Dominance, Deference, and Egalitarianism in Organizational Interaction: A Sociolinguistic Analysis of Power and Politeness

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Organizational literature has long presumed that power is communicated and enacted through behaviors exchanged at the level of face-to-face interaction. Little research, however, has investigated this aspect of power. The author explores how power is embedded in manners of speech exchanged in everyday interaction among superiors and subordinates. He draws upon the sociolinguistic theory of politeness. Politeness, linguistic behaviors used to demonstrate regard and consideration for others, is hypothesized to be sensitive to the social distribution of power. Low power actors are most likely to use linguistic politeness behaviors because such behaviors minimize the possibility of conflict with superiors. Results of a laboratory study confirm that politeness behaviors are sensitive to the distribution of formal authority in organizations. When superiors use politeness, they are more likely than subordinates to employ a subtype of politeness that demonstrates consideration by intimating social familiarity and camaraderie. The hypothesis that egalitarian values moderate the overall effect of power politeness is not supported, perhaps because of the constraints of the experimental situation. Overall, the study demonstrates how abstractions such as authority and equality can be measured in terms of the manners of comportment that actors bring to bear on one another in face-to-face contexts. Given the possibility that egalitarianism can be operationalized at a linguistic level of analysis, the findings have important ramifications for the study of the presumed status leveling associated with programs of workplace participation. The study broadly shows how sociolinguistic perspectives can contribute to our understanding of organizational phenomena.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)544-556
Number of pages13
JournalOrganization Science
Issue number5
StatePublished - 1996

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Strategy and Management
  • Organizational Behavior and Human Resource Management
  • Management of Technology and Innovation


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