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An indirect speech act is one in which a speaker does not say what they really mean. Such speech acts are prevalent in a variety of social contexts. On the face of it, this poses something of conundrum as these speech acts are inefficient and prone to being misunderstood. So why are they so common?
In their article, “The Logic of Indirect Speech”, Pinker, Nowak and Lee (hereinafter “PNL”) try to develop a theory that explains the prevalence of indirect speech. They do so by eschewing classic cooperation-based theories of implied meaning, in favour of a conflictual and strategic theory. As they see it, people rely on indirect locutions because doing so allows them to achieve desirable outcomes when interacting with others who may have different or unknown interests.
We looked at the first part of their theory the last day. This argued that indirect speech is used in certain settings because it provides the speaker with a valuable commodity, namely: plausible deniability. The classic illustration of this came in the shape of the Briber’s Dilemma, a shorthand name for the decision problem in which a speeding driver must decide whether to bribe a traffic cop. In this scenario, an implied bribe can be the rational choice because it provides the speaker with the best of both worlds: the scrapping of their ticket if the cop is dishonest, coupled with no risk of arrest for bribery if the cop is honest.
The thing is, it’s easy to see the value of plausible deniability in such a context. The costs and benefits are readily discernible, and so the rationality of indirect speech reveals itself with a minimum of fuss. It’s more difficult when the costs and benefits are opaque or hidden. This is where the next part of PNL’s theory comes into play. They argue that the phenomenon of relationship negotiation can help us to unearth the hidden value of plausible deniability in other social contexts.
In the remainder of this post, I look at PNL’s discussion of relationship negotiation. I do so in three parts. First, I discuss the three main types of social relationship (according to Alan Fiske). Second, I explain the problem of relationship ambiguity. And third, I explain why indirect speech in general — and plausible deniability in particular — can play a valuable role in addressing the problem of relationship ambiguity.
1. The Three Main Types of Relationship
We all know that human social intercourse is mediated through a variety of relationships. In my capacity as a university lecturer, I stand in a particular kind of relationship with my students. The relationship comes with a set of norms and standards that most people try to respect. It is, however, a very different kind of relationship from the one I have with my friends and family, both of which have a distinctive set of norms and standards associated with them.
Mapping out all the possible relationships and the concomitant norms and standards sounds like an exhausting task. Fortunately, social scientists have been trying to do this for some time, and although I imagine there is no perfect taxonomy of relationship-types, Alan Fiske’s taxonomy is the one used by PNL. Fiske argues that all human relationships (across all societies) fall into three distinct categories:
Dominance Relationships: These are relationships in which one party exerts dominance or authority over another, and the other defers to the dominant party. This relationship can be seen in the animal kingdom where dominance hierarchies are common. As PNL put it, this relationship is governed by the ethos “Don’t mess with me”.
Communal Relationships: These are relationships in which resources are shared freely between the parties, resulting in almost perfect equality. As PNL put it, this relationship is governed by the ethos “What’s mine is thine and what’s thine is mine”.
Reciprocal Relationships: These are relationships that lie somewhere in between the other two. They are characterised not by dominance, nor by free sharing of resources, but by tit-for-tat exchanges. As PNL put it, the governing ethos is “You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours”.
Fiske actually identifies a fourth relationship type (“Market Pricing”) which is found only in industrial societies. It is not discussed by PNL so I will ignore it (perhaps to my own cost).
The key thing about each of the three relationship-types listed above is that in addition to having a governing ethos, there is a distinctive style of communication associated with each. Thus, in the dominance relationship, imperatives, direct requests and non-verbal dominance displays are common. In the communal relationship, nonverbal cues, physical contact and coordinated activities are common. And in the the reciprocal relationship, actual tit for tat exchanges are the dominant signal, but these can be negotiated through explicit verbal contracts.
2. The Problem of Relationship Ambiguity
If at any given time everyone was aware of the exact relationship-type they happen to be in, then there may be no role for the plausible deniability of indirect speech. The distinctive communicative style associated with each of the three relationships would provide perfect information to the respective parties, and they could thereby say what they mean, provided that what they say fits within the ethos of the particular relationship.
The problem, however, is that relationships can be ambiguous. This arises from mixed beliefs and mixed signals. For example, sometimes I think that the relationship I have with my students is one of dominance and authority. But at other times I think this wrong and that it should be viewed as a relationship of reciprocity or maybe even communality. It’s quite possible that the students are unsure of this too. Some of the verbal and nonverbal cues I send out might indicate that it is, indeed, a relationship of authority, and they may act accordingly. But, at other times, I may send out verbal and nonverbal cues that suggest a relationship of communality and friendship. This may confuse them, resulting a less certainty about the appropriate form of conduct.
As PNL point out, relationship ambiguity of this sort can lead to aversive emotions, such as the feeling of “awkwardness”, as well as undesirable outcomes. This arises most commonly when there is a mismatch between the two parties regarding the type of relationship they are in. To quote:
When relationships are ambiguous, a divergent understanding between the parties can lead to the aversive emotion we call “awkwardness”. There are awkward moments in a workplace or university when an underling or student makes a transition from a subordinate (dominance) to something closer to a friend (communality). Good friends (communality) are advised not to engage in a business transaction (reciprocity), like the sale of a car or a house, which can endanger the friendship. The ambiguity between dominance and sex (a kind of communal relationship) is the battleground of sexual harassment conflicts…
These last two examples — the friends falling out over the sale of a car, and the work colleagues involved in a sexual harassment suit — indicate just how serious the problem of relationship ambiguity can be. Is it possible that indirect speech plays a role in minimising this problem?
3. Plausible Deniability in Relationship Negotiation
This is what PNL argue. Turning first to something called “politeness theory”, they point out that language serves at least two functions (probably more). The first is to state a proposition such as “it is now raining” or “I will pick up my dry-cleaning”; the second is to negotiate and maintain relationships with others. Indirect speech is particularly important in performing this second function because it allows people to straddle the boundaries between two types of relationship, without giving rise to awkwardness or undesirable consequences.
To see this, go back for a moment to the Briber’s Dilemma from part one. In this scenario, the key problem from briber’s perspective was his lack of certainty as to cop’s values. If the cop was dishonest, he could safely offer an overt bribe, but if the cop was honest, he could not. The indirect bribe allowed him to make a pitch for the benefits of the overt bribe, without incurring its negative consequences. If the dishonest cop understood the implication of what the briber was saying, he would take the bribe. But even if the honest cop had suspicions about the implication, he would not act upon it because he knew it would be difficult to prove his case in court. The indirect bribe provides plausible deniability.
The lack of certainty as to the cop’s values has an analogue in cases relationship ambiguity, namely: lack of certainty as to which relationship-type we happen to be in. If I think I stand in a relationship of authority to my students, and they think the same thing, then I can safely adopt the conversational idioms of an authority figure without offending anyone. But if our views diverge, things become trickier. Indirect speech becomes our saviour. Instead of demanding things directly from students, I can issue polite requests (“If you could find time to do the advance reading, that would be awesome”) which allows them to take the hint, without giving rise to awkwardness.
To sum up, the plausible deniability of indirect speech is a valuable commodity, not only in the quasi-legal setting of the Briber’s Dilemma, but also in the everyday art of relationship negotiation. Indirect speech allows conversational parties to avoid unpleasant outcomes arising from divergent views about the type of relationship they happen to be in. This gives one good reason for the prevalence of indirect speech.
But surely something is still missing? As PNL highlight in their paper, many indirect locutions — including the classic “Would you like to come up and see my etchings?” — do not seem to involve much in the way of plausible deniability. After all, everyone knows what the implied meaning of that offer really is. Explaining the prevalence of these blatant indirect locutions is a task we take up in the last part of this series.