Polite Speech Emerges From Competing Social Goals

Open Mind (Camb). 2020 Nov:4:71-87. doi: 10.1162/opmi_a_00035.


Language is a remarkably efficient tool for transmitting information. Yet human speakers make statements that are inefficient, imprecise, or even contrary to their own beliefs, all in the service of being polite. What rational machinery underlies polite language use? Here, we show that polite speech emerges from the competition of three communicative goals: to convey information, to be kind, and to present oneself in a good light. We formalize this goal tradeoff using a probabilistic model of utterance production, which predicts human utterance choices in socially sensitive situations with high quantitative accuracy, and we show that our full model is superior to its variants with subsets of the three goals. This utility-theoretic approach to speech acts takes a step toward explaining the richness and subtlety of social language use.

Keywords: communicative goals; computational modeling; politeness; pragmatics.