Jun 102011

I’m very interested in the curious relationship benefits that can result when human beings are ambiguous and don’t state their intent clearly. So I was delighted to discover Steven Pinker exploring the issue in this RSA lecture.
It’s a terrific talk, but if you don’t have time to watch the whole 11 minute video, try to watch it from 7 minutes in. He uses a wonderful example from the movie ‘When Harry met Sally’ to illustrate and explain why direct on the record statements can be less comfortable and more awkward than indirect ones. And if you don’t have time to watch any of it, in short 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 at 10:37 pm

  4 Responses to “The relationship benefits of ambiguity”

  1. Unfortunately, I couldn’t watch the video. However as far as I understood from your own comment, I think the biggest reason to use indirect speech acts or simply put not being open and frank is “face”. As it is extensively explored in many studies, respecting (and not threatening) one’s face or self-image is one of the reasons why we prefer our statements to be a bit ambiguous rather than clear but probably offensive. ‘Imposition’ is also important in this regard. For example, in making requests we usually use some ‘hedging’ devices to mitigate our request imposition. Therefore, as an example, instead of telling a friend “lend me some money” we are very likely to say “you know, I was thinking if you could possibly lend me some money”. Factors such as solidarity/power between the interlocutors determine how far we go to make our requests indirect and non-impositive. Interesting to say, there are lots of cross-cultural variations in the extent and type of ambiguity in speech.

  2. I thought this was an excellent video rasing fundamental issues about the communication.

    It also concurs with a conversation I just had with a German colleague about the perception of British and German colleagues.

    Brits think Germans are rude and Germans never relaise what Brits have said. My interpretation of the video, is that this knowledge is universal and transcultural. I wonder if the difference in British and German talk is related to the predominace of one particular relationship type?

    Personally, I think an awareness of this topic is fundamental for second language learners and international communinicators but the question is how to deliver succinctly and coherently? I have worked in linguistics for many years and really had to concentrate to follow the argument, how can I expect second language users to do the same?

  3. Hi Mohammed! I’m so sorry you can’t access the video! The video doesn’t belong to me so I’m afraid I can’t put it up on youtube.

    You’re right about the ‘face’ issues lying at the heart of at the heart of much lingistic politeness, Mohammad. Unfortunately the video is rather long to paraphrase succinctly, but as well as requests, Steven Pinker looks at veiled threats and innuendos and he takes an interesting turn with it, considering the difference between is shared public knowledge that’s not on the record and shared public knowledge that is on the record. Not-on-the-record can often be more comfortable than the other. Ah dear, I did warn you it would be hard to explain succintly!

    Incidentally folks, when I post a video I have made i generally put it on youtube. If you can’t access youtube and would like me to post it on Vimeo too – just drop me a line.

  4. Hi Ed! Thanks for stopping by and chipping in. I hesitate to say anything about German linguistic politeness rules because I reckon Sabrina Gerland is the best one on that – she has just finished her Phd on it. Perhaps she’ll stop by soon.

    Re teaching this stuff, I agree keeping it simple is the hard bit. but nevertheless, I think there’s a lot we can do, even at lowish language levels, without using the sort of complex vocabulary Steve Pinker was using.

    (WARNING everyone – here comes a book plug!)
    For example, Lifestyle pre-intermediate p 42 and 43 compares direct and indirect requests and practices lots of ambiguous ‘off-the-record” request forms which are easier to recind or modify later to avoid awkwardness. But I haven’t had to use those terms in the language note, which says:

    “We often apologise if we have to refuse direct requests:
    A: Can I have a biscuit?
    B: I’m sorry but I made them for my children’s school.

    With indirect requests it’s easier to refuse:
    A: Those biscuits look nice.
    B: Yes, I made them for my children’s school.

    So I think with careful wording and good examples, a lot of this stuff can be taught because our students are aware of face issues in their own culture. Awkwardness may be overcome rather differenlty, but similar principles will apply. In the words of Robin Lakoff:
    1. Don’t Impose 2. Give Options 3. Make your receiver feel good.

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