Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
Jan 06, 2020

“I’d Like You to Do Us a Favor”: Why We Don’t Always Say What We Mean

by Thomas Holtgraves
Illustration representing communication issues

Sometimes, language is clear. For example, when I say, “I promise to have it to you by Friday,” I am using a performative speech act verb—“promise”—that names the action (or speech act) that I am performing. At other times, however, our actions are implicit and must be inferred by the person to whom we are speaking. For example, when I say, “If you don’t finish your homework tonight, you’re not going to the game tomorrow,” my remark will typically constitute a threat, even though I did not use the word ‘threat.’  Similarly, I can successfully make a request (such as “Can you shut the door”) without stating explicitly that I’m making a request. 

So, in order to communicate successfully with language, people need to be sensitive to features of the context that can help them correctly interpret a speaker’s intention. And there is no shortage of such features.  Tone, hesitancy, facial expressions, hand movements, the physical context, the activity within which an utterance is embedded, and other factors play a role in guiding recipients to a speaker’s intended meaning. 

One of the most important factors that affects how messages are interpreted is the nature of the relationship between the interactants, and especially their relative power. Research suggests that people interpret utterances as directives more quickly when the speaker is relatively high in power.  This is because higher power individuals have the right to direct the actions of others, and lower power individuals have the obligation to comply. As a result, we are primed to interpret the utterances of high-power people as directives. This is exactly what Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman was referring to in his House Impeachment testimony on November 19th when he stated: "The culture I come from, the military culture, when a senior asks you to do something, even if it's polite and pleasant, it's not to be taken as a request. It's to be taken as an order.” Of course, this is true in contexts other than just the military.

There are many reasons why our linguistic communication system evolved so that we do not always need to make our intentions explicit.  One reason is that it allows us to convey potentially threatening information in subtle, less offensive ways. When someone asks for our opinion (such as “What do think of my new shoes?”), we can, for example, subtly convey a negative opinion by slightly changing the topic (” Oh, where did you get them?”).  And we can make a request without stating explicitly that we are making a request, thereby making our request less imposing. Although this feature of language can sometimes result in misunderstandings, we generally are able to communicate effectively, and nicely, with this system.

There is also a darker motivation, however.  According to Steven Pinker, this feature of language, this lack of a requirement to explicitly name one’s intentions, provides speakers with some measure of deniability.  That is, a speaker can simply deny one undesirable interpretation of what he or she said in favor of a different, more positive interpretation. A version of this happens, for example, when someone says “I was just joking” when confronted with what others considered to be an insult. Or when a detained driver says to the police officer “Maybe we can take care of this right here.” Pinker suggests that strategic speakers weigh the costs and benefits of such language and choose their words accordingly.  

Still, not everyone uses such strategies when they communicate, and research suggests there are individual differences in this regard. Some people find the strategy of communicating without stating their intentions useful because it shields them from responsibility for their (implicit) commands. President Trump, for example, at times appears to use this strategy. Well-known examples include his “hope” that FBI Director James Comey would not pursue action against former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, and his recent “I’d like you to do us a favor though” comment addressed to the president of Ukraine.  In these and other instances, President Trump seems to exploit this feature of language and convey his intentions without explicitly naming them.  He is able to do this because of the power of his office. As Lt. Col. Vindman suggested, the utterances of seniors—and no one is more senior than the President of the United States—are to be taken as commands.

For Further Reading

Clark, H. H. (1996). Using Language. Cambridge University Press. 

Holtgraves, T. (Ed.) (2014). The Oxford Handbook of Language and Social Psychology. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Pinker, S. (2007). The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature . New York, NY: Viking

Thomas Holtgraves is a professor of Psychological Science at Ball State University where he conducts research on various aspects of language use.

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Why is this blog called Character & Context?

Everything that people think, feel, and do is affected by some combination of their personal characteristics and features of the social context they are in at the time. Character & Context explores the latest insights about human behavior from research in personality and social psychology, the scientific field that studies the causes of everyday behaviors.  

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