Gender, Politeness And Institutional Power Roles

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Gender, politeness and institutional power roles: Humour as a tactic to gain compliance in workplace business meetings LOUISE MULLANY Abstract This paper examines the complex relationship between gender, politeness and institutional power roles by focusing on how meeting chairs utilise the linguistic practice of humour in their attempts to gain the compliance of subordinates in managerial business meetings. Following recent work in language and gender studies, Brown and Levinson’s (1987) politeness model is rejected in favour of a communities of practice approach to conceptualising notions of linguistic politeness (Mills 2002). Data are analysed from six managerial business meetings taken from two ethnographic case studies of businesses based in the UK. Following Holmes (2000: 175), the notion of ‘repressive humour’ as a strategy of linguistic politeness is adopted, whereby those who are enacting power disguise the oppressive intent of their message by minimising the status differences between themselves and their subordinates, a strategy that has resulted from the ‘conversationalisation’ of public discourse (Fairclough 1992). There is clear evidence of the female chairs using the tactic of repressive humour as a mitigation strategy to attempt to gain the compliance of their subordinates, and this disproves the dominant stereotype that women lack a sense of humour in workplace interaction (cf. Holmes et al. 2001). However, there is no evidence of the male chairs adopting this strategy. Whilst this finding indicates evidence of gender patterning, this is not to suggest that the female chairs are being more linguistically polite than their male counterparts, as would be predicted by previous language and gender studies (Holmes 1995). In all of their attempts to gain compliance, whilst male chairs do not use repressive humour, they do use a

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