Learning to speak American

In her blog – Learning to speak American – Vicki Hollett from the UK asked herself if Americans were more direct than the British. Hollett writes:

„Indirectness is an interesting feature of politeness. Like most people, I don’t always say what I mean. So for example, I might say, ‘Do you have a pen in your bag?’ when really I mean ‘I want a pen’. And people ask for things indirectly like this all the time:

Those biscuits look nice. (Give me one) Is anybody else here feeling hot. (I’m hot. Open the window.) Have you finished with that newspaper? (I want to read it.) Are you going past a post box on your way home? (I have a letter I want you to post.) Are you busy? (Help!)

The ambiguity in requests like these has social benefits. If I can get what I want because you want to give it to me, then life will seem like it’s harmonious and pleasant for us both. And if I haven’t gone on the record with a request, then it’s easier for me to rescind or modify it later.

So I might say ‘Those biscuits look nice’ hoping you’ll offer me one. But then if you say ‘Yes, I bought them for my kids’ school’, I can say ‘Oh how old are your children?’ and we can both pretend I wasn’t asking.

Now people often say Americans are very direct, but I’m not sure how true that is, particularly when it comes requests like these. An American would say cookies instead of biscuits and mailbox instead of post box, but they seem just as likely as me to make requests in this roundabout fashion.

In my experience, Americans are pretty much like Brits when it comes to saying what they mean directly. In short, they don’t.

It was once considered the height of good manners to ask for something by first offering it to another person. For example, a typical piece of dinner dialogue might have been:

“John, would you like some more bread?”
“No, Bob, but would you like some?”
“Yes, I would.”
“Here you go, then.”

Although no longer the fashionable way to indicate that you would like something, it’s not uncommon for Americans to use this roundabout way of asking for a favor.