Published: April 5, 2012

Faculty conversations: Denise Troutman

Contact(s): Erica Shekell Office of Communications and Brand Strategy

Research indicates that women use complimenting as a form of politeness more often than men. But Denise Troutman, associate professor of linguistics, believes when investigating linguistic politeness, it’s not enough to examine gender.

"I think that we have to look at a compilation of social variables," she said. "I'm trying to connect this idea of gender, race — we might be able to look at it in terms of sexuality — definitely social contexts — and examining how linguistic politeness exudes as a result of these particular social factors."

Linguistics is the study of language, and there’s a difference between social and linguistic politeness, though both are interrelated, she said.

"The social politeness is going to be those broader rules that deal with courtesy, for example. How are we supposed to sit at the table? What’s the appropriate behavior for talking while you're eating?" Troutman said. "With linguistic politeness, I will look at it in terms of apologizing, complimenting, asking questions."

These verbal actions are called "speech acts." Promising, ordering, greeting, warning, inviting and congratulating are other examples of speech acts.

Troutman's focus is on African-American women and linguistic politeness, and she has examined a number of speech acts associated with them them, including talking with an attitude; sassiness; smart talk; and simultaneous speech. Her interviews with members of the African-American speech community have indicated that linguistic politeness is shaped by community and cultural norms.

"Talking with an attitude," for example, may be polite or impolite.

"If we have African-American females who are in an informal context, and they like to have fun with each other, they may talk with an attitude, and it may be done in a joking manner," Troutman said. "It can be an impolite act based on age, that we don’t expect younger African-American females to display that kind of behavior to elders."

Some speech acts, such as sassiness, have negative connotations and are stereotypically assigned to African-American women in a denigrating way by "outsiders." Troutman said that she studied a number of bloggers that criticized the media for characterizing First Lady Michelle and her daughter Sasha Obama as "sassy."

"Some African-American women online were highly irritated by the idea that the Huffington Post calls Sasha Obama 'sassy,'" Troutman said. "They think it's very, very inappropriate, and it's because of the Huffington Posts' outsider positioning that it has miscast Sasha."

Simultaneous speech — speaking at the same time as another person — is not a new concept, but Troutman sees it occurring differently within the African-American speech community. Some people interpret simultaneous speech as impolite, but some of those within the African-American speech community interpret it as showing exuberance and total involvement in a conversation.

Troutman's research has applications to classroom contexts, for example, where African-American females may face repercussions as a result of misunderstood behavior.

"If people understand that there are particular speech acts, and they understand how those operate within the African-American speech community, we'll have fewer instances of these African-American females in secondary level being sent to the principal’s office," Troutman said.


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Denise Troutman, associate professor of linguistics.

Denise Troutman, associate professor of linguistics.

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