Scholarly article on topic 'Manipulative Language and Loss of Identity in Harold Pinter's The Birthday Party: A Pragmatic Study'

Manipulative Language and Loss of Identity in Harold Pinter's The Birthday Party: A Pragmatic Study Academic research paper on "Law"

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{"Power and identity" / context / "face attack" / "impoliteness strategies" / "rapport management system."}

Abstract of research paper on Law, author of scientific article — Khorshid Mostoufi

Abstract The present paper reports a pragmatic study of characters’ conversation in Harold Pinter's The Birthday Party to reveal how the use of manipulative language can result in destructive ends. It essentially uses Culpeper's (1996; 2003) and Spenser-Oatey's (2002) frameworks mainly to demonstrate how such strategies encode asymmetrical power relations between characters and the loss of their identity as a result of excessive verbal attacks on the face of those without power. By using the mentioned models, the researcher is going to answer the following questions: (1) What impoliteness strategies are used by primary characters to assert their power over the weakest character to attack his face? (2) What counter strategies are used by primary characters either to offend their addressees or defend themselves? (3) Which aspects of primary characters, specifically Stanley's face and sociality rights have been affected, leading to the destruction of his identity due to impolite behaviors?

Academic research paper on topic "Manipulative Language and Loss of Identity in Harold Pinter's The Birthday Party: A Pragmatic Study"


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Procedía - Social and Behavioral Sciences 134 (2014) 146 - 153


Manipulative language and loss of identity in Harold Pinter's The Birthday Party: A pragmatic study

Khorshid Mostoufia*

aSchool of Humanities, University Sains Malaysia, Penang 11800, Malaysia.


The present paper reports a pragmatic study of characters' conversation in Harold Pinter's The Birthday Party to reveal how the use of manipulative language can result in destructive ends. It essentially uses Culpeper's (1996; 2003) and Spenser-Oatey's (2002) frameworks mainly to demonstrate how such strategies encode asymmetrical power relations between characters and the loss of their identity as a result of excessive verbal attacks on the face of those without power. By using the mentioned models, the researcher is going to answer the following questions: (1) What impoliteness strategies are used by primary characters to assert their power over the weakest character to attack his face? (2) What counter strategies are used by primary characters either to offend their addressees or defend themselves? (3) Which aspects of primary characters, specifically Stanley's face and sociality rights have been affected, leading to the destruction of his identity due to impolite behaviors?

© 2014 TheAuthors.PublishedbyElsevier Ltd.Thisisanopen access articleundertheCCBY-NC-NDlicense (http://creativecommons.Org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/).

Selection and peer-review under the responsibility of the Organizing Committee of ICLALIS 2013.

Keywords: Power and identity; context; face attack; impoliteness strategies; rapport management system.

1. Introduction

After achieving victory in World War II, Britain's position as a dominant world power declined. This resulted in

* Corresponding author: Khorshid Mostoufi. Tel.:+65-961-306-83; fax: +65-669-332-35. E-mail

1877-0428 © 2014 The Authors. Published by Elsevier Ltd. This is an open access article under the CC BY-NC-ND license (

Selection and peer-review under the responsibility of the Organizing Committee of ICLALIS 2013. doi:10.1016/j.sbspro.2014.04.233

people losing their jobs, having no money, food or shelter. In addition, they felt unsafe and insecure as they were worried about the start of another world war (Carter & McRae, 2001; Gale, 1977). Many people were killed and many suffered physically and mentally, as a result of experiencing painful losses during the horrible world wars. Indeed, long-term effects of mental illnesses were more destructive to people's psyche. People felt absolute depression and loneliness, so they tried to find a way to cover their inner feelings of insecurity and uncertainty. One of the irreparable consequences of the two World Wars was the incurable damages to people's mentality. The result of psyche's noticeable damage is seen in people's change of behaviour and their treatment with one another that was full of insults and impoliteness.

2. The theatre of the absurd and Harold Pinter

In the gloomy atmosphere of post-war condition, many writers began writing about the horrible effects of the World Wars on people's mentality. The emergence of the Theatre of the Absurd was one of the important movements which had flourished in the literary world and its most crucial characteristic was its unusual use of language (Brockett & Hildy, 1991; Carter & McRae, 2001; Esslin, 1968; Svachova, 2005). The Theatre of the Absurd depicted life as meaningless and useless. The language of this theatre was based on everyday conversation, which means that the language is colloquial, lacks continuity and is full of misunderstandings. Pinter was one of the famous dramatists of the Theatre of the Absurd whose style was highly personal. Pinter explores themes such as unknown menace, verbal torture, power struggle for domination, family hatred, and mental disorder that were repeatedly used in his plays (Esslin, 1970, 1982; Gale, 1977). Pinter began writing plays with The Room in (1957) and wrote some best-known plays such as The Birthday Party (1957), The Homecoming (1964) and Betrayal (1978). He was also famous for his "comedies of menace", which sarcastically showed individuals, who desperately try to communicate for the sake of escaping from an unknown threat (Esslin, 1970, 1982; Rahimipoor, 2011). Moreover, he was noted for his "pinteresque" drama that was based on the irrationality of everyday conversation, tautologies, repetitions, pauses, silences, and self-contradictions (Esslin, 1968).

Harold Pinter (1930-2008), as one of the well-known Absurd Theatre dramatists, reflected the threat, anxiety, conflicts, and violence between people in his works (Esslin, 1968). Many experts believed that Pinter had invented a drama of "human relations at the level of language itself" (Kennedy, 1975). His language illustrated the inherent fear and anxiety of man, not as an abstraction, or surreal bizarre images, but as something real, ordinary and acceptable as an everyday occurrence (Esslin, 1968). Pinter's characters commonly use abusive language and their communications were replete with power struggles. Because of the unequal position of individuals in power relations, there is always asymmetrical relationship between participants. Therefore, the values of human rights and development remain in the hands of the dominants, while the weaker characters are suppressed because of being powerless (Esslin, 1970, 1982; Gale, 1977; Johnstone & Wardle, 1979). When superior individuals are aware of a powerful potential of language, they use linguistic strategies, which make their utterances more effective and forceful. They abuse language to conquer others and the effect of such linguistic behaviour is visible dominance, which causes the annihilation of the identity of weaker characters.

The Birthday Party represents a kind of dramatized theory of power, in which language works as a criterion for determining characters' superiority and inferiority. In other words, the one who is able to use language skilfully is superior to the person who is unable to cope with others or to use language properly (Esslin, 1982; Johnstone & Wardle, 1979; Svachova, 2005). In this play, characters use language as a manipulative weapon to dominate others. The models of Culpeper's impoliteness and Spenser-Oatey's rapport-management will be applied in The Birthday Party to determine the characters' power relations and destruction of weaker character.

To date few researches have been conducted from a pragmatic perspective to study characters' conversations in The Birthday Party.

3. Culpeper's impoliteness strategy

Impoliteness theory is one of the important branches of pragmatics which is frequently seen in people's conversations to cause offence. Impoliteness usually involves some kind of conflict between characters or those who never care about saving the other's face. The concept of impoliteness is the opposite of politeness and when an individual treats others impolitely, he or she deliberately attacks their face with his or her speech and creates social interruption (Culpeper, 1996). Bousfield (2008) noted that impoliteness is the opposite of politeness, in that rather than attempting to soften the face threatening acts (FTAs), impoliteness presents intentionally conflictive communication and aggressive verbal FTAs, which are delivered deliberately. Moreover, for a successful impoliteness, the speaker's intention to offend or threaten the face must be perceived by the hearer (Bousfield, 2008; Culpeper, Bousfield, & Wichmann, 2003).

Among scholars who have worked on impoliteness are Bousfield, Mills, Kasper, Beebe, Keinpointner, Holmes, and Cashman. Culpeper's theories have received the most attention (Culpeper, 1996). Culpeper claimed that impoliteness is very much dependent upon politeness. It means that models and approaches which developed to explain impoliteness have emerged by existing approaches which were primarily developed for politeness. Culpeper (1996) considered not just an extension to Brown and Levinson (1987), but suggested the possibility of parallel structure (Bousfield, 2008; Culpeper, 1996; Culpeper et al., 2003; Culpeper, Short, & Verdonk, 1998). Culpeper's impoliteness super-strategies are designed to attack the face and thus, opposite in terms of orientation to face. It should be mentioned that the definition of 'face' in Culpeper's impoliteness theory is also taken from Brown and Levinson's (1978) politeness theory. In unequal relationships, the person who has more power can be more impolite than the weaker person (Culpeper, 1996). The powerful person uses impoliteness to limit the other person's reaction and to threaten him or her with retaliation if he or she acts impolitely (Culpeper, 1996). In addition, the existing conflict of interest between the participants causes a particular concern to purposefully attack the addressee's face. Culpeper's (1996) impoliteness model adopted the same weightiness formula of Brown and Levinson's as follows: Wx = D(S,H) + P(H,S) + Rx.

According to politeness theory, the interlocutor selects a polite strategy with regard to the hearer's rank and position. It means that if the addressee has a high social rank or more power, the speaker chooses off-record strategy to soften the FTA and respect the hearer. When one aims at attacking the hearer's face, aggravation which produces an FTA of the required weight comes at hand. Thus, the more power the interlocutor has, the more impolite his or her utterance will be. In contrast to the Brown and Levinson's politeness, Culpeper's impoliteness super-strategies are opposite in terms of their orientation to face and thus are designed to attack the addressee's face (Culpeper, 1996). Culpeper's super-strategies are:

• Bald on record impoliteness: This strategy is used where there is much face at stake, and where there is an intention on the part of the speaker to attack the face of the hearer. Therefore, the utterance is deployed in a direct, clear and unambiguous manner.

• Positive impoliteness: The use of strategies designed to damage the recipient's positive face wants. Examples of such strategies include 'ignore', 'snub the other', 'exclude the other from the activity', 'disassociate from the other', 'be disinterested', 'unconcerned', 'unsympathetic', 'use inappropriate identity markers', 'use obscure or secretive language', 'seek disagreement', 'make the other feel uncomfortable', 'use taboo words', 'call the other names', etc.

• Negative impoliteness: The use of strategies deployed to damage the recipient's negative face wants, such as

'frighten', 'condescend', 'scorn or ridicule', 'invade the other's space', 'explicitly associate the other with a negative aspect', 'put the other's indebtedness on record', etc.

• Sarcasm or mock politeness: Culpeper saw sarcasm or mock politeness as a face threatening act which is performed with the use of politeness strategies that are obviously insincere. Sarcasm (mock politeness for social

disharmony) is quite the opposite of banter (mock impoliteness for social harmony).

• Withhold politeness: Culpeper (1996) noted that in order to damage the hearer's face, keep silent when politeness is expected (Bousfields 2008, Culpeper 1998).

While Culpeper's impoliteness model (Culpeper, 1996) ignored the role of the addressee in reacting to impoliteness act, Culpeper et al. (2003) considered options for the hearer either to respond or otherwise (i.e., stay silent). A response may accept the impoliteness or make a counter attack, and the counter attack may be offensive or defensive. The offensive strategies counter face attack with face attack and include match and escalation, while defensive strategies counter face attack by defending one's own face and include direct contradiction, abrogation, opt out on record, insincere agreement, and ignore the attack (Culpeper, Bousfield, & Wichmann, 2003).

Culpeper (1996) stated that context has the central role in interpretation of utterances as inherently polite or impolite. Mooney (2004) also believed that acknowledging some features that are related to communicative events may provide enough evidence for an addressee to perceive the plausible intention of a given speaker in a particular context (Bousfield, 2008; Mooney, 2004). Such information can be of "past encounters, knowledge of social roles, the social roles of the participants, the power, rights of the interactants, the context, the activity type one is engaged in, previous events and so on" (Bousfield, 2008; Mooney, 2004). Thus, recognizing contextual aspects is necessary to understand whether the impoliteness happened accidentally or it was the speaker's intention to offend the addressee. At the same time, it is very important to consider the contextual aspects of a communication when the hearer's reaction to impoliteness is to remain silent. Silence can be interpreted as accepting the impoliteness, searching to find the suitable answer, or a sign of the character's lack of self-confidence as a result of constant insults.

4. Spenser-Oatey's rapport management

Despite Brown and Levinson's positive and negative face, which focus on the individual's wants, Spenser-Oatey highlights the interpersonal and social dimension of face. In her rapport management model, 'quality face' is similar to Brown and Levinson's positive face, while 'sociality rights' is near to the notion of negative face (2000). According to Spenser-Oatey, face has the following two aspects:

• Quality face: We have a fundamental desire for people to evaluate us positively in terms of our personal qualities (e.g., our competence, abilities and appearance). Quality face is concerned with the value that we effectively claim for ourselves in terms of such personal qualities as these, and so is closely associated with our sense of personal self-esteem.

• Social identity face: We have a fundamental desire for people to acknowledge and uphold our social identities or roles as a group leader, a valued customer, or a close friend. Social identity face is concerned with the value that we effectively claim for ourselves in terms of social or group roles, and is closely associated with our sense of public worth. Sociality rights have two interrelated aspects:

• Equity rights: We have a fundamental belief that we are entitled to personal consideration from others, so that we are treated fairly: that we are not unduly imposed upon or unfairly ordered about, that we are not taken advantage of or exploited, and that we receive the benefits to which we are entitled. There seem to be two components to this equity entitlement: The notion of cost-benefit (the extent to which we are exploited, disadvantaged or benefitted, and the belief that costs and benefits should be kept roughly in balance through the principle of reciprocity), and the related issue of autonomy-imposition (the extent to which people control us or impose on us).

• Association rights: We have a fundamental belief that we are entitled to association with others that is in keeping with the type of relationship that we have with them. These association rights relate partly to interactional association/dissociation (the type and extent of our involvement with others), so that we feel, for example, that we are entitled to an appropriate amount of conversational interaction and social chit-

chat with others (e.g., not ignored on the one hand, but not overwhelmed on the other). They also relate to affective association/dissociation (the extent to which we share concerns, feelings and interests). Naturally, what counts as 'an appropriate amount' depends on the nature of the relationship, as well as sociocultural norms and personal preferences (Spencer-Oatey, 2002).

Later, Spenser-Oatey (2008) developed the definition of 'face' as follows: "Face is closely related to a person's sense of identity or self-concept: self as an individual (individual identity), self as a group member (group or collective identity) and self in relationship with others (relational identity). In all three respects, people often regard themselves as having certain attributes or characteristics, such as personality traits, physical features, beliefs, language affiliations and so on (Spencer-Oatey, 2008)".

With regard to Spenser-Oatey's modification of concept of face, the researcher believes that this model helps in clarifying personal and interpersonal aspects of Stanley's face. Through cooperation with Culpeper's impoliteness theory, rapport management illuminates how Stanley's individual and social face had been constantly attacked during his interaction with Goldberg and McCann.

5. The Analysis of the Text

Based on the above discussion, the researcher is going to analyse characters' conversations in The Birthday Party from the perspective of Culpeper's impoliteness strategies and Spenser-Oatey's rapport-management to show the procedures under which Stanley's identity goes through normal stage to an abnormal and finally unnatural state that proves his complete loss of personality. In fact, the pragmatic analysis of this literary work attempts to show the importance of language use in imposing power, and control over others. Here, I analyze one selected extract of the play to demonstrate three stages of Stanley's destruction of identity. They are conversations which occur between Goldberg, McCann and Stanley.

In the following section, the researcher analyses an extract of The Birthday Party in which the conflict between the characters will be demonstrated through language analysis. To facilitate the analysis, the researcher numbers the turns in the dialogue.

1. Goldberg. A warm night.

2. Stanley (turning). Don't mess me about!

3. Goldberg. I beg your pardon?

4. Stanley (moving downstage). I'm afraid there's been a mistake. We're booked out. Your room is taken. Mrs. Boles forgot to tell you. You'll have to find somewhere else.

5. Goldberg. Are you the manager here?

6. Stanley. That's right.

7. Goldberg. Is it a good game?

8. Stanley. I run the house. I'm afraid you and your friend will have to find other accommodation.

9. Goldberg (rising). Oh, I forgot, I must congratulate you on your birthday (offering his head). Congratulations.

10. Stanley (ignoring hand). Perhaps you're deaf.

11. Goldberg. No, what makes you think that? As a matter of fact, every single one of my senses is at its peak. Not bad going, eh? For a man past fifty. But a birthday, I always feel, is a great occasion, takes too much for granted these days. What a thing to celebrate - birth! Like getting up in the morning. Marvellous! Some people don't like the idea of getting up in the morning. I've heard them. Getting up in the morning, they say, what is it? Your skin crabby, you need a shave, your eyes are full of muck, your mouth is like a boghouse, the palms of your hands are full of sweat, your nose is clogged up, your feet stink, what are you but a corpse waiting to be washed? Whenever I hear that point of view I feel cheerful. Because I know what it is to wake up with the sun shining, to the sound of lawnmower, all the little birds, the smell of the grass, church bells,

tomato juice...

12. Stanley. Get out.

13. Enter McCann, with bottles.

14. Get that drink out. These are unlicensed premises.

As it is seen in the extract, Goldberg is a person, who initiates the conversation with greetings, but Stanley in turn 2, uses one of Culpeper's positive sub-strategies, namely 'withhold politeness', because he does not reply greeting with what is expected to be heard. Goldberg in turn 3 'I beg your pardon?' uses Culpeper's offensive-offensive counter strategy, namely 'match' to respond to Stanley's impoliteness. As a new guest in the house who considers himself more powerful than others, Goldberg does not expect such disrespect from Stanley. Therefore, he uses 'match' counter strategy to force Stanley to answer his greeting appropriately. Stanley, who is anxious from the beginning of their entrance, replies Goldberg's turn 3 by using Culpeper's positive super-strategy, namely 'seek disagreement'. Since Stanley is worried about Goldberg and McCann's staying and the result of their cruel decision, he tries to persuade Goldberg to leave the place.

Based on Spenser-Oatey's rapport management model, Stanley, in turn 4, attacks Godberg's equity face by challenging and asking him to leave the house. This illustrates that Stanley is able to resist against Goldberg's wants in the beginning, which is the first stage of identity. Once again Goldberg, who does not expect such an answer from Stanley, uses Culpeper's super-strategy, namely the 'sarcasm' in turn 5. Goldberg feels superiority over Stanley, but at the same time he tries to behave nicely with Stanley in the eyes of others to hide his vicious aim. It can be said that, while trying to show his superiority and power over Stanley, Goldberg ridicules Stanley politely in turn 5. Furthermore, regarding Spenser-Oatey's rapport management model, Goldberg's turn 5 attacks Stanley's social identity face and this can reveal that Goldberg attempts to ruin Stanley's sense of public worth.

To answer Goldberg's face attack, Stanley uses Culpeper's offensive-offensive counter strategy, namely 'match' in turn 6. This means that, Stanley is trying to resist against Goldberg's face threat and he is enable to struggle with him. To continue, Goldberg uses Culpeper's positive sub-strategy about using secretive language in turn 7 to threaten Stanley more severely. By use of this sub-strategy, Goldberg asserts more power on Stanley and threatens his face. Stanley in turn 8 uses Culpeper's offensive-defensive counters strategy, namely 'abrogation' to protect himself and pretend that as a house manager he has to follow the rules. He pretends that no empty room has been left, and he has to do his responsibility to ask the guests to leave the house. The real reason for such behaviour is that Stanley is very anxious of Goldberg and McCann's coming and staying there and feels too insecure because of their attendance. Goldberg and McCann come to this boarding house just to reach their goal that is taking revenge from Stanley and destroying his identity, then bringing him back to their organization. Goldberg, who exactly knows what their reason for coming is, uses Culpeper's positive sub-strategy, namely 'seeking disagreement' in turn 9. By using this sub-strategy, Goldberg shows that he is not interested to discuss about this matter with Stanley, and tries to change the topic to a very sensitive one that is Stanley's birthday. This means that Goldberg never accepts to leave that house, besides he wants to continue annoying and attacking Stanley's feelings.

Being attacked by Goldberg's offense, Stanley confronts with this fact that Goldberg never agrees to leave the house, thus, he uses Culpeper's positive sub-strategy, namely using 'abusive or profane language' in turn 10. This turn (i.e., 'perhaps you're deaf') illustrates the fact that Stanley is still strong enough to keep challenging Goldberg. According to Spenser-Oatey's rapport management model, Stanley also attacks Goldberg 'quality face'. It means that Stanley attacks Goldberg's ability, which is part of an individual's self-esteem, and it makes Goldberg too irritated, since he does not expect such a threat from Stanley as an inferior character. As a result of this behaviour, Goldberg in turn 11 uses the combination of three positive sub-strategies in quite a long turn to attack Stanley's face even harsher, which are 'seek disagreement', 'use abusive language', and 'call the other name'.

The combination of impoliteness strategies in one turn explicitly demonstrates Goldberg's level of anger and how hard he tries to rule over Stanley to make him frustrated. With regard to Spenser-Oatey's rapport management model, Goldberg also attacks both Stanley's equity and social identity face. It means that he attempts to attack Stanley's ability and make him humiliated. Besides, he wants to ruin Stanley's sense of public worth by criticizing him and convincing him that no one treats like him in his birthday. Therefore, since Stanley's behaviour is strange, nobody acknowledges him as a normal person. Consequently, Stanley, who is anxious and consistently has been attacked by Goldberg's verbal threats, loses his temper and interrupts Goldberg's turn 11. Stanley uses Culpeper's offensive-offensive counter strategy, namely 'match' to answer Goldberg face attack in turn 12. He also uses Culpeper's positive sub-strategy (i.e., 'disassociate from others') in turn 13 to show his violence and hatred from Goldberg. It is obvious that Stanley does not want these strangers to hold a treacherous birthday party for him and he is totally upset about their decision to stay in the house. Interrupting Goldberg's turn 11 and the use of 'match', as well as 'disassociation form others', show Stanley's level of anger, anxiety, and insecurity. Based on the rapport management model, Stanley also attacks Goldberg's social identity face in the same turn. That is to challenge Goldberg and imposes on him to prevent him from holding the vicious birthday party and his destructive aim.

6. Conclusion

The above analysis answers first, second, and third questions of the current study. I have explained which of Culpeper's impoliteness strategies are used by the characters to attack their addresses in the selected extract. Moreover, Culpeper's counter strategies, which have been used by the addressee(s) to offend others or defend themselves, as well as those aspects of individual's face or sociality rights which have been affected according to Spenser-Oatey's rapport management model discussed above.

Regarding impoliteness strategies and counter strategies in the above extract, Goldberg uses seven impoliteness strategies and one counter strategy, while Stanley employs four impoliteness strategies and three counter strategies. As a powerful character, Goldberg dares to attack Stanley's face more severely and just once needs to use a counter strategy. In contrast, Stanley who is weaker and concerned about Goldberg and McCann's entrance and their decision to stay, employs four impoliteness strategies and three counter strategies. This demonstrates the fact that Goldberg has this right to rule over Stanley and impose his power on him; consequently, Stanley's face is severely attacked by Goldberg's impoliteness and face threatening acts. The number of rapport-management strategies which are used by Goldberg and McCann also proves the power of Goldberg and his control over Stanley. Goldberg and McCann continue their constant impoliteness and verbal attacks; consequently, Stanley who could defend himself in the beginning, loses his ability to do so. Gradually, Stanley becomes quieter till the end of the play in which his complete destruction can be seen from his inability to talk. As a result of cruel and constant face attacks on Stanley's face, he has been transformed from a normal to an abnormal character, who is unable to correctly say even one word.


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