When you think about it, the way in which we express ourselves is somewhat paradoxical. We have the words to say exactly what we mean, yet we routinely use them to express our thoughts in ways that are lengthy, complicated, that disguise our true motives or blur our clear intentions.

We ask “Would you mind passing me the salt?” when we have zero interest in whether our dinner companion would or would not mind. We blurt out “That’s an original style!” when confronted with our daughter’s questionable fashion choices, even when what we really want to say is “I’d rather have you not wear that”. We opt for “Well, have you heard there’s a storm coming?” after our mother asks us “So when am I finally getting a grandchild?”. 

Why is our speech riddled with ambiguity and indirectness when it would be way more efficient to speak clearly and succinctly? It is certainly not because we lack the available tools – an average native speaker of Dutch after completing high school has a vocabulary of more than 18,000 words. To answer this question, one must reconsider the old dogma that we converse primarily to exchange information. If that was the case, we would indeed be better off speaking like robots or living legal documents, where every expression is cleaned of all inaccuracies, carefully polished in order to make it almost impossible to misunderstand one another. Yet, that’s not how we speak, and we pay a lot of money to people who manage to write in such clean, technical, unambiguous language. The reason is that we do not communicate to merely inform one another about the world. Speaking is one of our primary means of self-expression, of shaping our social standing. We do things with words – we want to impress but without obviously trying to impress (hence the invention of “humblebrag”), we want to criticize but not seem too harsh, we want to achieve what we want but in a way that minimizes the risk of being branded as ruthless. The way we speak with others is part of our social image, and our way of keeping this image immaculate is being conversationally polite.

Indirectness is one of the most accessible tools we have to maintain conversational politeness, at least in the Western world. The unwritten rules of our linguistic behavior state that if we are faced with a situation where we need to criticize someone – in other words, when the message we want to express is likely to hurt the feelings of our conversational partner – there is a strong push towards saying it indirectly.
“There is still room for improvement on your essay,” instead of “Your essay is very bad,” or “You always choose such bold colors,” instead of “I don’t like the way you dress”. However, indirectness is not reserved for taking care of how we want to be perceived. For most of us, it is very hard to directly turn down a request or an invitation. Instead, we turn to indirect ways of doing that in an effort to not hurt the feelings, or the social image, of our conversational partner. “Sorry, I have a very busy week,” instead of a simple “No, I will not come to your party”. [On a slightly different but related note, the social rules governing our interactions mean that we even have a tendency to apologize for starting to speak! “Excuse me, can I ask a question?”]

“That’s a very nice suite Mr. Takagi, it would be a shame to ruin it”
In Die Hard, directed by John McTiernan in 1988, the villain is trying to get access code to a locked vault from one of the characters and indirectly threatens him.

Not all theories of indirectness agree that our main motivation is to be cooperative with each other. According to one influential account, indirectness can sometimes be motivated by power dynamics. In high-stakes situations, such as when facing a fine or making a potentially inappropriate offer, dressing one’s communicative message in a veil of ambiguity can help the speaker achieve plausible deniability. If I am about to get a parking ticket for parking in the wrong spot, I can try my luck by implying – but not explicitly saying – that I am open to bribing the policewoman “Can we take care of it here?”. This makes me less vulnerable to the potential negative consequences of trying to bribe her directly, but also of having to pay the full fine. Not knowing beforehand whether the policewoman is honest or corrupt, I only risk that she will refuse my offer and I will have to pay the full fine (in case she is honest) or get away with paying less (in case she is corrupt). Even the honest policewoman cannot convincingly accuse me of any wrongdoing since I never explicitly stated my intentions and it is impossible to prove what exactly I was implying.  

Are we all indirect speakers? Perhaps one of the most famous candidates for a “master of indirectness” title was the 45th president of the USA, Donald Trump. It is hard to say whether it was due to excellent strategic skills on his part, a particularly small vocabulary, or a combination of both, that famously lead a CNN writer to exclaim – “What does he mean when he says words?” (the President, obviously, made it very clear that he “knows words, [he] has the best words”). It is certainly clear that he must have been well-versed in the art of plausible deniability in a fair amount of high-stakes diplomatic cases. There is a lot of variation in how likely someone is to be indirect, and whether they routinely look for hidden meanings in the speech of others, among ordinary people as well. Research so far has identified that, for example, assertive people tend to speak more directly and that women may be perceived and expected to be less direct. Research also confirms our intuition that there are differences among cultures, for example, that students from South Korea are more likely to be indirect than students from the USA.

The MRI brain scan shows the brain regions that are most activated when the participants listen to sentences with indirect expressions. In addition to the core language areas in the left hemisphere, regions from the right hemisphere are recruited to interpret the sentence meaning.
Picture from Jana Basnakova Ph.D. thesis, Beyond the language given: The neurobiological infrastructure for pragmatic inferencing.

Finally, indirect expressions, even though they might seem complicated and lengthy, are a great testbed for researchers to learn about how the brain processes language. Clearly, when one says “It’s hard to give a convincing talk on this topic,” after being asked for feedback on a friend’s school presentation, the brain cannot just retrieve the meanings of individual words (“talk”, “convincing”, “hard”) and assemble them according to the grammatical rules of the given language. This would mean that the resulting message would be about the complexity of giving presentations, but not at all relevant to the friend’s request. In other words, in interpreting indirectness, the brain must somehow relate the words and the entire message to the context of our conversation – that my friend is asking for feedback and I am expected to give him some, that it will likely be an evaluative sentence, and even that there are certain social rules that determine how we express positive and negative messages. It turns out that, in order to do this, the brain has to recruit other cognitive systems than just the typical “core” left-hemisphere linguistic regions it uses for interpreting words and sentences outside of any meaningful context. Interpreting indirectness, as well as other instances of language in context, also engages language regions in the right hemisphere, as well as parts of a non-language network that the brain engages when we think about the beliefs, intentions, or desires of others.

I hope that this blog has given you a taste of how real-world communication is so much more than exchanging ideas that are neatly packaged into words and sentences. In fact, the words themselves are often quite the opposite of what we really want to express – not even mentioning the fact that when you start dissecting what the entries in our mental dictionaries mean, we often come to the surprising realization that these meanings differ between people, based on the different expertise and life experiences of each individual. Yet, our brains, evolved for life in social groups and having been trained in interactions with others throughout the entire childhood, can typically deal with all these complexities without any significant problems.

Read more

Holtgraves, T. (1997). Styles of language use: Individual and cultural variability in conversational indirectness. Journal of personality and social psychology73(3), 624.

Brown, P., Levinson, S. C., & Levinson, S. C. (1987). Politeness: Some universals in language usage (Vol. 4). Cambridge university press.

Bašnáková, J., Weber, K., Petersson, K. M., van Berkum, J., & Hagoort, P. (2014). Beyond the language given: The neural correlates of inferring speaker meaning. Cerebral Cortex24(10), 2572-2578.

Pinker, S., Nowak, M. A., & Lee, J. J. (2008). The logic of indirect speech. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences105(3), 833-838.

Anthony Mulac, James J. Bradac, Pamela Gibbons, Empirical Support for the Gender-as-Culture Hypothesis: An Intercultural Analysis of Male/Female Language Differences, Human Communication Research, Volume 27, Issue 1, January 2001, Pages 121–152.