Politeness Strategies of Chinese in A Talk Show “If You Are The One”


Based on discourse of a Chinese talk show, this study aims to test and verify Brown & Levinson’s (hereafter B&L) theory of politeness. Politeness is culture specific, and in this respect, the term of “face” provides more evidence. Adopting descriptive text analysis, this study analysed the transcriptions of a popular Chinese TV show If You Are the One on a rhetorical level in the context of Chinese culture. The present study reveals that politeness strategies are prevalent in If You Are the One , with the majority of them being positive politeness strategies, which contradict with B&L’s claim that people tend to select negative politeness as their preference, while bald on-record and off-record ones occurring rarely among the texts. The result shows that B&L’s politeness model provides us directions about the affecting elements of Chinese interaction on its validity. Under positive politeness, the author added three subcategories, namely speaking, “approbation of L”, “showing gratitude”, and “saving face for L”. The original typology presented by B&L may reflect a western cultural bias, but necessitating validation efforts for each culture is research worthy. Chinese peculiar culture contributes a lot to the result, which hints a further research in the future.

Keywords: Politeness strategiespositive politenessnegative politenesstext analysis


Pragmatic competence, according to Fraser ( 1983), is “the knowledge of how an addressee determines what a speaker is saying and recognizes intended illocutionary force conveyed through subtle attitudes” (p. 30), which is crucial for human beings’ effective and successful communication. Politeness is proved to be one of the essential components of pragmatic competence that promotes interpersonal relations and harmonize social interactions. In terms of politeness, there seems no agreement on its definition. Different researchers hold different approaches to it. Fraser ( 1990) outlines four approaches to an account of politeness: the social-norm view; the face-saving view; the conversational-maxim view; and the conversational-contract view. Majority of the research related to politeness since 1987 may be, to some extent, influenced by B&L’s theory ( Watts, 2003). Broadly speaking, this paper adopts the face-saving approach, which puts emphasis on the face wants of interlocutors during conversations rather than on the interaction itself or the social rules.

Based on Goffman’s (1955) the politeness theory “On Face Work”, and the further development of face-related theories of Lakoff ( 1973) and Leech ( 1983), B & L conceptualize “face” as “the want to be unimpeded and the want to be approved of in certain respects”. And during interaction, face is “something that is emotionally invested, and can be lost, maintained, or enhanced, and must be constantly attended to” ( Brown & Levinson, 1987, p. 66). Hu ( 1944) delineated the notion of ‘face’ in Chinese context, which is still assumed to be prevailing in contemporary China. However, in human interaction relationships, there unavoidably exists Face Threatening Acts (FTAs), interpreted FTAs in terms of two aspects: the recipients of FTAs in interaction and a particular face type being hurt. As a result, speakers will mitigate the threat with techniques including bald on-record, positive/negative politeness, off-record strategies. Supposing other factors being equal, the extent of above strategies are ordered from most to least threatening the hearer’s face. Furthermore, Brown and Levinson ( 1978) categorize positive politeness strategies into 15 and negative politeness strategies into 10 subcategories.

Since the theoretical frameworks of politeness theory are based on corpus from three languages, i.e. English, Tzeltal and Tamil, B&L’s politeness model has always been criticized due to the limited validity in non-western cultures. Thus, the universal applicability of B&L’s approach is defended by some researchers ( Mills, 2009; Haugh, 2007; Chen, 2001, Gu, 1990; Mao, 1994; Yu, 2001). Among researches on employment of politeness strategies in verbal and written discourses in Chinese context, few studies have concentrated on a live talk show.

Problem Statement

The concept of politeness is culture specific to a certain extent, and in this respect, the term of “face” seems to provide more evidence. Actually, “face” nowadays has often been used as a metaphor in different cultures across the world. Furthermore, in linguistic sense, it seems to be a concept which is closely-related to but quite different from politeness. The paper only discusses the “face” in B&L’s sense, within the framework of politeness, a feeling of self-worth or self-image that every person has about himself.

Research Questions

Based on what has been mentioned previously, the RQs are as follows:

  • Considering the notion of (im)politeness, how is it manifested in the conversations of If You Are the One ?

  • In what way does a discourse illustrate the politeness strategies of B&L?

  • Is B&L’s typology of politeness strategies verified in Chinese perceptions?

Purpose of the Study

The article targets to test and verify B&L’s theory of politeness in the context of Chinese culture. The author expects to find that B&L’s politeness theory would provide approaches to study the social elements affecting Chinese interaction on its validity. It is of much significance to analyse the discourse from one of the most popular TV shows in Chinese culture, from which face is said to be originated.

Research Methods

Data-gathering procedure

Fei Cheng Wu Rao , broadcast with the title If You Are the One in Australia and Perfect Match in Malaysia, is a Chinese dating talk show with the host being Meng Fei who has become more popular thanks to this TV show. Adopting the “Taken Out” format, the show is produced by Jiangsu Satellite TV and recorded in Nanjing. It was first put on the screen on Jiangsu Satellite TV on January 15 th, 2010. The format of the show follows the below procedures: Single men (candidates) come on the stage one by one before a group of 24 ladies, who stands behind a podium with a light on it. After taking a quick look at ladies, the candidate is asked to pick one ideal and appealing lady (which can be seen by audience but is hidden from ladies). Then, through conversations with the host and three personal videos (VCRs), which usually include the impressions and evaluations from his friends, kinship members and colleagues, the candidate gradually unveils his hobbies, characters, private life, love experience and his preference and expectations in a future mate. At any moment, a lady can choose to turn off the light on her podium meaning she has no interest to the candidate. Ladies can also blast lights at any time to show their obsession towards him. If there is one or more light still on coming to the final step, the choosing right comes to the candidate. The candidate chooses his ideal lady and leaves the stage with her. If all lights are turned off, the candidate has no alternatives but leaving the stage alone.

The data gathering steps are video recordings and transcribing. First, download the target video. Second, transcribe. Since the TV shows broadcast in China were only with mandarin caption, the author searched the episodes with both English and Chinese captions on YouTube Website. Then, the author transcribed the English caption manually, with targeted transcription being presented in the appendixes. It is noted that the author used some simplified signals in analysis like “T=Transcript, Ln=Line, S=speaker, and L=listener”.

Here listed Youtube LA of the selected sessions of If You Are the One :

  • https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9SVf-zUo_TY

  • https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VpC_qpHHeBk

  • https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uB_UxsW9f04

Data-analysing method

The study analysed the transcriptions used by candidates, host and consultants from different sessions of If You Are the One using text analysis. The transcriptions were categorized according to B&L's ( 1987) aforementioned four politeness strategies. The concrete subcategories of each strategy are as follows: the positive ones include:1) noticing the listener (L); 2) exaggerating; 3) consolidating interest to L; 4) adopting in-group identity marker; 5) asking for agreement; 6) avoiding potential conflicts; 7) presupposing/raising/asserting common ground; 8) joking; 9) asserting/presupposing the speaker’s concern for L’s wants; 10) offering/promising; 11) being optimistic; 12) including both S and H in the activity; 13) giving/asking for reasons; 14) emphasizing reciprocity; 15) benefiting L at most; the negative ones are listed as follows: 1) being conventionally indirect; 2) questioning/hedging; 3) being pessimistic; 4) minimizing the imposition; 5) giving deference; 6) apologizing; 7) impersonalizing; 8) stating the FTA as a general rule; 9) nominalizing; 10) going on record as incurring a debt (the speaker shows his appreciation if the listener does what the speaker requests).

The analysis included identification and description of the pragmatic functions of utterances on a textual level. The author then went beyond the text itself to identify and categorize the choice of words and phrases which can be considered from the perspective of politeness strategies.

In this research, the author put priority on participants’ utterances as the data, taking other non-linguistic modals like facial expressions, gestures, movements, etc. as complementary clues. As for the value orientation of a particular person and the TV show, it was far beyond the scope of this paper, and was neglected.


This study presented research results according to B&L’s categories and under each category the author classified each politeness related discourse into its subcategories with detailed explanations to answer RQ 1 & RQ 2 and presented the related numbers and frequencies in tabular forms. While analysing the data and limitations of research, RQ 3 was answered.

Positive politeness

  • Context: Immediately after the opening remark of the host and the presence of the first candidate named Zhang Jiaxing, Lady 18 turned off her light, showing she is not interested. The host asked her for the reason, and Consultant Lei Huang mediated for her and she also seized the opportunity to reserve the candidate’s positive face. The author here put it into the “approbation of L” subcategory. e.g. (Ln 8-11, T; Under the same subcategory are there more examples, Ln 12-14, T1; Ln 53-56, T2; Ln 89-95, T2; Ln 288-292, T2; Ln 465-467, T2; Ln 492-498, T2; Ln 94-95, T3; Ln 150, T3; Ln 258-264, T3; Ln 410-411, T3.

  • Context: After Candidate Jiaxin Zhang successfully found his matching girlfriend, they praised each other indirectly to intensify interest and good impression to each other in the post-interview. Surely, the dialogues below should stand into subcategory of “consolidating interest to L” of positive politeness strategies. E.g. (Ln 180-181, T1). Another example: After the presence of Candidate Maoyuan Zeng, Lady 18 immediately expressed her appreciation for Zeng’s personal expertise, and invited him to show his martial arts. Host Fei Meng also echoed Lady 18’s invitation, partly out of politeness, partly for better effect of TV show. E.g. (Ln 43-48, T2); More similar examples can be seen in Ln 408-410, T2; Ln 412-414, T2; Ln 593-600, T2; Ln 61-65, T3; Ln 405-408, T3 and Ln 439-444, T3.

  • Context: After Candidate Maoyuan Zeng encountered a tough question, he asked Host Fei Meng for help saying “I’m out of breath”, with the illocutionary meaning being “I’m nervous”. Here, the candidate wisely adopted the substrategy of “emphasizing reciprocity”. E.g. (Ln 63-66, T2). Another example: Candidate Hanqi Li came to the stage for the second time, and his “favourite/ideal girl” remained the same lady, No.11. At this round, he came to the final step, a decisive moment whether Lady 11 would choose him or not. Consultant Jia Le asked him “Do you want me to help you, Lin Hanqi”, and he responded: “Please do so. Thank you.” Jia Le confirmed “Are you sure?”, he answered firmly “Yes”. The interaction operated just like that between brothers. In Chinese culture, more often when a man pursues a girl, there is no need of “help” from another male, except of his family members, who will surely say good words of him and persuade the girl to accept his approach or something like that. As a result, the example falls into the subcategory of “emphasizing reciprocity”. E.g. (Ln 548-561, T3);

  • Context: Lady 9 said what the candidate lacks was just what she could offer: “That IT world is rather dull, so I could lighten it up!” This claim sounded more powerful and persuasive than some silly words like “I love you”. The subcategory of “asserting common ground” will be well interpreted with the following example. E.g. (Ln 145-152, T2); More similar examples can be seen in Ln 237-243, T2; Ln 268-279, T2; Ln 313-330, T2; Ln 530-539, T2; Ln 113-115, T3; Ln 129-132, T3; Ln 359-367, T3.

  • Context: When Lady 18 asked the candidate “will you design a chip for your favourite girl”, the candidate Changhui Hu answered: “A chip is too complicated as a present for her. I’d like to take her travelling and to go out”. Although the candidate declared his attitude that he would treat his future girlfriend a trip instead of designing a chip for her. With this claim he tried to “seek agreement”. E.g. Ln 169-171, T2; Ln 346-363, T2.

  • Context: When a candidate named Changhui Hu asserted he was steward, Consultant Jia Le and Host Fei Meng advised to verify his strength by carrying one of 24 ladies. Lady 7 volunteered to be carried. But due to shyness (possible reason), the candidate offered to carry Jia Le, the quoted conversations below (Ln 182-186, T2) illustrated how Fei Meng redressed the candidate’s FTA to Lady 7. The author here prefers to add a subcategory of “saving face for L”. Another example can be seen in Ln 66-69, T1.

  • Context: When Lady 23 successfully found her ideal boyfriend and was leaving the stage, she expressed her gratitude to host and consultants. “Showing gratitude” is also a universal politeness across the world, so the author personally adds this subcategory under positive politeness. E.g. (Ln 422-426, T2); More similar examples can be seen in Ln 18-20, T3 and Ln 530-531, T3.

  • Context: When Victor (candidate) asked Lady 22 and Lady 24 “What colour is Spider-Man?” they gave their answers. But Victor said: “Let me tell you. It’s white.” And explained that the literally pronouncing way of the word “spider-man” told the colour, just for the effect of humour. This example comes to the subcategory of “joking” of positive politeness. E.g. (Ln 581-583, T2).

Table 1 -
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After analyzing the data, the most surprising results in Table 1 are as follows: among 8 subcategories of positive politeness strategies, the most frequently used strategy is “approbation of L” with the frequency of 29.73%, while “joking” receives the least frequency of 2.7%. Besides, “approbation of L”, “showing gratitude”, and “saving face for L” are three subcategories added to B&L’s list by the author, because identified positive politeness strategies in the transcripts cannot be put under any item listed in B&L’s typology. To some extent, it provides us with answer to RQ 3: “Is B&L’s typology of politeness strategies verified in Chinese perceptions?”

Negative Politeness

  • Context: Lady 12 appreciated the candidate’s outfit, or she just wanted to build a more harmonious interaction with him through a cordial way. But the candidate did not give a positive response, rather showed his disagreement indirectly. As a result, it falls to the subcategory of “being conventionally indirect”. E.g. (Ln 17-18, T1); E.g.2 continued above case of Lady 6. After her hedging, she put forward her question: “You come from a good family. How do your family feel about your selecting girlfriend?” At this moment, Host Fei Meng inserted a question: “I will ask for her”, which illustrate the host’s splendid craft to make the communication more coherent and harmonious and to make the show more appealing. Coming back to the candidate’s response: “It really isn’t a problem. She looks 18-20 years old”, which was still a “being conventionally indirect” illustration. E.g. Ln 64-65, T1. E.g. 3: When Lady 19 asked the candidate “Am I pretty?”, his response was “This is very subjective”, which is unusual. Conventionally, a gentleman praises a woman’s charm even though the fact may be contrary. So, his first response actually hinted his negative appreciation toward Lady 19. But we can see from the following interaction that Lady 19 questioned closely two more times before she got the final praise: “You are pretty”. Actually, he was reluctant to recognize her beauty, just for saving her face and keeping his gentleman image. A typical example of “being conventionally indirect”. E.g. Ln 214-224, T3.

  • Context: When Lady 20 wanted to ask a question, she firstly praised him being handsome, which is universal in all cultures. So, it’s a typical example of “questioning/hedging”. E.g. (Ln 50-55, T1); Lady 6 successfully used the same communicative skill in Ln 60-63, T1, and it really led to a delightful interaction. More examples are listed below: Ln 58-62, T2; Ln 165-168, T2; Ln 574-577, T3.

  • Context: At the final step, Lady 24 still remained her light for candidate Maoyuan Zeng, and just as mentioned above, she praised the candidate with “Ln 89-95, T2”, which was her last confession. But still, Maoyuan Zeng refused her but apologized offering an alternative of “we may become good friends.” This example falls into the subcategory of “apologizing.” E.g. (Ln 99-103, T2); More similar examples can be seen in Ln 203-220, T2 and Ln 289-292, T3.

Table 2 -
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Table 02 shows that the identified subcategories in this study under negative politeness strategies are “being conventionally indirect”, “questioning/hedging” and “apologizing” with the frequency being respectively 27.25%, 45.5% and 27.25% in order. That is to say, in If You Are the One , a dating TV show, negative politeness strategies are far less used than positive politeness strategies.

Bald on-record

  • Context: Now Lady 1, Lady 22 and Lady 24 still held light for Jiaxin Zhang, and there was only one opportunity. A gentleman conventionally does not disprove a lady directly. But this time, the candidate seemed to be “frank”. Shortly after this moment, when he had to turn off one of the three lights, he chose to knock out Lady 1, which proved his intention of this utterance. E.g. (Ln 152-154, T1); Another example: After the VCR of Candidate named Yang Yang, Lady 19 rudely commented the candidate’s inappropriate lifestyle. And the candidate responded like this “you look after beauty. I’ll take care of money.” E.g. (Ln 209-213, T3); More similar examples were as follows: Lady 10’s remark after the presence of the candidate: “... earn more money. It’s not worth it” in Ln 18, T2 and also in Ln 235-238, T3 and Ln 331-338, T3.


  • Context: Immediately after a candidate’s presence, Lady 9 turned off the light. When the host asked her reason, she said she was just immersed in the last guy’s perception. It seemed none of business of this candidate. It was an off-record FTA. E.g. (Ln 233-235, T2).

In this paper, 54 items in total were identified related to B&L’s (im)politeness strategies, among which positive politeness strategies took up the largest part with the number and frequency being 37 and 68.52% respectively. Under positive politeness, the author added three subcategories, namely, “approbation of L”, “showing gratitude”, and “saving face for L”. Hence, B&L’s politeness model will serve to reveal some general characteristics of politeness patterns. The original typology presented by B&L may reflect a western cultural bias, but necessitating validation efforts for each culture is research worthy, which can be used to answer RQ 3 of this study.


From the face-saving approach, this paper analysed the discourse of a popular Chinese TV show If You Are the One on a textual level. The study reveals that the employment of politeness strategies is prevalent in it, with the majority of them being positive strategies, which contradict with B&L’s claim that people tend to select negative politeness as their preference. Besides, the result shows bald on-record and off-record strategies occurring rarely in If You Are the One .

It is evident that B&L’s work provides sufficient theoretical support to discourse analysis procedures. However, based on RQ 3, the results revealed in this study are not totally in accord with B&L’s typology of politeness strategies, partly because the data collected is recorded lived interaction instead of realistic interpersonal relationship construction, partly because of the dating-oriented nature of the show. All ladies and candidates attended endeavour to positively impress the interlocutors and establish an ideal image. Besides, Chinese peculiar culture contributes a lot to the result, which hints a further research in the future.


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Wu, M., & Wang, J. (2020). Politeness Strategies of Chinese in A Talk Show “If You Are The One”. In N. Samat, J. Sulong, M. Pourya Asl, P. Keikhosrokiani, Y. Azam, & S. T. K. Leng (Eds.), Innovation and Transformation in Humanities for a Sustainable Tomorrow, vol 89. European Proceedings of Social and Behavioural Sciences (pp. 595-605). European Publisher. https://doi.org/10.15405/epsbs.2020.10.02.54