish. Based on the literature review and the results of the corpus study (presented below) the most frequent types of expressions were searched for and studied in the debates. Crucial sequences of action for starting the analysis were explicit verbal expressions of reactions to perceived impoliteness; for example, ‘Let me finish my sentence.’

These crucial sequences of actions of possible expression of impoliteness were transcribed and analysed auditorially in terms of whether the sequences contained 1. loud voice, 2. falling pitch, 3. fast speech, 4. salient gestures, 5. evaluative (negative) words or expressions, 6. prosodic expression of the emotions anger, aggression, or disgust, 7. invasion of someone’s auditive space by raising the voice and interrupting, and 8. denying someone else a turn to speak by raising the voice. (The two last categories are not expressive features, but interactive features with a typical expressive feature.) In the present study, these eight dimensions were investigated in the television debates to a limited extent and discussed, but the dimensions should be studied on a large scale, supplemented by acoustic analyses. The recordings were made available by the National Library of Sweden (Kungliga biblioteket).

3.     Results from the corpus analysis

The KORP corpus search produced a number of interesting results. A total of 842 sentences were extracted containing tokens of the word ‘oartig’, and 94 sentences were extracted containing tokens of the word ‘oartighet’. The most commonly expressed opinions on what constitutes impolite communicative behaviour were concerned with interaction, body language, words, emotions and attitudes, and prosody, in approximately this order. Examples from these five categories are presented and discussed below.


Interactional conventions are important. The corpus included 29 examples of impolite behaviour such as interrupting, talking over each other without listening to what the other person has to say, barging into another person’s conversation without waiting for your turn, saying ‘no’, not listening to someone else talking, not answering, not saying ‘thank you’, ignoring someone, ← 18 | 19 → reprimanding someone, and criticizing someone. The most frequently recurring comments on impolite behaviour concerned someone interrupting someone else who is talking (11 occurrences).

Body language

The corpus included 27 instances of body language. Examples of body language behaviour which is commonly considered impolite included staring at someone, a doctor failing to look at the patient, not nodding or greeting when you meet someone, shaking your head as a rejection when you are offered food, wearing a hat inside the house, not shaking hands while greeting, turning your back to someone who is talking, not smiling in certain situations, and applauding weakly. Some of the examples in the corpus concerned impolite actions, such as not holding the door for the next person.


Examples of words which are considered impolite were: saying ‘no’, not saying ‘thank you’, saying that you want something, and saying ‘ni’1 to someone. There where 7 examples in the corpus which were classified as words.

Emotions and attitudes

The only emotion that was mentioned in connection with impolite communication was anger.

The attitudes and moods mentioned were cheekiness, impudence, meanness, nonchalance, sourness, callousness, aggressiveness, coarseness, self-importance, arrogance, condescension, deprecation, brusqueness, and incuriousness and the number of occurrences in the corpus were 31.


Examples of the prosodic traits commented on in connection with impoliteness included speaking loudly, screaming, giggling at someone, whispering, answering briefly, and being brief2. The most recurring impolite prosodic trait was being loud and the total number of occurrences of mention to prosody was 17.

In summary, according to the excerpts from the Swedish corpus, the typical ways to communicate impolitely are interrupting another speaker and not letting them finish talking, ignoring someone, criticizing, staring, turning your back on someone or not looking at them, rejecting someone, showing a negative attitude or even anger, and talking in a loud voice. ← 19 | 20 →

As can be seen, some of the findings in the corpus of what is impolite behaviour agree with what has been argued in earlier research on other languages; for example, the loudness of the voice, the importance of gestures and facial expressions, the expression of emotions and attitudes, and interruptions.

4.     Results from the television debates

Below are examples of how some of these recurring expressive features of impoliteness appear in television debates. The debates are not exhaustively analysed. Since interruption is a commonly found impolite trait in the written corpus material, the analysis of the television debates will depart from turns, which can be interpreted as interruptions, and analyse expressive features in the interaction which precede or follow verbal phrases such as ‘let me finish speaking’ or ‘don’t interrupt me’. As mentioned above, the features of interest are:


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2017 (April)
Frankfurt am Main, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2017. 258 pp., 5 ill., 6 tables

Biographical notes

Anna Bączkowska (Volume editor)

Anna Bączkowska is associate professor of linguistics at Kazimierz Wielki University in Bydgoszcz (Poland). Her research interests include semantics, pragmatics, translation studies, psycholinguistics and applied linguistics. She is the editor of Linguistics Applied and two book series.


Title: Impoliteness in Media Discourse