‘‘Bring the Newbie Into the Fold’’: Politeness Strategies
of Newcomers and Existing Group Members Within
University of North Texas
This study investigates politeness strategies within meetings of designers who met face-to-face and
technical communicators who met via teleconference and, more specifically, politeness strategies of
existing members toward group newcomers and vice versa. Based on the results of this study, I sug-
gest that issues of power and social distance affect politeness strategies by both groups during their
initial interactions and suggest that technical communication educators should better prepare students
by teaching benefits, detriments, and realities of particular linguistic politeness choices.
Keywords: collaboration, ethnography, newcomers, politeness theory, workplace communication
Collaboration continues to be a critical element of competency in the careers of technical
communicators (Rainey, Turner, & Dayton, 2005). However, despite collaboration’s ubiquity
and importance, no study has investigated how a technical communication newcomer enters a pro-
fessional work environment and becomes part of a collaborative organizational group. In this study,
I explore how newcomers to two groups become integrated into two existing groups. Although
there are many ways to study this behavior, I look specifically at the politeness strategies used
by the newcomers and the existing team members toward the newcomer. This exploration may help
us to better understand how linguistic politeness is used by all parties in meetings that involve new-
comers and how those uses of politeness strategies inculcate or alienate organizational newcomers.
NEWCOMERS AND COLLABORATION
Although collaboration has been intensively studied in technical communication (Forman, 1993;
Jones, 2005, 2007; Raign & Sims, 1993; Rainey, Turner, & Dayton, 2005; Rice, 2009; Sherry &
Myers, 1998; Spilka, 1993; Straton, 1989; Strijbos, Martens, Jochems, & Broers, 2007), the role
of newcomers to technical communication groups has not been sufficiently studied. Katz (1998a,
1998b, 1998c), in a series of articles, has explored how newcomers to a group learn to become
appropriate writers for the organization and how newcomers can use rhetorical expertise to gain
power and influence within organizations. However, beyond Katz’s studies, we must turn to the
fields of business, psychology, and organizational communication to gain a better understanding
of how newcomers become integrated into professional work groups.
Technical Communication Quarterly, 22: 304–322, 2013
Copyright #Association of Teachers of Technical Writing
ISSN: 1057-2252 print/1542-7625 online
Entry into an organization, particularly into an existing group, has been described as ‘‘a
stressful period of uncertainty’’ for a newcomer (Black & Ashford, 1995). These uncertainties
may be related to the actual tasks related to the job, how newcomers will be evaluated for that
job, and what social behaviors are considered normal (Mignerey, Rubin, & Gorden, 1995;
Miller, 1996; Miller & Jablin, 1991; Myers & Oetzel, 2003; Nelson & Quick, 1991). Indeed,
this entry period, known as socialization, is also important to the organization because
unsuccessful socialization can mean that unhappy newcomers leave the organization, thus caus-
ing costly turnover (Bauer, Morrison, & Callister, 1998; Levine, Moreland, & Choi, 2001).
Therefore, many organizations have programs that focus on assimilating newcomers to processes
and behaviors of the organization and, perhaps, implicitly on encouraging newcomers not to
challenge existing practices (Hess, 1993; Klein & Weaver, 2000; Major, Kozlowski, Chao, &
Gardner, 1995; Rink & Ellemers, 2009; Settoon & Adkins, 1997). Despite the goal of assimi-
lation, many supervisors and superiors resist (whether intentionally or unintentionally) newco-
mers because the latter will likely ‘‘perform ...important job duties at levels considerably
lower than their predecessors’’ and existing group members must dedicate time to socializing
the newcomers, thus meaning that ‘‘less attention will be given to other job duties or that there
will be delays in the completion of other work duties’’ (Feldman, 1994, p. 219). Indeed, one of
the managers in my study preemptively thanked the group for ‘‘doing all you can to bring the
newbie into the fold ‘cause I know that he’s going to need a lot of your help and a lot of your
time.’’ Nonetheless, a critical charge to many supervisors, given ‘‘the high cost of recruitment,
selection, and training,’’ is to successfully ‘‘facilitate the newcomer’s transition from outsider to
insider’’ (Settoon & Adkins, pp. 514–515).
Therefore, newcomers to a group are in a particularly tricky and perilous environment. In
addition to facing a potentially steep learning curve and dealing with superiors who perhaps resist
newcomer socialization, newcomers generally face two somewhat competing goals: They wish to
gain the acceptance of the group, but they also want to maintain some autonomy or agency (also
known as individualization or personalization) during the period of socialization (Hess, 1993;
Levine, Moreland, & Choi, 2001; Mignerey, Rubin, & Gorden, 1995). Full membership in a group
requires ‘‘some combination of [newcomer] assimilation to the group and group accommodation
to the [newcomer]’’ (p. 90). Whereas previous studies have explored newcomer group socializa-
tion by observing undergraduate and graduate students (Haueter, Macan, & Winter, 2003; Rink &
Ellemers, 2009) or self-reporting through surveys or interviews (Black & Ashford, 1995; Klein &
Weaver, 2000; Major et al., 1995; Morrison, 1993; Mignerey, Rubin, & Gorden, 1995; Settoon &
Adkins, 1997), this study attempts to assess the ways newcomers assimilate and groups accommo-
date by looking specifically at the language used by both the newcomers and the groups during the
critical socialization stage. More specifically, I investigated the politeness strategies used by the
newcomer and the group during the socialization stage so I could ascertain how integration occurs
for technical communicators and designers as they enter a new organizational environment.
Politeness strategies are those discursive interactions in which ‘‘linguistic devices are used in
order to maintain harmonious relations and avoid conflict with others’’ (Kasper, 1990, p.194).
Brown and Levinson (1978, 1987) have developed the predominant theory of linguistic
politeness, which suggests that the only rational reason to break from clear, direct, and efficient
‘‘BRING THE NEWBIE INTO THE FOLD’’ 305
conversational communication is to show concern for a hearer’s face. Face, according to Brown
and Levinson, is the public representation of self that all competent adult members of society wish
to claim for themselves. Face is composed of two related wants: the want to be approved and
accepted by others and the want to remain unimpeded by others and independent. Face is main-
tained and constantly attended to during conversations by all parties, and when an individual’s face
is threatened (intentionally or otherwise), all parties, but particularly the threatened individual,
must summarily attempt to repair, or save, face. Thus a face-threatening act is any utterance that
threatens a hearer’s face. Therefore, according to Brown and Levinson, interlocutors continually
employ (or sometimes intentionally neglect to employ) strategies of politeness that show varying
degrees of concern for the hearer’s face to ideally maintain the face of all interlocutors and avoid
the need to repair face. In bringing politeness to bear on a conversation, interlocutors purposefully
phrase their remarks ‘‘so as to minimize face threat’’ to others (Holtgraves & Yang, 1992, p. 246).
Studies of politeness have been common in technical communication; they have explored for-
mal written communication (Cherry, 1988; Graham & David, 1996; Hagge & Kostelnick, 1989;
Myers, 1991; Riley, 2003), computer-mediated communication (Angori & Tseliga, 2010; Duthler,
2006; Lam, 2011; Locher, 2010), and spoken communication (Friess, 2011; Mackiewicz & Riley,
2003; Moore, 1992; Riley & Mackiewicz, 2003). However, these studies have not explored pol-
iteness strategies within technical communication teams with a newcomer. This study investigates
how newcomers become integrated into professional teams by noting how these newcomers and
existing team members use politeness strategies during the critical socialization period.
DESCRIPTION OF GROUPS
To understand how newcomers affect a group, I observed and recorded two separate group
meetings of professionals; participant demographics are summarized in Table 1. Both groups
Demographic Information About Group Members Who Were Observed in This Study
Name Position Location Age (Approximate)
Derek Superior U.S. 40 s 10 years
Edna Subordinate existing group member U.S. 30 s 4 years
Stanley Subordinate existing group member U.S. 30 s 4 years
Sloane Newcomer U.S. 20 s 1 week
Allison Superior U.S. 40 s 25 years
Terry Superior U.S. 50 s 15 years
Don Subordinate existing group member U.S. 40 s 12 years
Lisa Subordinate existing group member U.S. 30s 12 years
Shoba Subordinate existing group member India 40 s 10 years
Jenny Subordinate existing group member U.S. 30 s 8 years
Kiran Subordinate existing group member India 20 s 8 years
Poornima Subordinate existing group member India 20 s 3 years
Brian Newcomer U.S. 20 s 1 month
participated in activities that are common to technical communicators (design and writing); how-
ever, the group makeup, hierarchical structure, decision-making process, and location of the
work varied greatly. For both groups, each person attending a meeting (even if he or she did
not say anything) signed an institutional review board–approved informed consent form. For
the purposes of anonymity, all individuals’ names, third parties’ names, and specific references
to the companies or clients have been either anonymized or replaced with appropriate place-
The first group consisted of four designers at a top-tier design firm in the U.S. that employs
approximately 50 people. The group that I observed consisted of four team members (two
men and two women). They worked within the same office and conducted most of their
communications face to face. All the designers natively spoke English. The ages of the team
members ranged from mid-20 s to mid-40 s. The newcomer to the group, Sloane, was the young-
est member of the group. She joined the firm the week prior to my observation, but two members
of the team had been out of the office that week. Therefore, the week of my observation was her
first opportunity to work with several of her colleagues. Although Sloane was new to the firm
and to this group, she had previously spent a few years at a different design firm. The team man-
ager (Derek) had been at the firm for nearly a decade and had headed up many different projects.
The remaining two members (Edna and Stanley) each had been at the firm for approximately 4
years and had worked together extensively. Generally, this group had a division-of-labor
approach to their work in which each member or subset of members would work on a
task and then the group would convene to discuss and review the completed task (Mirel, Fein-
berg, & Allmendinger, 1995; Morgan, 1991). Decisions were made by group consensus and not
singularly by the team manager.
I observed the interactions of this group for 1 week as they worked to develop appropriate
design solutions for a client’s proprietary medical device. Additionally, I audio-recorded their
meetings. The primary purpose of these meetings was decision making, and members generally
entered into the meeting with a question about the design solution and aimed to solve the prob-
lem during the meeting. In these meetings, they discussed what they had done, how they might
solve the problem, and how to move forward. Although Derek was the project manager, Edna or
Stanley sometimes ran the meetings. At the end of the week, I had recorded 17 hours of dis-
cussion during nine meetings. Of the nine meetings, only two were scheduled more than 24
hours in advance, which gave the designers little time to prepare for the meetings.
Professional Technical Communicators
The second group consisted of nine technical communicators (five women and four men) in one
division of a global technology corporation that employs approximately 10,000 people. These
nine technical communicators were geographically distributed and conducted their meetings
via teleconference. About half the time, the technical communicators would view a shared screen
of the computer of one of the members. One quarter of the time, the technical communicators
viewed documents (such as PowerPoint decks and Word documents) that had been distributed
‘‘BRING THE NEWBIE INTO THE FOLD’’ 307
and individually downloaded prior to the meeting. The remaining quarter of the time, the
meetings referenced no particular document.
Six of the nine technical communicators (three men and three women) worked out of the same
office in the same geographical region of the U.S. However, all of these technical communicators
worked the majority of the time out of their homes. Occasionally, a technical communicator would
work from the main office, but only rarely did more than one technical communicator work out of the
main office on the same day. The remaining three technical communicators (two women and one
man) worked out of an office in Bangalore, India. These India-based technical communicators
always worked face to face with each other. The two superiors of this group, Allison and Terry, were
based in the U.S. Terry was the manager of the technical communicators, while Allison was the over-
all project manager of the technical communicators and two other communication-related teams
within the division. Although this group had a division-of-labor approach to their work, the
individuals’ particular tasks were assigned by one of the project managers.
This group met every Wednesday morning. The meetings were usually run by Terry, but
sometimes by Allison. These meetings were most often status meetings in which team members
talked about where they were in the projects and the challenges they were facing. Allison and
Terry would also preview work that the team would be completing in the future and would
attempt to ascertain which group member or members would be best suited for the upcoming
portion of the project. Even though the team members discussed the pros and cons of each sol-
ution, Allison or Terry (or, on a few occasions, Allison and Terry jointly) made the ultimate
decisions regarding a solution, making this group more hierarchical than the group of designers
who met face to face (Flynn, Savage, Penti, Brown, & Watke, 1991). Much of the meeting was
dedicated to sorting the individuals’ tasks and allotting the time to be committed to each task.
Additionally, some meetings included software tutorials, discussions with subject matter experts,
and quizzes by the managers on topics ranging from group procedures (such as how to publish
content to the group’s wiki) to proper correction of errors based on the Microsoft Manual of
Style. At least 24 hours before each meeting, a reminder with an agenda was circulated. The
group always followed the agenda, despite some minor deviations. Each meeting lasted from
45 minutes to 2.5 hours.
I was allowed to call in to these weekly meetings and record the team’s discussions for 6
months. During Month 5, a new member, Brian, joined the U.S.-based team to become its sixth
member. According to his introduction by Allison, Brian had an English undergraduate degree
and a minor in computer science from a local university and had interned for the corporation in a
different division as he completed his degree. During my recordings, the only colleagues that
Brian met face to face were Terry and Allison.
The politeness strategies used by the groups were assessed by conversational turn, which
‘‘begins when one speaker starts to speak, and ends when he or she stops speaking’’ (Johnstone,
2002, p. 73). Turns varied in length from one word to 3 minutes. As I outlined in previous
research (Friess, 2011), it is not common in politeness research to have an interrater reliability
protocol. However, such a protocol brings more rigor and reliability and less researcher bias to
the analysis of qualitative data sets (Armstrong, Gosling, Weinman, & Marteau, 1997; Haugh,
2007). Therefore, two raters separately and independently coded about 12%of the collected
data. The data set given to the raters included selections from every meeting. Each selection
included at least one turn from a newcomer. Each selection also consisted of at least five
Each turn was assessed along three criteria. In the first evaluation, the raters determined
whether the conversational turn had a high or low concern for the hearer’s face. Raters deter-
mined whether turns either maintained the hearer’s self-image (i.e., a high concern for face)
or ran contrary to the hearer’s self-image (i.e., a low concern for face). Raters coded each turn
as having a high or low concern and were not permitted to indicate that face was unattended in
the selected turn. The results of coding on the binary scale of high or low concern for face
revealed 88.7%agreement between raters and a Cohen’s kappa of 0.75 (which, according to
Landis and Koch , is substantial agreement).
The second evaluation of the data asked raters to identify the degree of politeness in each
conversational turn. The raters were given a Likert-type scale of 1–7 with 1 showing the highest
face. Although the overall agreement and Cohen’s kappa (62.0%and 0.52, or moderate agree-
ment) dropped, these decreases are expected, given the expansion of categorical analysis from a
2-point to 7-point scale. However, though the overall percent agreement was only 62.0%,the
raters varied by only 1 degree of politeness in an additional 25%of the turns (e.g., one rater
determined the degree of politeness to be 2 while the other rater determined the degree of
politeness to be 3). The remaining 13%of the turns varied by no more than 2 degrees of pol-
iteness, and nearly all those turns involved the coding of a turn as 3 (the lowest level of high
concern for face) by one rater and the coding of a turn as 5 (the lowest level of low concern
for face) by the other rater. Ultimately, 87%of the raters’ codings varied by no more than 1
degree of politeness.
The final evaluation of the data incorporated Brown and Levinson’s (1978, 1987) politeness
strategies and substrategies (see Appendix A). In this evaluation, each coder assessed only 5%of
the professional designers’ turns and 10%of the professional technical communicators’ turns for
the specific politeness strategies at play. The reduction in the amount of coding material for this
third criterion was due to the difficulty of the coding task and the large amounts of time required
for a thorough assessment of each turn for the specific politeness strategies. The first strategy,
bald, on record, involves presenting a statement ‘‘in the most direct, clear, unambiguous, and
concise way possible’’ (Brown & Levinson, 1987, p. 69). Positive politeness strategies appeal
to the hearer’s desire ‘‘to have one’s attributes and actions approved by others’’ (Wilson,
Aleman, & Leatham, 1998, p. 65). Negative politeness strategies appeal to the hearer’s desire
to be shown ‘‘proper deference and respect, and not have their privacy invaded, their resources
spent, and their actions restricted without just cause’’ (p. 65). Finally, an off-record statement is
the least face-threatening way to position a statement because ‘‘there is more than one unam-
biguously attributable intention so that the actor cannot be held to have committed himself to
one particular intent’’ (Brown & Levinson, 1987, p. 69).
In this evaluation, the raters listed all the specific substrategies (e.g., hedge, in-group markers,
joke, give deference) they saw in each conversational turn, as ‘‘one [conversational turn] could
conceivably fall into a number of strategy categories’’ (Poncini, 2004). In this evaluation,
specific overall agreement again dropped, but the raters agreed on at least one substrategy for
‘‘BRING THE NEWBIE INTO THE FOLD’’ 309
a conversational turn 70.4%of the time. Further, the raters had strategy level agreement for 88%
of the turns.
ANALYSIS OF HIGH AND LOW CONCERN FOR HEARER’S FACE
I subsequently analyzed the data set for the concerns for face within the meetings with the new-
comer. The example below shows high and low concerns for the hearer’s face being issued. In
this example, Derek, the project manager for the professional designers, asked the group mem-
bers if they had any suggestions on a particular aspect of the product’s software interface.
Sloane, the newcomer, is the first to respond:
Sloane: Sorry, well, I don’t know if this is the right time, it’s maybe a little off-topic, and I know that
you’ve dealt with this a lot more than me, but could we discuss the hardware issue a little more?
Derek: No. Not now.
Sloane: Oh, OK.
Derek: We need to focus on the interface right now because we don’t want [the client] flipping
out that we don’t have what they thought we’d, ya know, have done. But once we get this settled or
at lease sorta figured out, I swear we’ll get back to the hardware issue because we’ve got to get that
figured out too. It’s just not a priority.
In this example, two different concerns for face are visible. First, Sloane’s first turn exhibits a
high concern for face in terms of the public self-image of the hearer. Sloane’s response to
Derek’s question about suggestions on the interface uses several types of negative politeness
strategies to minimize her threat to Derek’s face. She begins with an apology (‘‘sorry’’), seem-
ingly for talking at all. She then hedges by stating that she doesn’t ‘‘know if this the right time’’
and continues her conversational indirectness by stating that her request is ‘‘a little off-topic,’’
which she also qualifies with a hedge (‘‘maybe’’). She also defers to Derek (and possibly to
Edna and Stanley as well) by stating that ‘‘you’ve dealt with this a lot more than me,’’ indicating
that she knows that the hearer has more experience than she does. Finally, she makes her request
to ‘‘discuss the hardware issue,’’ but attempts to minimize the request by adding ‘‘a little more’’
to the request.
The following turns exhibit low concern for face by threatening the hearer’s public
self-image. Derek’s responses to Sloane’s request show a low concern for Sloane’s face. Derek’s
immediate response to Sloane’s request is a bald, on-record response of ‘‘no.’’ This statement
does nothing to attempt to mitigate the threats to Sloane’s face. He then adds ‘‘not now,’’ a posi-
tive politeness strategy that Brown and Levinson (1978) term a promise in that Sloane’s request
will be fulfilled in the future. In his subsequent response, Derek defends his denial of Sloane’s
request but includes positive politeness strategies, which, though still showing a relatively low
concern for Sloane’s individual face, begin to establish her as a member of the group. Derek uses
several in-group markers (particularly ‘‘we’’) to indicate that Sloane is, indeed, part of the group.
Additionally, Derek raises common ground that the focus must be on the software so that the
group can avoid dealing with an unhappy client. Derek also promises Sloane that, upon com-
pletion of the software issue, they will return to the hardware issue. Finally, though Derek
has used positive politeness strategies to mitigate threats to Sloane’s face, he ends his response
to Sloane’s request with a statement with a low concern for face, ‘‘It’s just not a priority,’’ which
includes a negative politeness hedge, ‘‘just,’’ which somewhat detracts from the directness of the
Although many ways exist to assess the concern for face in the conversational turns of these
professionals, I explored four specific relationships, which are summarized in Table 2. First,
47.4%of all the conversational turns of the combined groups showed a high concern for the
hearer’s face, whereas 52.6%of the turns showed a low concern for the hearer’s face. Addition-
ally, the group of professional designers who met face to face had a high concern for the hearer’s
face in 45.1%of their turns and a low concern for the hearer’s face in 54.9%of their turns, while
the professional technical communicators who met via teleconference had a high concern for
face in 53.9%of their turns and low concern for face in 46.1%.
Second, the newcomers had a high concern for face in 64.0%of their turns and a low concern
for face in 36.0%of their turns. Sloane, the professional designer, had a high concern for face in
63.5%of her turns and a low concern for face in 36.5%of her turns. Brian, the professional
technical communicator, had a high concern for face in 65.4%of his turns and a low concern
for face in 34.6%of his turns.
Third, in terms of the combined groups, all the existing group members (including the most
superior members) had a high concern for face in 37.1%of their turns and low concern for face
in 62.9%of their turns. The existing members of the team of professional designers had a high
concern for face in 32.8%of their turns and low concern for face in 67.2%of their turns. The
existing members of the team of professional technical communicators had a high concern for
face in 48.0%of their turns and low concern for face in 52.0%of their turns.
Summary of Group Members’ Concern for ‘‘Face’’
Group or Specific Members
%of Turns With
High Concern for Face
%of Turns With Low
Concern for Face
Combined groups all members 47.4 52.6
Professional designers 45.1 54.9
Professional technical communicators 53.9 46.1
All newcomers 64.0 36.0
Sloane (design newcomer) 63.5 36.5
Brian (technical communication newcomer) 65.4 34.6
All existing group members 37.1 62.9
Existing design group members 32.8 67.2
Existing technical communication group members 48.0 52.0
All subordinate existing group members 31.5 68.5
Subordinate existing design group members 28.8 71.2
Subordinate existing technical communication group members 39.1 60.9
All superiors 42.7 57.3
Derek (design superior) 37.1 62.9
Terry and Allison (technical communication superiors) 55.5 44.4
‘‘BRING THE NEWBIE INTO THE FOLD’’ 311
The existing group members, excluding the most superior members of the group, had a high
concern for face in 31.5%of their turns and a low concern for face in 68.5%of the turns. The
subordinate existing members of the professional design team had a high concern for face in
28.8%of the turns and a low concern for face in 71.2%of the turns. The subordinate existing
members of the professional technical communication team had a high concern for face in 39.1%
of their turns and a low concern for face in 60.9%of their turns.
Finally, the most superior members of the group in relation to the newcomer had a high con-
cern for face in 42.7%of their turns and a low concern for face in 57.3%of their turns. In the
first group, Derek, the team member most superior to Sloane, had a high concern for face in
37.1%of his turns and a low concern for face in 62.9%of his turns. In the second group, Terry
and Allison, who were of equal superiority to Brian, had a high concern for face in 55.5%of
their turns and a low concern for face in 44.4%of their turns.
The results of this observational study of the face-threatening language of technical communi-
cators and designers when a newcomer joins their group yielded several findings of note.
Implications of Medium: Teleconference Versus Face-To-Face Encounters
First, the technical communicators in the teleconference showed more concern for the hearer’s
face (particularly the face of the newcomer) than did the designers who met face to face. This
medium difference has been well studied in the field of pragmatics (Alvarez-Caccoma &
Knoblauch, 1992; Hobbs, 2003; Liddicoat, 1994; Schegloff, 1986; Sifianou, 1989; Taleghani-
Nikazm, 2002). Typically, synchronous conversations that are held face to face are less face
threatening than are conversations held in mediums in which the speakers’ physical faces are
not seen, such as via telephone or instant messaging (Morand & Ocker, 2003). However, data
from these groups indicate that the face-to-face group threatened face with more frequency than
did the teleconference group, suggesting that the former group was able to mitigate some aspects
of face threats by tone and gesture, conversational aspects that are either impossible or difficult
to convey over a telephone (Morand & Ocker). The group that met via teleconference perhaps
felt that, without those conversational aspects available during their discussions, they needed to
actively avoid face-threatening acts.
Power and Social Distance: Newcomers to Existing Group Members
Second, newcomers showed a high concern for face (64.0%) compared with the existing group
members. Newcomers may embed many of their statements and face-threatening acts with pol-
iteness strategies—particularly negative politeness strategies that emphasize the hearers’ wants
for autonomy—partly because the newcomers face two significant sociological obstacles as they
attempt to become part of the group. First, according to Brown and Levinson (1978, 1987) and
supported by Morand (1996), power is the perceived status of the hearer. Thus, in the instance of
these newcomers, all other group members, with their experience and longevity within the
group, are likely perceived by the newcomers to have higher statuses than themselves. Accord-
ing to Morand, ‘‘speakers low in power relative to their addressee will tend to use greater
amounts of politeness, in comparison to speakers high in relative power’’ (p. 548) because such
strategies will ‘‘minimize the possibility of conflict with superiors’’ (p. 544). The data from this
study support that notion, in that the newcomers used politeness strategies showing a high
concern for face nearly twice as often as did existing group members.
The second obstacle the newcomers faced is the sociological obstacle of social distance, which
is a measure of distant versus close relations. According to Morand and Ocker (2003), ‘‘social
distance ...is said to be high among individuals who are relative strangers, or who act ‘as if’ dis-
tant from one another. Low social distance describes relationships among social intimates or
friends’’ (p. 7). Given that the only interaction the newcomers had with existing group members
before joining the team was during interviews, the power distance between the newcomers and
existing members was high. Brown and Levinson (1987) posit that when a high social distance
exists between interlocutors, the ensuing conversation will employ many politeness strategies that
ensure protection of the hearer’s face. Again, this notion seems to be true for the newcomers.
Because newcomers have only high social distance with all the other team members, they miti-
gate the threats to face by including highly negative politeness strategies.
Therefore, it appears that newcomers to the group face two challenges as they attempt to
assimilate into the group: They have the least amount of power of all group members, and they,
unlike the existing members, have no confidants within the group to reduce social distance.
Therefore, the newcomers couch their statements with negative politeness strategies (most com-
monly, apologies, hedges, and conversational indirectness) to attempt to mitigate the threat to the
hearer’s face. Unfortunately, whereas these couched responses—such as ‘‘You know, oh, I’m
sorry, I didn’t mean to, but you maybe wanna look at the plug-in and see if it needs an update
or reinstall or something’’ (Brian)—mitigate the threat to the hearer’s face, the hearers routinely
do not reciprocate the concern for face in their responses.
Power and Social Distance Among Subordinate Existing Members
Although newcomers generally had a high concern for face, the existing team members
generally had a low concern for face marked by their use of positive politeness strategies (most
commonly, by using in-group identity markers, raising common ground, and seeking agree-
ment). Indeed, the level of concern for face was almost exactly inverse for the newcomers
and the existing team members. Although the existing team members’ low concern for face
may have to do with conversational policies established prior to the newcomers’ arrival, such
as a dedication to time constraints or clarity (Friess, 2011), these existing members do not face
the same sociological barriers that the newcomers do. In terms of power, the subordinate existing
members know where they rank compared with the others, and though they might not necessar-
ily have the most relative power (unless they are, in fact, the superiors), they know, with
the inclusion of the newcomer, that they are not at the bottom of the office hierarchy. These
‘‘locations’’ of power may grant the existing members some leeway in their concern for face.
Additionally, the social distance among the subordinate existing group members likely
enables a low concern for face. The social distance between subordinate existing members
of both groups was moderately low. Previous encounters informed the group members of
‘‘BRING THE NEWBIE INTO THE FOLD’’ 313
safe topics (a positive politeness strategy) that could be engaged in pre- and postmeeting
conversations as well as those during unexpected downtime during a meeting; for example,
the technical communicators often discussed the successes of football and cricket teams whereas
the designers often predicted what features they thought would be available on the next version
of the iPhone. When a low social distance (and thus high familiarity) exists between interlocu-
tors, a low concern for face can be displayed without forcing the interlocutors into doing face
repair work—work that detracts from the issue at hand to reestablish or save the hearer’s face
(Brown & Levinson, 1978, 1987; Holtgraves & Yang, 1992; Wichmann, 2004). In other words,
it may be that, in pursuit of group cohesion, individual group members bypass or ignore threats
to face when those threats come from people with whom they are familiar. Indeed, the subordi-
nate existing group members showed the least amount of concern for face (even less than the
superiors) in their turns at 31.5%. This low concern for face may be possible given the longevity
the existing members have had as members of the group and the collaborative efforts in which
they have engaged. For example, Edna and Stanley, the subordinate existing team members on
the design team, explained to newcomer Sloane that they had worked together on every project
for the previous 2 years and joked that they were ‘‘an old married couple.’’ Therefore, it appears
that a low social distance coupled with a low power differential permits the subordinate existing
group members to generally have a low concern for face.
Power and Social Distance: Superiors to Subordinates
The superiors of both groups showed, like the subordinate existing group members, a relatively
low concern for face, in that they showed a high concern for the hearer’s face in only 42.7%of
their turns. Given that, as superiors, they had the most relative power, they did not inherently
have to keep a high concern for face within their utterances. That finding correlates with ongoing
research of superior=subordinate politeness strategies (Morand & Ocker, 2003). However, unlike
the subordinate existing group members, the superiors did face a somewhat high level of social
distance between both the newcomer and the other existing group members. Though all the
superiors had been in their current positions for at least 4 years, they did not routinely collaborate
with the other existing members on specific projects. Instead, the superiors generally conducted
managerial activities, such as managing multiple projects, interacting with upper management,
or interfacing with the client, thereby limiting their interactions with their existing group mem-
bers to those conversations within the meetings that I recorded or (particularly with the technical
communicators) within e-mail or instant messaging threads. Therefore, given the power and
social distance differentials between the superiors and all the other group members, I was not
surprised that the superiors had similar overall low concern for face as did the subordinate exist-
ing members, although the superiors tended to have a slightly higher overall concern for face.
Accommodating Newcomers by Altering Politeness Strategies
Both the superiors and the subordinate existing group members showed a relatively low concern
for the hearer’s face in their turns (42.7%and 31.5%, respectively). However, both groups
shifted their politeness strategies depending on whom they were addressing in an utterance.
When subordinate existing group members responded to or directed an utterance toward their
superiors, 52.4%of their turns had a high concern for face and only 46.6%had a low concern
for face. Further, when subordinate existing group members responded to or directed an utter-
ance to a newcomer, 53.8%of the turns had a high concern for face while 47.2%had a low
concern for face. Similarly, when superiors addressed subordinate existing group members, they
showed a high concern for face in 31%of their turns and low concern for face in 69%of the
turns. When the hearer was a newcomer, superiors showed a high concern for face in 49.3%
of the turns and a low concern for face in 50.7%of the turns.
Therefore, the existing group members (both subordinate and superior) seem to have some
degree of situational awareness in that they modify their politeness strategies depending on
audience, with particular change apparent in the politeness strategies directed at newcomers.
Both subsets of existing group members included many more apologies, hedges, and minimiza-
tions of impositions in the utterances directed toward newcomers compared with utterances
directed toward other existing group members (whether subordinates or superiors). The subor-
dinate existing group members seem to be cognizant that they need to alter their politeness stra-
tegies to mitigate threats to the face of the newcomer to facilitate the socialization process. This
dedication to the socialization process is further reflected in the superiors’ politeness strategies.
Given that a critical goal for superiors is to oversee a successful socialization period for a new-
comer so that the newcomer will stay and be a valuable member of the company, I was not sur-
prised that the superiors couched their utterances to newcomers with negative politeness
strategies (e.g., hedges and deference) that reflected a concern for the hearer’s face and positive
politeness strategies (such as joking or using in-group identity markers) that inculcated the
newcomer as part of the group. Additionally, the superiors’ higher concern for face of newco-
mers might indicate that the superiors were actively trying to avoid a face-threatening act that
would require repair work to save the face of the newcomer—repair work that would require
a deviation from the conversation or issue at hand and add time to the meeting.
Newcomers Assimilate by Altering Their Politeness Strategies
The politeness shifts of the subordinate and superior existing group members suggest that these
members do, in fact, attempt to accommodate the newcomers by altering their politeness strate-
gies and thus by attempting to mitigate the threats to the newcomers’ face, even if the general
behavior they model displays a low concern for face. And although the subordinate and superior
existing group members changed their politeness strategies when addressing the newcomer
directly, never more than approximately 50%of the turns showed a high concern for face. There-
fore, despite the vast differences in the structure, distribution, and composition of the groups, the
newcomers to both groups entered into a conversational environment in which, at best, half the
statements uttered by anyone other than the newcomers had a low concern for the face of others.
Despite the potentially stressful situation in which these newcomers found themselves, both
newcomers changed their politeness strategies over the course of the observation. These changes
enabled the newcomers to more appropriately fall in line with the politeness strategies modeled
to them by the existing group members and begin to assimilate into the group. Throughout the
course of the observation, the newcomers showed a high concern for face in 64.0%of their turns.
However, by the last recorded meetings of both groups, the newcomers displayed concern for
face less than the rest of the group. Whereas both newcomers still embedded their speech with
‘‘BRING THE NEWBIE INTO THE FOLD’’ 315
negative politeness strategies to make their statements less face threatening than those of their
colleagues, they reduced their concern approximately 22%from their first to their last recorded
meetings (which occurred after 1 week for Sloane and 1 month for Brian, though Sloane clocked
more hours with her colleagues in that 1 week than Brian did in 1 month). If specific strategies
(particularly negative politeness strategies) are analyzed, the largest differences between the first
and the last meetings were the number of turns that invoked outright apologizes, hedges, and
statements of deference. Therefore, the newcomers modified their politeness strategies over a
short time to assist their assimilation into their new workplace group.
According to Rainey, Turner, and Dayton (2005), the two most critical competencies for
technical communicators are the ability to collaborate with subject matter experts and the ability
to collaborate with coworkers, with both competencies ranking above writing skill and software
knowledge. Cargile Cook (2002) suggested that it is critical to supplement traditional technical
communication pedagogies with ‘‘activities that promote collaborative team-building skills’’
(p. 8) and encouraged instructors to ‘‘oversee team activities as well as obstacles or conflicts
teams may encounter’’ (p. 12). And, indeed, Allen and Benninghoff (2004) found that collabora-
tion skills were an emphasized topic at every educational institution that responded to their sur-
vey to investigate the coverage of technical communication curricula. However, although
classroom-based collaboration helps introduce students to the general aspects of collaborative
work, students generally face a low level of power differential (because they are students) as well
as varying levels of social distance (because some student teams are composed of strangers
whereas others are composed of students who have taken several classes together and have per-
haps worked together previously) within these groups. This study suggests that, when students
enter into a workplace group as newcomers, they will face both a high power differential and a
high social distance differential. Thus, technical communication programs should perhaps
consider preparing their students for these newcomer situations, either through explicit instruc-
tion or through practical experience in the form of internships or direct client work. Additionally,
these findings suggest that explicitly teaching politeness theory to technical communication stu-
dents may be warranted. At the beginning of the socialization process, the newcomers in this
study included many negative politeness strategies in their spoken exchanges with their super-
iors and colleagues, but by the end of the observations, the newcomers had altered their polite-
ness strategies to be more like those of their coworkers. By teaching students the basic tenets of
politeness theory, teachers might enable their students to detect politeness strategies in utterances
deployed by themselves and others. If students are cognizant of and can detect politeness stra-
tegies, they might be able to more adeptly alter their strategies to more quickly assimilate into
the group. Further, concepts of politeness could translate well into other aspects of technical
communication, such as proposal writing, online documentation, and instructional design.
LIMITATIONS AND FUTURE RESEARCH
This case study, like all case studies, has some limitations. First, only two groups were studied,
which limited the data set. Additionally, this study investigated only the language within the
meetings; pre- and postmeeting discussions were not examined. Written exchanges, including
e-mails, instant messages, Facebook messages, or short message service texts were not examined
due to proprietary concerns on the part of the companies. A data collection that included written
exchanges might allow the investigator to more easily detect alterations in group members’
concern for face. Finally, this study did not include directed interviews to determine what, if
anything, the interlocutors thought about their utterances in terms of their consideration of face.
In light of these limitations, there is much room for future study. First, additional groups
should be studied to establish a richer corpus to determine which linguistic politeness behaviors
within groups with newcomers are standard and which behaviors are perhaps anomalous to the
observed groups. Further, such additional groups could include groups composed solely of new-
comers to see how low power differentials but high social distance differentials are overcome.
Additionally, situations involving an existing group that adds more than one newcomer could be
observed to see how the newcomers use politeness strategies toward each other and what that
means for future relationships (i.e., do their politeness strategies indicate that they view the
others as potential confidants or potential competitors?). Finally, fully computer-mediated
groups could be observed to determine if the aspect of computer mediation in groups with
newcomers increases, decreases, or has no effect on each party’s overall concern for face.
Additionally, more research on the socialization process of technical communicators is
needed. We need to know more about the challenges new technical communicators face (e.g.,
collaborative, sociological, or technological) as they assimilate into the group as well as the
resources (e.g., coworkers, educators, wikis) they take advantage of to successfully meet those
challenges so we can more fully prepare our students to learn how to more quickly become a
meaningful group member.
In this comparative case study, I have observed and analyzed the degree to which a group of
designers and a group of technical communicators linguistically display concern for face in
meetings in which a newcomer to the group is present. Newcomers generally have a high con-
cern for face in their conversational turns, while the existing group members generally have a
low concern for face in their conversational turns.
I have suggested that power and social distance differentials (or lack there of) may contribute
to these groups’ overall use of politeness strategies. However, I also suggest that all group mem-
bers (newcomers, subordinate existing group members, and superiors), by virtue of their altered
politeness strategies, are cognizant that this initial period of entry into an organization, the socia-
lization period, is critical for both the organization and the newcomer. The existing members
showed a greater concern for face when they responded to or addressed a newcomer, thus
accommodating the newcomers and (as mentioned by Terry, a superior of the technical com-
munication group) bringing the newcomers, face relatively unimpeded, into the fold of the
group. Further, newcomers show a desire to assimilate to the behaviors of the group by modify-
ing their politeness strategies as well. Even though the newcomers maintained a high concern for
face relative to the existing group members, over the course of the observed socialization period,
the newcomers reduced the concern for face they displayed within their turns to be more in line
with the lower concern for face the existing group members displayed.
‘‘BRING THE NEWBIE INTO THE FOLD’’ 317
Although more research is needed to investigate how newcomers become fully integrated into
an organizational group, this study has suggested that politeness strategies deployed by existing
group members and newcomers and the malleability of those politeness strategies are a crucial
aspect of assimilation and accommodation during the socialization period.
This research was supported by the University of North Texas’s Research Initiation Grant and
Junior Faculty Summer Research Fellowship. Many thanks go to Ryan Boettger and Jane Crews
for their comments and suggestions. I am also grateful to the anonymous reviewers for their
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Erin Friess is an assistant professor of technical communication in the Department of Linguistics
and Technical Communication at the University of North Texas. Her research interests include
workplace communication and usability assessment.
APPENDIX A. POLITENESS STRATEGIES AND SUB-STRATEGIES FROM
BROWN AND LEVINSON (1987)
1. Bald, on record statement
2. Positive Politeness
a. Notice or attend to the hearer’s wants or needs
c. Intensify interest to the hearer
d. Use in-group identity markers
e. Seek agreement
f. Avoid disagreement
g. Presuppose, raise, assert common ground
i. Assert or presuppose speaker’s knowledge of and concern for hearer’s wants
j. Offer, promise
k. Be optimistic
l. Include both speaker and hearer in the activity
m. Give or ask for reasons
n. Assume or assert reciprocity
o. Give gifts to hearer
3. Negative Politeness
a. Be conventionally indirect
c. Be pessimistic
d. Minimize the imposition
e. Give deference
g. Impersonalize speaker and hearer
h. State the FTA as a general rule
j. Go on the record as incurring a debt
4. Off-record strategies
a. Violate maxim of relevance
i. Give hints=clues
ii. Give association clues
b. Violate maxim of quality
‘‘BRING THE NEWBIE INTO THE FOLD’’ 321
iii. Use tautologies
iv. Use contradictions
v. Be ironic
vi. Use metaphors
vii. Use rhetorical question
c. Violate maxim of manner
i. Be ambiguous
ii. Be vague
iv. Displace hearer
v. Be incomplete, use ellipsis