Apr 202009

Indirectness is an interesting feature of politeness (which I’ve written about elsewhere). Like most people, I don’t always say what I mean. So for example, I might say, ‘Do you have a pen in your bag?’ when really I mean ‘I want a pen’. And people ask for things indirectly like this all the time.

  • Those biscuits look nice (Give me one)
  • Is anybody else here feeling hot? (I’m hot. Open the window)
  • Have you finished with that newspaper? (I want to read it)
  • Are you going past a post box on your way home? (I have a letter I want you to post)
  • Are you busy? (Help!)

The ambiguity in requests like these has social benefits. If I can get what I want because you want to give it to me, then life will seem like it’s harmonious and pleasant for us both. And if I haven’t gone on the record with a request, then it’s easier for me to rescind or modify it later. So I might say ‘Those biscuits look nice’ hoping you’ll offer me one. But then if you say ‘Yes, I bought them for my kids’ school’, I can say ‘Oh how old are your children now?’ and we can both pretend I wasn’t asking.

Now people often say Americans are very direct, but I’m not sure how true that is, particularly when it comes requests like these. An American would say cookies instead of biscuits and mail box instead of post box, but they seem just as likely as me to make requests in this roundabout fashion.
In my experience, Americans are pretty much like Brits when it comes to saying what they mean directly. In short, they don’t.

 Posted by at 8:09 am

  8 Responses to “Are Americans more direct?”

  1. […] not convinced that ambiguity is a bad thing at all, but nevertheless, I think I might be inclined to say ‘Tell me’ if I […]

  2. […] for being direct from. It doesn’t seem to spring from their use of polite modals or indirect requests. Across the pond, someone else has been investigating a similar question about another nation with […]

  3. […] here for more on an AmE greeting and here for more on indirect requests  Posted by Vicki at 11:44 […]

  4. […] hard to follow what’s going on, not because you don’t understand the words, but because people don’t say what they mean. The thing is there’s sometimes a social requirement to be indirect and I’d like to find […]

  5. […] have a reputation for directness. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m often puzzled about where it comes from. But when Bernie Madoff was sentenced to 150 years […]

  6. […] he maintains it’s because lack of mutual knowledge helps us to maintain a fiction. Click here to read another post on ambiguity in polite requests  Posted by Vicki at 10:37 […]

  7. […] all will be well. It’s just not true. Human beings are often indirect, and they often have good reasons for being ambiguous. So rather than presenting models of language that ignore ambiguity, I suggest […]

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