“Then you should say what you mean,” the March Hare went on.
“I do,” Alice hastily replied; “at least–at least I mean what I say–that’s the same thing, you know.”
“Not the same thing a bit!” said the Hatter. “You might just as well say that “I see what I eat” is the same thing as “I eat what I see”!”
One of my favorite favorite books about pragmatics is Deborah Tannen’s That’s not what I meant!, which deals with the balance between directness and indirectness in communication.
To explain the paradoxical human need for both independence and connection, Tannen uses an example of a group of porcupines in the winter. To stay warm, the porcupines need to huddle up as close to each other as possible. Sadly, the closer they get, the more they poke each other, so they have to stay at a distance to avoid getting hurt. Which means they’ll get cold again, and huddle up. Ouch. And step back. And on and on again.
Which is exactly what humans do, too: in order to stay connected, we get too close, and in order to give others privacy, we keep away. In terms of direct vs. indirect communication, the former often serves the purpose of creating closeness, whereas the latter often observes the boundaries and distance your hearer needs.
With every utterance, a speaker performs a speech act. It can be a question (“Where is the car?”), a command (“Give me the sweater!”), a statement (“Something smells bad in here.”), or a bunch of other speech acts, like promises, threats, or requests.
In terms of speech acts, directness could be explained as matching the speech act with the grammatical structure it most naturally takes. In the examples above the question, the command, and the statement are all easily recognizable, and can be interpreted at face value.
Now imagine a stranger walks up to you on the street and says those three things. You feel quite offended, right? Politeness rules dictate that increase in social distance requires more indirectness.
Then again, a mother would have no problem saying those things to her seven-year-old, for two reasons. One, the two are socially very close to each other. Two, the mother is higher in the social hierarchy than the seven-year-old.
Directness between equals, then, often marks closeness. You wouldn’t think twice about telling your best friend those jeans make her behind look horrible – at least before she buys them. Or telling your spouse that s/he has toilet paper stuck on the sole of his/her shoe. You trust them enough to interpret your message at face value and to not read some hidden criticism into it.
Directness requires a good nose for the situation, however. Being too direct when stating your opinion might seem like an insult, especially if the hearer perceives you as being lower in the social hierarchy. Direct commands, of course, can easily sound like you’re bossing people around.
Asking direct questions from someone you’re not that close with may make the hearer feel you’re being nosy or intrusive. Furthermore, they might feel you’re forcing them to be rude by asking a question they cannot skate over and must answer with a direct “I don’t want to tell you.”
If directness was defined as matching your speech act with your structure, indirectness would then be e.g. using an interrogative structure (“Are you wearing that to the party?”) to convey a non-question speech act, like a statement (“I don’t think you should wear that to the party”) or even a command (“Go put on something else.”)
As already noted, indirectness is very useful in socially distant situations. People have varied levels of directness tolerance, and until you know where the limit is, it’s wise to stay well on the polite side.
The interplay of directness and indirectness is also an interesting factor in social situations where some people know each other better and some are new acquaintances. Using direct speech to your old friends and indirect speech to the newcomers is an efficient way to keep the two groups separate.
On the other hand, addressing your new friends very directly in front of your old friends can have a few effects. It can serve as an invitation to join the group, especially if your directness is matched.
Or it can seem like a form of namedropping, especially if your new friends are somehow higher in social hierarchy.
Case in point:
A while back I attended an event that had people from a few different circles. One of the more amusing moments of that evening was when a woman – one that had been extremely polite and indirect to my friends and very direct to hers – started addressing a few of “our” gentlemen in very familiar terms. Specifically, the hot one and the semi-famous one. Her offer for more familiarity was politely declined by both, though.
When it comes to close relationships, mismatching structure and speech acts can work as either increasing closeness or creating distance.
In a safe and trusting communicative culture, like one you might have with a significant other, using indirect communication can become almost a code language between the participants. Communicating with mere declarations and relying on conversational implicature can enhance the feeling of “s/he can totally read my mind!”
“We’re out of milk.” (indirect request/command)
“I’m going out to the post office in just a moment.” (indirect response to request)
“I’m baking bread this evening.” (indirect request)
“Great, then I’ll bring some yeast, too, just in case.” (indirect response)
On the other hand, you could just as well use indirectness to tell your spouse that you feel like keeping at arms length and you’ll be just fine on your own, thank you very much. Gestures, eye contact and tone of voice all contribute to the effect.
I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of this whole topic of directness, indirectness, trust, closeness and independence. Will most likely be getting back to this on Friday.
Until then, keep catching your own insightings!