The logic of indirect speech

Steven Pinker, Martin A. Nowak, James J. Lee

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

143 Scopus citations

Abstract

When people speak, they often insinuate their intent indirectly rather than stating it as a bald proposition. Examples include sexual come-ons, veiled threats, polite requests, and concealed bribes. We propose a three-part theory of indirect speech, based on the idea that human communication involves a mixture of cooperation and conflict. First, indirect requests allow for plausible deniability, in which a cooperative listener can accept the request, but an uncooperative one cannot react adversarially to it. This intuition is supported by a game-theoretic model that predicts the costs and benefits to a speaker of direct and indirect requests. Second, language has two functions: to convey information and to negotiate the type of relationship holding between speaker and hearer (in particular, dominance, communality, or reciprocity). The emotional costs of a mismatch in the assumed relationship type can create a need for plausible deniability and, thereby, select for indirectness even when there are no tangible costs. Third, people perceive language as a digital medium, which allows a sentence to generate common knowledge, to propagate a message with high fidelity, and to serve as a reference point in coordination games. This feature makes an indirect request qualitatively different from a direct one even when the speaker and listener can infer each other's intentions with high confidence.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)833-838
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Volume105
Issue number3
DOIs
StatePublished - Jan 22 2008

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