The Impact of Indirect Speech Acts on Professional Communication

We don’t always say what we mean …

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In fact, we often avoid direct speech acts – saying what we mean – in the service of politeness and conflict avoidance, relying instead on indirect speech to communicate complex thoughts. An indirect speech act, according to linguist John Searle, relies on more than simply the words of an utterance to convey its meaning. In many situations, the “propositional content” of an utterance – the surface meaning of words – does not carry the intended meaning. To discover that meaning – the utterance’s “illocutionary force” – the listener must rely on a shared background as well as powers of inference to create a common, appropriate understanding.  In responding to someone’s ideas in a meeting, for example, we might say, “Your ideas are very interesting,” when in fact, the force of the words are a dismissal of those ideas: “it’s not time to hear about those ideas right now.” Typically, we rely on indirect speech in order to avoid disagreement, but also to avoid providing directives: “I’m feeling cold,” instead of “turn on the heating.” Often, however, those assumptions – common background and powers of inference – do not hold, and research has shown that indirect speech acts have become the dominant mode of communication in professional workplaces, to the detriment of clarity, understanding, and satisfaction.

Yin and Kuo, in their IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication article “A Study of How Information System Professionals Comprehend Indirect and Direct Speech Acts in Project Communication,” [1] explore this question in the context of a set of Mandarin speaking Information Systems Professionals, focusing on whether – and  how – indirect speech impacts attention to speech and, in turn, comprehension, using eye tracking and survey software. Their findings, particularly around participants’ reported semantic confidence of speech acts, suggest that comprehension differs significantly between indirect and direct speech. Their study seems to confirm the theory that excessive reliance on polite or indirect speech can lead to poor project outcomes due to poor communication.

More importantly, however, they also catalogued a number of recommendations for improving communication practices around direct vs. indirect speech:

  1. Train professionals to become aware of their own indirect speech acts by catalouging, in a journal or other means, their speech acts during communication conflicts and then identifying the propositional content versus the intended meaning or illocutionary force of the utterance:

    I said: ” I am unclear about the significance of this set of numbers”; I meant: “Get rid of this entire section.”

  2. Learn to use directives with a payoff statement – a utterances designed to explain the rationale behind the directive – to maintain good relations with the listener

    “Include a table in this section. That will help your reader keep track of the data”

  3. Integrate compliments into direct speech to make the listener more accepting of directives or criticism

    “Your ideas are clear here, but I think adding the following specific functions and data would allow the computer system to be more complete” 

  4. Identify actionable items that address a particular point of conflict

    “The problem is they do not know what they want” 

    … turns into …

    “listen carefully to what they say, uncover any unspoken intentions, probe possible alternatives, and set up specific goals for each meeting.”  

The first strategy will make you more aware of how your speech might be interpreted; the last three demonstrate simple strategies for making our speech more direct, while still maintaining socially comfortable communications. Read more about their research and recommendations in their full paper.

[1] C.P. Yin and F.Y. Kuo, “A Study of How Information System Professionals Comprehend Indirect and Direct Speech Acts in Project Communication,” IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication, vol. 56, no. 3, pp. 226-39, 2013.