It’s not often that stories about pragmatics — and matters of linguistic politeness, especially — make it into the mass media. However, I just came across this interesting article in the NYT, which reports on a study of major social relevance involving language, race and police interactions.
A group of Stanford social scientists studied recordings from police body cameras, which were made during traffic stops. Applying well-known models of linguistic politeness (e.g., Brown & Levinson) to transcripts made from these interactions, they then analyzed whether there was any difference in the language officers used with white motorists compared to the language officers used with black motorists. Specifically, they focused on “levels of respect,” expressed via a combination of different language features. I like this figure that the researchers included in their report, which shows how these features were identified and quantified. As you read this top to bottom, the examples in the figure go from least polite to most polite. In which of these ways would you prefer to be addressed, if you were to be pulled over by a police officer? (click on the figure to enlarge it)
The full research article with all the details is available online here.
(Spoiler alert: Yes, they did find differences. The title of the NYT article kind of gives that away.)