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TWTS: Just say "no." Or just say "I'm busy"

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A listener who works as a server recently shared how customers will often say things like "that's okay," or "it's alright" when asked if they need a bag or if they want a refill. Even though they're not actually saying "no" or "no thank you," it's understood that's what they mean.

This all has to do with indirect speech and conversational implicature, which come from speech act theory. We're going to take a quick look at two components of speech act theory: the locutionary act or force and the illocutionary act or force.

The locutionary act or force is the literal meaning of our words, while the illocutionary act or force is the understood meaning. Sometimes they're exactly the same, as in a direct speech act. Sometimes they're not, as in an indirect speech act.

For example, let's say you ask someone who has a lot going on in their life how they're doing, and they respond, "I'm really busy." That's a direct speech act. You asked them how they were and they described how things are at the moment.

Now let's say you ask someone if they want to go to a movie and they say, "I'm busy." That's not a direct answer to your question, but you understand they're not going to go to a movie. This is an indirect speech act.

This brings us to conversational implicature, or the ways in which we cooperate in conversations and understand utterances as relevant. In the movie example, you assume that "I'm really busy" is relevant to what you've asked and actually means "no."

Indirect speech is an important part of politeness in a lot of cultures. Answering "that's okay" or "I'm alright" sounds less harsh than simply saying "no." To hear more about that, listen to the audio above.

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Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of Weekend Edition at Michigan Radio. She also co-hosts Michigan Radio’s weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
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