Since I seem to be holding a virtual seminar on this sort of thing today:
Sociolinguistics is a term including the aspects of linguistics applied toward the connections between language and society, and the way we use it in different social situations. It ranges from the study of the wide variety of dialects across a given region down to the analysis between the way men and women speak to one another. Sociolinguistics often shows us the humorous realities of human speech and how a dialect of a given language can often describe the age, sex, and social class of the speaker; it codes the social function of a language.
In everyday conversation, there are ways to go about getting the things we want. When we are with a group of friends, we can say to them, "Go get me that plate!", or "Shut-up!" However, when we are surrounded by a group of adults at a formal function, in which our parents are attending, we must say, "Could you please pass me that plate, if you don't mind?" and "I'm sorry, I don't mean to interrupt, but I am not able to hear the speaker in the front of the room." I different social situations, we are obligated to adjust our use of words to fit the occasion. It would seem socially unacceptable if the phrases above were reversed.
According to Brown and Levinson, politeness strategies are developed in order to save the hearers' "face." Face refers to the respect that an individual has for him or herself, and maintaining that "self-esteem" in public or in private situations. Usually you try to avoid embarrassing the other person, or making them feel uncomfortable. Face Threatening Acts (FTA's) are acts that infringe on the hearers' need to maintain his/her self esteem, and be respected. Politeness strategies are developed for the main purpose of dealing with these FTA's.
Added a link to the names [Penelope] Brown and [Stephen] Levinson (who's apparently in residence at Beckman in Shampoo-Banana these days. . ) to a slide giving a very brief breakdown of A Model of Politeness. It's a fascinating topic, but the problem I ran into with it is, once I was aware of this, I couldn't help, um, fucking around with Face-Threatening Acts when other people toss 'em at me.
There are certain ways one is meant to respond to these sorts of things -- don't get me started, just. . . don't, I'll start ranting about Katz-Fodor semantics and we'd be here all day -- and when you very obviously don't play by the rules. . .
. . . in my case, people think it's because the nigger doesn't know any better.
I've developed quite an attitude about that lately.
Leading someone to say to me, "I really don't like your attitude."
And me to reply, probably much too loudly for a crowded store, "Oh my god, and you think I care?!?"
She called the manager on me.
The manager pointed out that I didn't work there.
At which point, the older white woman who'd expressed her displeasure with my attitude asked me why I hadn't told her I didn't work there.
And I asked her why she'd assumed that I did.
Then left a beat.
Then added, "cracka," to the end of the question.
Racism is something else I use as an opportunity to fuck with people. Really should stop doing that.
Once it's no longer entertaining.
Update: Sorry, should explain that sitch better. Woman came up to me in the store and asked where something was. I sort-of shrugged and made a suggestion. She asked where the suggested location was, and I pointed out the signs hanging from the ceiling.
Yes, I could have just told her I didn't work there -- not that I was dressed like anyone who did -- but where's the fun in that?
I'd ask if you wanted to know more, and toss up a link to the HTML translation of a PDF on Adapting Brown and Levinson’s ‘Politeness’ Theory to the Analysis of Casual Conversation, but that's probably going a bit too far. . .