Ulterior Motives

How goals, both seen and unseen, drive behavior

Saving Face by Using Ambiguous Language

We often say things indirectly to preserve the feelings of the hearer.

When we use language, it seems so easy to understand what other people are saying that it is hard to appreciate the complexity of the act of carrying on a conversation.  Obviously, we miscommunicate at times, but most of the time, we do a good job of understanding what other people mean and making ourselves understood.

It is particularly striking that we are so good at communicating when we realize how often we do not say directly what we mean to other people. 

Even in everyday situations, we often speak indirectly.  For example, you might ask a colleague “Can you open the door?”  You are not literally asking this colleague whether she is capable of opening the door.  You are asking for her help. 

In addition to this indirect speech, we use a lot of terms whose meanings are ambiguous.  For example, in the previous sentence, I used the phrase “a lot.”  What does that mean.  It means more than a few and not as many as a ton but it does not refer to a specific number.

We use these ambiguous terms for many reasons.  One reason is that specific values may not be available (or all that relevant).  I don’t know exactly how many ambiguous terms there are in English, but a lot seems like a reasonable description of them, and so I use that term. 

An interesting paper by Thomas Holtgraves in the August, 2014 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology examines the role people’s beliefs about saving face on the way we understand ambiguous words.

Whenever we communicate with someone else, we are presenting something about ourselves to others.  The public view of our selves is called our face.  We want to manage the impression we give to others and to present as positive a face as possible.  In addition, most of the time we don’t want to put our conversation partners in a situation in which they will lose face in our interaction.

For example, suppose a friend cooks you a meal.  At the end of the meal, you can say, “I liked it.”  The word “like” is ambiguous, and so you can use it for a range of attitudes toward the meal, but it allows your conversation partner to maintain a positive impression while you are talking.

If people are sensitive to this use of language, then they should assume that when people use ambiguous evaluations like this when talking with friends, their actual impression of the object is less good than when there is no reason to be worried the face of their conversation partner.

To test this possibility, the researcher had people read fictitious conversations between people.  Sometimes, the speaker was evaluating an item (like a home-cooked meal) that was made by the hearer.  They used ambiguous words such as “liked,” “loved,” “good,” and “excellent.”  Other times, the speaker was evaluating an item that was made by a third person, so that the face of the hearer was not involved.  For example, Sue might ask Jenny whether she liked the meal that Harry cooked, and Jenny might reply, “I liked it.”  Then, participants rated how much they thought the speaker actually liked the item.

Consistent with the idea that people are concerned about preserving face in conversations, participants rated that the speaker liked the object (such as the meal) less when they used an ambiguous word and were talking to the person who created the item than when they were talking to a person who did not make the item.  That is, people assume that the speaker is trying to help the hearer save face by not telling the hearer exactly what they thought of their product.

In other studies, Holtgraves demonstrated a similar effect with words that refer to frequencies and quantities like often or sometimes.  In this case, the speaker was telling the hearer that the hearer had a negative quality.  For example, Sue might tell Jenny “You sometimes have bad breath.”  Or, Sue and Jenny might be talking about Harry and Sue might say “he sometimes has bad breath.” 

In this case, participants thought the speaker meant that the ambiguous word to refer to a higher frequency when it was used to save face than when it wasn’t.  That is, telling Jenny she sometimes has bad breath means that she has it more often than telling Jenny that Harry sometimes has bad breath.

These studies demonstrate that a lot of the complexity of using language properly is not a result of the language itself, but rather a result of the way we use language to manage our social interactions.  Because we are sensitive to people’s need to preserve a positive public face, we use the ambiguity of language to help them do that.

Ambiguous words are helpful, because they do not require us to come out and criticize other people forcefully when we want to give them bad news.  Instead, we can soften the blow and make the conversation go more smoothly by giving the hearer some wiggle room in how they interpret what is said.

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Art Markman, Ph.D., is a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas whose research spans a range of topics in the way people think.

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