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Face Threatening Acts (FTA) and Politeness Strategies in the Movie I am Sam

Updated on November 5, 2010

When somebody says ‘You are ugly’ even if he doesn’t mean it, the hearer will probably feel hurt. However, if someone says ‘I think you just need a little makeover’ or ‘You are not ugly, you just need to make the most of what you have’ – surely, there is less impact on the part of the hearer and his self-esteem, or rather ‘face’ is saved. In the same way, saying ‘I am sorry, but I am not the right person for you’ is an indirect way of saying ‘I don’t like you’.

Face is a fundamental aspect of the human psyche. It pertains to the dignity of a person. In interaction, there are situations where someone’s face is likely to be threatened.  Utterances that disrupt the balance of face maintenance are called Face Threatening Acts (FTAs). Face work or the managing of one’s face and that of others is essential to lessen the impact of these threats. Unless FTAs are mitigated, the balance of face maintenance is disrupted and communication breakdown might happen.

            “I am Sam” is a story of a father-daughter relationship. The father, named Sam, is a mentally challenged man who is doubted for his capacity to take care of Lucy, his seven-year-old daughter. The story revolves on how Sam seeks the aid of an ingenious attorney, named Rita, to help him regain custody of his daughter.

In the movie, it is interesting to see how FTAs are mitigated in conversations between Sam and his interlocutors – Rita, George, Lucy, and other characters in the story. A great deal of effort in saving Sam’s face has been shown especially on the part of Rita. As an attorney, she is very direct in her manner of speaking, and sometimes forgets that Sam is mentally challenged – which upsets Sam sometimes. Dealing with Sam needed an extra care so that his ‘face’ is not hurt. She then tries to be as sensitive as she can. However, despite his situation, Sam showed a remarkable ability to understand and learn everything he needs to learn in order to win the case. In effect, despite being mentally challenged, he gained the respect from Rita the same respect given to ‘normal’ people. The story showed that even mentally challenged people has ‘face’ to save and ways in managing face maintenance in conversations with them presents an extra effort to their interlocutors.

Sam’s ability to understand meanings of the messages of his interlocutors can be explained by the concept of conversational implicature. Conversational implicature refers to the inference a hearer makes about a speaker’s intended meaning that arises from their use of the literal meaning of what the speaker said, the conversational principle and its maxims (Paltridge, 2006). However, implicature differs from inference. As Thomas (1995) explains (as cited in Paltridge, 2006), an implicature is generated intentionally by the speaker and may (or may not be) understood by the hearer while inference is produced by the hearer on the basis of certain evidence and may not be the same as what the speaker intends. The use of implicature and inference will be shown as we discuss FTAs and mitigating them.  

How are interactions threatened by FTAs? What strategies are used to mitigate them in order to save face? How is it to be polite?

FTAs can be performed by interrupting a turn, raising a topic which is unwelcome, starting an unsolicited conversation, and adversely commenting on a topic.

First, let us consider the following dialogue between Sam and Rita.

Rita: (to the couple) I'm right here with you, excuse me. (She unlocks the door.) (to Sam) Sam? Didn’t I tell you that you have to call?

Sam: I –

Rita: You know how to make an appointment.

Sam: It’s –

Rita: That’s ridiculous. You can always get Patricia.

Sam: They –

Rita: Good. I’ll see you next week. 

Interrupting a turn is an example of FTA. The conversation above happened in Rita's office. It can be inferred here that Sam has interrupted someone’s turn (that of the couple) thus Rita's utterance ‘You know how to make an appointment’. Sam may have inferred correctly Rita’s intention by this utterance – he is interrupting, he can’t talk to her right now, and it is always necessary to make appointments as it is required – but Sam still persists because he is not given the chance to speak. Moreover, Sam's speech is obviously interrupted by Rita. Sam was not given a chance to finish his words because Rita dominates the conversation. She also terminated the conversation by saying ‘Good. I’ll see you next week’ which gave a further threat to his ‘face’ because he was not even given the chance to explain or ask for the request he is about to offer Rita.

            Another way on how FTA is performed is by starting an unsolicited conversation . Let us consider again the example above. Sam here did not make an appointment with Rita. He just came in into the office (like in an ‘ambush’ manner) without any approval from her and he did not even ask permission from the secretary, Patricia, who sorts through people who comes into the office. Sam, then have committed an FTA for doing that by starting an unsolicited conversation. Likewise, at the moment the conversation was interrupted, Rita tries to save her face from her clients by excusing herself.

            FTA is also performed by raising a topic which is unwelcome. A topic which is unwelcome to a conversation is normally cultural in nature (e.g. asking about one's educational attainment). In the example below, though the issue is not cultural, it can be an example of an unwelcomed topic on the part of Sam – Sam’s disability. Rita realized that she has gone beyond the boundaries when she said ‘I didn't mean your handicap’. Nevertheless, she tried to avoid the issue because she became aware that she makes Sam lose face.

Rita: I'm gonna need that list of people who can testify that you are a good father despite your handicap. I didn't mean your handicap I meant your disability – I mean the fact that you are retarded. That's not the right word. I mean...What do I call you?

Sam: Sam. I am Sam.

Finally, adversely commenting on someone's speech is one way to perform FTA. This is clearly seen during trials in the courtroom. During trials, lawyers, so that they will win the case, don't have to save the ‘face’ of others, the witnesses or the other party. Consider the following:

Turner: It's hard to find words isn't it, Mr. Dawson. It's confusing. It's confusing to know what to say to Lucy half the time, isn't it?

                        Sam: No, yes, no.

                        Turner: No what?

                        Sam: Let me see let me see let me see.

                        Turner: You don't know what?

                        Sam: Yes.

Turner: Yes, you're right, you don't know. You don't know enough to really raise your daughter?

            In court, this strategy is used to illicit answers from the person on the stand. It is one way to attack them. In normal conversations, the utterances, ‘Speak up!’ and ‘Get to the point’, implies intimidation, unfriendly behavior or manner of speaking, and harshness. Similarly, in court, like in the example, Sam is really threatened and was made to 'surrender'. Turner’s way of eliciting answer from Sam is very aggressive as in ‘No what?’, ‘You don’t know what?’, and ‘…You don’t know enough to really raise your daughter?’. These questions can be paralleled to utterances like ‘Speak up and tell the truth!’ which implies that the person asked is lying. That person would rather feel frightened and although it is not his intention to lie, he tends to lie because of the fear brought about by the speech act. In the case of Sam, he was made to ‘surrender’ or admit that he is not and cannot be a competent father, although he believes that he is the father and he can be a good one to Lucy, because of the great amount of threat that is put on to his ‘face’ by Turner.

            We have seen how FTAs are performed. Subsequently, we see here that verbal interaction would become odd if FTAs are not part of language usage. It is because without FTAs, no one would ever complain, no one would ever ask someone to do something or ask questions (Simpson, 1997). Therefore, we can say that FTAs are a necessary feature of interaction. The conversations shown so far give the idea that although Sam is retarded so treating him needs some care, doing FTAs is unavoidable.  Hence, what sort of strategies do people use to perform FTAs?

The strategies used by people to perform FTAs can range from direct to indirect . This direct-indirect cline can be plotted against a parallel of continuum which goes from impolite to polite strategies . Consider the following interactions:


Corner: What’s wrong with your father? Why is he acting like a retard?

                        Lucy: He is.

                        Corner: Are you?

                        Lucy: No


                        Patricia: (from speaker) Your son’s on line 2.

                        Rita: Tell him to hold for just one second.

            In A, the utterance, ‘Are you?’ by Corner is clearly direct. It exhibits FTA in such a way that it contains no softeners or mitigating elements making it bald and direct or on-record. It is, therefore, not polite and can offend the person asked.

            Patricia in B is the secretary of Rita. It is observed here that the direct utterance ‘Tell him to hold for just one second’ is clearly on-record. It contains a direct semantic link with the service requested. It offers no redress to the hearer, making it blunt. With this strategy, the function of the utterance is clear, unambiguous and concise. This strategy shown in A and B lies on one side of the continuum – bald, on-record, impolite, or direct. However, although clear and concise, this also carries a fair amount of risk. It is because to be blunt with someone indicates that you do not care about their face.  

            Furthermore, being direct is seen in the courtroom where the lawyer tries to dig out answers from the witness. In the following, Rita is trying to make the therapist admit on making 'huge mistakes'.

                        Rita: Yes or no?

                        Therapist: I –

                        Rita: Let me rephrase the question. When your son od'ed -

                        Turner: Objection!

Rita: But if Ms. Geller didn't feel she had made mistakes – mistakes that are huge it might bias her opinion toward Mr. Dawson.

                        Judge: I will –

Rita: Thank you. So Ms. Geller – yes or no – when your son od'ed, did you feel you might have made mistakes, mistakes that were huge?

                        Therapist: (tearfully) Yes

                        Sam: You made her cry.

                        Rita: You got lucky.

                        Sam: That's not nice. Not very nice.

                        Rita: Only in there.

            In the above utterances, Rita's speech is direct, and unambiguous and that it requires a direct answer which in this case is a yes or no answer.  But it is also observed here that in the courtroom, you don't have to really save the face of others. Unlike in normal conversations, you'd rather want your conversant to feel happy than them to feel sad or even more depressed. Sam's utterances 'You made her cry’ and ‘That’s not nice’ would reveal that in normal situations, it is unpleasant to make other people cry. Rita is also aware of this – thus saying 'Only in there'. 

            On the other hand, face is rather taken care of on the following conversation between George, the Starbucks manager, and Sam.

                        Sam: I’m ready.

                        George: Let’s not add more stress to your life.

Sam: I’m ready. I’m ready to make coffee. Lo-fat decaf latte. Coffee up to here. Add steamed milk up to here. No foam, no foam. Cinnamon or chocolate sprinkles.

George: That’s pretty good Sam. I’ll think about it.

Sam and George are talking here about Sam’s promotion to be coffee maker in Starbucks. It can be inferred from here that George is not really giving any promotion to Sam but he doesn’t want to feel really bad about it. This is suggested by what George said: ‘Let’s not add more stress to your life.’ George is aware of Sam’s stressful life at the moment and he doesn’t want to add burden to his life but what it really means is that he can’t be promoted. Furthermore, ‘I’ll think about it’ suggests further rejection. This strategy is the other side of the continuum – off-record, polite, or indirect.

            Face work is the process of management of one’s own face and that of others. Normally, being polite to one’s conversant is one way to mitigate FTAs. To be indirect in one’s speech indicates politeness. This off-record strategy lessens the risk of Sam losing his face. ‘I’ll think about it’ is like saying Sam is not promoted. Although it threatens the face, it does so indirectly. Indirectness involves dropping a hint and it is clear that Sam was able to receive that hint as he explains through the following continuation of the dialogue:

Sam: I know what that means. I stock shelves at Lucky Supermarkets. I want to bag groceries, Miss Losey says “I’ll think about it.” Randy Brenner gets the job. I was the janitor at the La Reina Theater, I wanted to take tickets. Mr. Jenkins said he’d think about it. Larry Peters gets the job. Lets his friends in for free… 

            In other words, Sam was able to infer correctly what the implicature of George’s utterance is – that he is not promoted.

            Similarly, indirectness is also seen in the following:

Sam: Oh, that happens. That happens. People lose touch. Will you call me if you find it? If you get back in touch?

Rita: Yes, I’m just in the middle…it’s a special…I’ll call you.

Colleague: Is that the new janitor?

Rita: No, it’s a case. Sort of a pro-bono thing.

         Alright, alright I’ll take you. I’ll take you.

Sam: Oh my God oh my God! (Sam, shaking with relief, pulls out his wallet)

Rita: No, no, no. Pro-bono. Alright? Probono.

In the above conversation, Sam is still pursuing Rita to be his lawyer. The utterances of Rita clearly suggest that she wants to avoid further interaction with Sam and obviously, she is declining Sam’s offer. Face work is going on here. Rita is in the middle of the party with her colleagues and she doesn’t want to be embarrassed by the presence of Sam. She then rejects Sam in an indirect manner by saying ‘I’ll call you’. Furthermore, Sam obstructs in Rita’s socializing with her friends. Saying ‘I’ll call you’ implies that she needs to go and that Sam is getting in her way.

Meanwhile, Rita’s colleagues finally noticed Sam and because Rita protects her ego, by mistake she accepted to be Sam’s lawyer by saying it is pro-bono.

We have seen strategies that people perform in interaction which involves FTA. In the examples above, strategies ranges from direct to indirect and these can be plotted against impolite to polite strategies.

Indirectness is a means of offering the hearer some redress. It is an example of negative politeness , politeness which is designed to preserve or protect the negative face of the interlocutor (Simpson, 1997). Negative face is one’s desire not to be coerced, ordered or forced into things. It is the desire to be free from imposition. The person who uses negative politeness tries to avoid offending his interlocutor while he is doing FTA. The strategy therefore, is to mitigate the threat to face by dressing up the speech act in linguistic features. There are a number of specific strategies for doing negative politeness. In the movie, three of the most common strategies as presented by Simpson (1997) were used. These are stating the fact as a general rule , apologizing , and impersonalizing

Take a look at the following:

Rita: Sam, this is their turn now. Not yours. Theirs. If you leave now you’ll never make it and you have to make it.

Sam: I know…

Stating the fact as a general rule allows the speaker to get himself ‘off the hook’ (Simpson, 1997). This strategy makes the FTA not directly attributable to the speaker because the rules are asserted as general ones. By saying ‘Sam this is their turn now’ implies that there is a general rule that is followed in the office in terms of taking turns. The imposition is lessened because of the fact that taking turns is a general rule to be followed.

Apologizing is another strategy for doing negative politeness. It can be recalled that Rita rejected Sam the very first time he asked her to be his lawyer because according to her she does not do ‘this kind of work’. In the conversation below, Sam went back to Rita to ask again for her approval. Sam’s utterance ‘I’m sorry to bother you, but did you call your friend?’ indicates reluctance to have to bother Rita and in its explicit form, simply solicits forgiveness from her by saying ‘I’m sorry’. Actually, there was never a ‘friend’ and it is implied by ‘I don’t have her number anymore, Sam’ and to avoid further interrogation – thus the utterance ‘We lost touch’.

Sam: I’m sorry to bother you, but did you call your friend? Your friend from college who does this kind of work?

            Rita: I don’t have her number anymore, Sam. We lost touch.

Sam is aware of this implicature but not wanting to impose upon Rita he used some softeners like ‘Will you call me if you find it?’ as shown in the following:

Sam: Oh, that happens. That happens. People lose touch. Will you call me if you find it? If you get back in touch?

Rita: Yes, I’m just in the middle…it’s a special…I’ll call you.

            Apologizing is also employed in the following conversation:

Sam: I’ll go get her.

Margaret Brown: It would be better if you stay here. I’m sorry to say this, Mr. Dawson, it’s clear how much you love your daughter, but we’re going to have to remove Lucy from your home.

Sam: No, no no no. It’s her birthday! It’s her birthday!

Margaret Brown: I know how hard this must be…

The city has given me the difficult task of deciding when to intervene on behalf of the child.  Unfortunately, I've learned the hard way that it's better too soon than too late.  For now the court will decide what's in Lucy's best interest.

This is probably the most difficult situation for Sam. Margaret knows how hard this is for Sam to be separated from his daughter but she needs to do her job. She then mitigates the threat by the utterance ‘I’m sorry to say this…’ and followed by a claim of common opinion or rather seeking agreement with Sam by saying ‘…it’s clear how much you love your daughter…’ and ‘I know hard this must be…’ at the end of the conversation. This way, the offensive act, is reduced by verbalizing the sympathy for Sam.     

Lastly, impersonalizing as negative politeness means removing references to yourself from the FTA. Again, Margaret is just doing her job, ‘it’s nothing personal.’ Plural forms can be used for this function as in the utterance of Margaret –‘…but we’re going to have to remove Lucy from your home. In effect, individual responsibility is removed for the FTA.

Face and politeness play important roles for understanding why people choose to say things in a particular way. More so, in choosing the politeness strategy, some things are considered: the social distance of the speaker from that of the hearer, the amount of power the interlocutor has over the other, and the significance of the request, offer or desire to the speaker and to the hearer (Paltridge, 2006). These can be explained by affinity (relationship with a person), reality (schema or shared knowledge), and communication (exchange of ideas or mutual understanding). This is the ARC or Communication Formula. It can be said that the amount of ARC a person has with someone would be the amount of understanding that person share with them. The more your communication with a person gets better, the reality and affinity for that person also gets better. Thus, ARC = Understanding. To give an example of these, take a look at the conversation between Sam and Rita while they are paying at the cashier.     

                               Sam: My treat. My treat. 
                               Rita: Don't be ridiculous. I'll get it. 
                               Sam: I said it's my treat. That means I'll get it. 
                               Rita: Sam, do you really want to get it or are you just trying to -- 
                               Sam: Trying to what? 
                               Rita: You know, trying to act like a - 
                               Sam: Like a what? 
                               Rita: Like a...a... 
                               Sam: A real man? 
                               Rita: I didn't say that. 
                               Sam: You're my lawyer and you think what they think.  I don't have a chance.  No chance at all.  Even with an expert witness.  
                               Rita looks at him.  He's right.  She chooses her words carefully. 
                               Rita: I deserve...a fair trial. 
                               Sam: Answer the question. 
                               Rita: Okay, okay, okay.  What was the question again? 
                               Sam: Do you think what they think?  Sam can't order food.  Sam can't pay a check.  Sam can't take care of Lucy? 
                               Rita: It doesn't matter what I think – it matters that we win. 
                               Sam: You're my lawyer it matters what you think. 
                               Rita: Hey, it doesn't matter to them what I think. 
                               Sam: Me.  It matters to me. 

Sam was offended not really because Rita declined his offer to treat her but because of the implicature that Sam is pretending to act like a ‘real man’ (only real men treats a woman). Among close friends, telling the truth or mean things like saying ‘You smell bad’ or deliberately saying ‘You think like an abnormal person’ does not offend much because of the bond or affinity that is shared.  It also follows that the more you know each other, the less you have to explain. In the above conversation, mutual understanding is not yet evident as shared knowledge or schema between Sam and Rita is not much and the affinity or liking for Sam on the part of Rita is but cold or rather formal because of the thought that she is the lawyer and that what matters to her is to win. She is concerned with the case alone (as can be explained also by her social role and the power she has over Sam) and creating a friendship or a special bond between them is not really that matters. For Sam, it is different. It is important for him that they share the same reality – that he can take care of Lucy and that he can do what ‘real men’ do.  This holds then that there is less understanding between them because communication or mutual understanding is not good enough and so reality and affinity follows. As the movie progresses, mutual understanding and social interaction or communication between Rita and Sam gets better and so reality and affinity ties also gets better, therefore a better understanding is achieved. Indeed, dealing with people involves affinity, reality, and communication to achieve a balance of face maintenance.

Conversations are successful for the reason that we take care of our ‘face’ and that of our interlocutor. We have that instinctive ability to save face rather than to lose face, to praise rather than to condemn, or to respect rather than to show rudeness. We know when threat to face is present in conversation by sense or just by intuition alone. But if we don’t know our language – what sort of strategies to lessen FTA – it would be difficult for us to mitigate threats and the conversation would be chaotic. Moreover, if we ‘feel’ that there is greater threat to face, we can manage it by using a greater number of politeness strategies. FTA is part and parcel of language usage; we cannot ‘remove’ them but we can lessen the impact or the offense by doing face work and by strategies for doing negative politeness.


Simpson, P. (1997). Language Through Literature: An Introduction. NY, USA: Rout ledge.

Paltridge, B. (2006). Discourse Analysis. London: Continuum.


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