What does it mean when too much formality can appear menacing?

Consider the responses when one asks for a lemon:

"Do you have any lemons in your fridge?"

  • "No, sorry"
  • "Nah"
  • "No, I don't think so."
  • "Nope."
  • "Why? Do you need one?"

These responses seem normal or even friendly for some reason. Yet, if I ask,

"Do you have any lemons in your fridge?"

and the response is

  • "No."
  • "No, I don't."
  • "Why?"

These sentences seem different in tone. Something about their length makes them seem much more hostile. Is there a name for what I'm talking about?

  • 1
    They are more curt than the first set of responses. Commented Jul 18, 2012 at 21:46
  • 2
    The wiki on politeness theory might be an interesting read for you. Longer responses might be indicative of attempts to mitigate face-threatening acts.
    – Cameron
    Commented Jul 18, 2012 at 21:50
  • 1
    This question might be good for Writers.SE. My take on it is that overformality implies that you are suspending or ending a previously close relationship. Emotionally speaking, you are (or are threatening to) break it off by talking to the person not as a close friend, but as a stranger. The person being addressed is likely to feel hurt or angry because something of value to them is threatened.
    – MetaEd
    Commented Jul 18, 2012 at 22:22
  • @Cameron: 'face-threatening'? Is that the opposite of 'face-saving'?
    – Mitch
    Commented Jul 19, 2012 at 3:26

1 Answer 1


The "extended" responses are hedges - a mitigating device used to lessen the impact of an utterance.

Hedges are so common in the context of a (disappointingly) negative reply that failure to use one isn't just "neutral" - it can actually seem hostile.

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