Politeness and Pragmatics

On a forum I frequent, a few posters started talking about indirectness and how it can be annoying when a superior—whether a boss or a parent—asks you to do something in an indirect way. My response was popular enough that I thought I might repost it here. What follows is one of the original posts plus my edited and expanded response.

My kids used to get really pissed off when I asked them “Would you please unload the dishwasher”. They said it implied that they had a choice, when they really didn’t.

It’s time for some speech act theory.

The study of the meanings of words and utterances is called semantics, but the study of speech acts—how we intend those utterances to be received and how they’re received in context—is called pragmatics. And a look at pragmatics can reveal why parents say things like “Would you please unload the dishwasher?” when they really mean “Unload the dishwasher.”

Any speech act has three components: the locution (the meaning of the words themselves), the illocution (the intent of the speaker or writer), and the perlocution (the message that is received, or the effect of the speech act). Quite often, all three of these coincide. If I ask “What time is it?”, you can be pretty sure that my intent is find out the time, so the message you receive is “Jonathon wants me to tell him the time.” We call this a direct speech act.

But sometimes the locution, illocution, and perlocution don’t exactly correspond. If I ask “Do you know what time it is?”, I’m not literally asking if you have knowledge of the current time and nothing more, so the appropriate response is not just “Yes” or “No” but “It’s 11:13” or whatever the time is. I’m still asking you to tell me the time, but I didn’t say it directly. We call this an indirect speech act.

And speech can often be much more indirect than this. If we’re on a road trip and I ask my wife, “Are you hungry?”, what I really mean is that I’m hungry and want to stop for food, and I’m checking to see if she wants to stop too. Or maybe we’re sitting at home and I ask, “Is it just me, or is it hot in here?” And what I really mean is “I’m hot—do you mind if I turn the AC up?”

Indirect speech acts are often used to be polite or to save face. In the case of asking a child or subordinate to do something when they really don’t have a choice, it’s a way of downplaying the power imbalance in the relationship. By pretending to give someone a choice, we acknowledge that we’re imposing our will on them, which can make them feel better about having to do it. So while it’s easy to get annoyed at someone for implying that you have a choice when you really don’t, this reaction deliberately misses the point of indirectness, which is to lubricate social interaction.

Of course, different speech communities and even different individuals within a community can have varying notions of how indirect one should be, which can actually cause additional friction. Some cultures rely much more on indirectness, and so it causes problems when people are too direct. On the flip side, others may be frustrated with what they perceive as passive-aggressiveness, while the offender is probably just trying to be polite or save face.

In other words, indirectness is generally a feature, not a bug, though it only works if both sides are playing the same game. Instead of getting annoyed at the mismatch between the locution and the illocution, ask yourself what the speaker is probably trying to accomplish. Indirectness isn’t a means of obscuring the message—it’s an important part of the message itself.