Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Utilitarian Relevance and Face Management in the Interpretation of Ambiguous Question/request Statements

Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Utilitarian Relevance and Face Management in the Interpretation of Ambiguous Question/request Statements

Article excerpt

Often, requests are made in an indirect manner and phrased in such a way that they can also be construed as questions. For example, the sentence "Is there any coffee left?" can be construed either as a question about coffee or as a request for coffee. This article offers a combined test of some key predictions of two approaches to the disambiguation of question/request statements: (1) the face management approach, which gives a prominent role to variables such as status and potential loss of face; and (2) the utilitarian relevance approach, which gives a prominent role to the goals pursued by the speaker at the time he or she issues the statement. Ambiguous question/request statements provide a natural test bed for the latter approach in particular. A board game paradigm is developed to allow for a clean, orthogonal manipulation of all variables. The results wholly support the utilitarian relevance approach and offer new perspectives on the face management approach.

All of us, every day, make all sorts of requests, but most of us often choose to make them indirectly. Rather than straightforwardly telling a colleague "Give me another cup of coffee," we tend to ask "Is there any coffee left?" The issue then arises of how people around us decide whether we simply need an answer to that question or whether we do want a cup of coffee. In the first part of this article, we review the different answers to that question that have been put forward to date and the data that support them. Alongside the politeness-based, face management answer, we outline three relevance-based answers (i.e., the Gricean, post-Gricean, and utilitarian variants). We note that the data are inconclusive for the Gricean variant, scarce for the post-Gricean variant, and almost nonexistent for the utilitarian variant.

We then report two experiments, in which a board game paradigm was used, that allowed us to test in combination some untested key predictions of the utilitarian and face management approaches. More precisely, when a statement can be construed as either a direct question or an indirect request, the utilitarian approach predicts that (1) the question interpretation will be comparatively more frequent when the answer to that question will be highly useful to the speaker and (2) the request interpretation will be comparatively more frequent when the fulfillment of that request will be highly useful to the speaker. The face management approach predicts that (3) the request interpretation will be comparatively more frequent when the listener's status is higher than the speaker's status and (4) the request interpretation will be comparatively more frequent when the listener appears to have a special distaste for impositions.

Before we proceed, we wish to make clear that we will remain agnostic with respect to the exclusiveness of the question and request interpretations. Making sense of an ambiguous question/request statement may imply the simultaneous activation of the two interpretations or the exclusive activation of one interpretation. Now the fact that an interpretation is less frequent in a given context may mean that it is activated by fewer individuals or, alternatively, that it is activated to a lesser degree than the concurrent interpretation. Thus, our general hypotheses are consistent with exclusive, as well as nonexclusive, approaches to ambiguity resolution.

Face Management

The face management account of indirect requests derives from Brown and Levinson's (1978/1987) politeness theory, which posits that indirectness is a politeness strategy and, indeed, the most polite communicative strategy of all. Note, however, that some authors (e.g., BlumKulka, 1987) have questioned the connection between indirectness and politeness, and others (Holtgraves & Yang, 1990) have pointed out that indirectness may sometimes be perceived as manipulative rather than polite. Requests threaten what Brown and Levinson call the negative face of the listener-that is, the desire of every competent adult member of a society that his actions be unimpeded by others (see also Gofrman, 1967). …

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