It all depends … Directness and being fuzzy

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Peter Viney

Directness and Formality

Some languages are direct, and the speakers value directness. Some languages are more evasive and value circumlocution. At one end of the scale you would find Polish, or Dutch, speakers of both of which believe in saying things clearly in a straightforward way. At the opposite end of the scale you would find Asian languages, which are far more indirect. English is on the less direct side of the scale, though it would be more direct than (e.g.) Japanese. American English is more direct at a conversational level than British English (e.g. I want … is more frequent than I'd like … ), but less direct than Polish or the Scandinavian languages. Conversely, American English uses more euphemisms than British English, with political correctness exaggerating the trend for euphemism. You start out with differently-abled for disabled, and move on to pro-choice for pro-abortion and end up at terminated with extreme prejudice for killed. An old British euphemism is tired and emotional which simply means drunk. Its use can be traced back to the famously bibulous 1960s British Foreign Secretary, George Brown, who reputedly was frequently in this state. Reputedly is a mealy-mouthed euphemism in itself, like that tabloid newspaper phrase allegedly. They're both deliberately indirect distancing expressions, meaning simply I'm advised that I cannot be sued if I put allegedly. I once saw George Brown in action. He was pissed in the British sense, while the young woman he grabbed was pissed in the American sense. Allegedly.

There are corresponding differences in formality. Americans are often surprised to find that modern British English is considered less formal than American English by communication skills manuals. In Britain, I've been addressed by bank managers, lawyers, accountants, and doctors as Peter on my very first meeting with them. When I phone my bank, a complete stranger will address me as Peter, as will any mail-order computer supplies company. Americans prefer Mr Viney until it is made clear that we're on first name terms, and will still refer to me as Mr Viney to third parties. Even on the Internet (as an enthusiastic user of music sites) British posters refer to Peter's last post while Americans will refer to Viney's last post which I think is an academic influence, as in a discussion of a scholarly article. In British English in a non-academic situation it sounds very abrupt (= bloody rude). Recently there were letters to newspapers complaining about hospital informality to elderly patients in Britain, who felt uncomfortable with doctors and nurses automatically addressing them by their first names. It probably removed some of the necessary mystique.

Direct and Indirect Languages

Speakers of "direct" languages often find the polite evasions and complex sentences in "indirect" languages to be irritating. A Dutch speaker told me how she found English expressions like, I wonder if you could possibly help me … and I'm terribly sorry, but I'm afraid that … annoying in the extreme. More to the point, she felt silly when she was saying them. As a British English speaker I can experience a similar feeling when confronted with translations of Spanish or French business letters, or when viewing a British business letter guide of 70 years ago. Speakers of direct languages find the use of polite and friendly intonation patterns and tone of voice in English equally silly. They feel strange and embarrassed using polite intonation. Letters in British newspapers have noted the influx of immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe (speakers of direct languages) who have taken jobs in catering in London. They seem abrupt and rude to customers because they ignore polite intonation, deferential body language, and (most importantly) the need to smile. In the 1950s and 1960s immigrants to Britain and the USA from Southern Europe came from more indirect cultures which valued the smile and a friendly attitude to customers.


Hedges are expressions which soften the impact of the following statement. They are designed to prepare the listener for what is to follow. 'I'm sorry to have to tell you …' warns of bad news to come. I hope you don't mind me saying … warns of criticism to come. Many hedging devices are simply polite additions: Do you mind if May I ask you toWould it be possible to

Hedging expressions are most frequent, as well as most elaborate in indirect language cultures. They are designed to show respect for the privacy of the listener (by apologizing for intruding / speaking), and in Britain, privacy is valued. They can also be compared with the body language of deference and appeasement. If an elaborate hedge, or deferential body language, is used, it is harder for the listener to take offence.

There is a problem in transferring Asian hedging and appeasement devices into English. While looking down and avoiding eye contact is a standard Asian appeasement technique, it is often seen in the West as a sign of lack of confidence at best, or untruthfulness at worst. In teaching communication skills, it is important to show where a Western listener would expect eye contact, and that formulaic expressions may be used to express deference rather than body language. The eye contact cultural difference is so great that British judges were instructed last year that the avoidance of eye contact by defendants from Africa and Asia should not be taken as a sign of guilt (which indicates that it would be from a European defendant). Eye contact is a major cultural hurdle for students who see direct eye contact as aggressive or challenging.

Indirect Questions and Statements

Indirect questions and statements are simple examples of mild hedging. It is immediately apparent that Do you know what time it is? and Could you tell me who she was with? sound more polite than What time is it? and Who was she with? ELT textbooks at an early level tend to underestimate the problems students have with the changed word order in these. I am always surprised when beginner level texts use indirect questions in comprehension exercises: Can you remember where he went? rather than Where did he go? In designing a syllabus, I avoid indirect forms until they have been taught.


A peculiarly British indirect technique is to use hesitation devices, and to avoid showing certainty. British comedian John Cleese memorably demonstrated a British and American having dinner in a restaurant. The American was direct:

Can you pass the salt, please?

The British speaker used hesitation:

Could you … um … er … pass the … um … thank you.

(The listener had guessed his requirement long before he finished the sentence.) This particular technique is (a) unteachable and (b) undesirable to teach.

However, hesitation devices are a way of gaining thinking time, which is invaluable for any speaker of a foreign language. In oral exams, points will be awarded for hesitating in a natural English way. Um and Er are English. Ah … isn't (in this situation). There are more formal ways of hesitating: Let me think … Let me see … Just a moment … Hang on for a second … or on the phone I'll get back to you. Hesitation devices can be taught. My youngest son was so good at them, that teachers commented on every parents' evening that he never answered a question without gaining himself a few seconds thinking time.

Another aspect of this is the amount of redundant repetition in a conversational interchange. The British tend to say Thank you two or three times in a simple shopping situation. Once is enough for Americans. The reason behind this may be that British English tends not to respond to thank you while Americans say You're welcome. Repeated thanks in a British situation isn't unduly taxing, while in the USA it calls upon the recipient of thanks to respond.

Store clerk: There you go.
British customer: Thanks.
Store clerk: You're welcome.
British customer: Thank you.
Store clerk: Right. You're welcome.
British customer: Thank you very much.
Store clerk: YOU'RE WELCOME!!!

Irritating, isn't it? The somewhat old-fashioned British equivalent Not at all is much more formal, which is probably why You're welcome is increasingly used in Britain (see below).

Business Contexts: Yes and No

Although English is an "indirect" spoken language, it is a comparatively "direct" written language, especially in business. Modern business students are not taught the elaborate formulas of the past (I wish to remain your humble and obedient servant …) British and American e-mail has taken this directness several stages further. It's normal to begin an e-mail with:

Peter: (quite formal) or Hi / Hey Peter: (informal)
rather than
Dear Peter or Dear Mr. Viney or Dear Sir or Madam.

These differences in degrees of directness give rise to classic examples of cross-cultural misunderstanding, and what I'm going to look at here is ways in which people can be non-committal. In other words, how they can avoid a clear unequivocal response.

Imagine that a Western businessperson is talking to their Asian counterpart. To each proposal, the Asian answers Yes. The Westerner gets excited. Things are going well. They're going to make a deal. Then comes the pay-off:

Westerner: Great. So we have a deal!
Asian: No!

The problem was that little word Yes, a word loaded with more variety of meaning than any other. No follows it closely. The two can even switch meanings easily. The statistically most common way of introducing a negative opinion in English is, Yes, but…. I've been told that the most useful translation of Hai in a business negotiation context is Uh-huh. Other useful translations in a business setting are I get you and I get your point. A more formal one is I take your point. The intention is to be non-committal. In a negotiation situation, you are indicating that you are listening attentively, but you are not indicating that you're agreeing.

English has several non-verbal ways of doing the same thing. Nodding the head does the job pretty well. The noise Uh-huh is a good one. Mmm can mean the same thing. In other words, if you don't mean yes, and you're simply trying to signal your attention, then uh-huh is preferable. This is teachable and makes a great interactive listening exercise. Another fun exercise is getting the class to decide when to nod, and when not to nod while listening to a speaker on tape.

Affirmation or Positive Listening

A more formal alternative to the use of such verbalisations is being taught on business management courses in communication skills. Go into any large British supermarket. Listen to customers complaining to the roving managers, (who are either men in suits that are too dark and ties that are too bright, or women power-dressed for the corporate rat-race, with a slash of red lipstick as their badge of rank).

Customer: You've been out of stock of tomato ketchup for two weeks …
Manager: I hear you.
Customer: You should do something about it!
Manager: I hear you.
Customer: And I complained about this two days ago!
Manager: I hear you.
Customer: Is this any way to run a supermarket?
Manager: I hear what you say.
(At which point the customer attempts to throttle the manager).
As you've probably guessed, the Viney family are heavy consumers of tomato ketchup.

Or maybe the problem is more extreme:

Customer: It's disgusting! I slipped on that spilt milk, cracked three vertebrae, and ripped my suede jacket in half. I'm going to sue the company…
Manager: I hear what you're saying …

It's an irritating way of being non-committal, and I hear (know) what you're saying grates on my teeth, but it's a technique, albeit an over-used one. The managers have all been on the same communication skills courses. They're showing that they're listening attentively but they're not promising to do anything about the problem, nor are they admitting liability for the fault. I know what you mean is a more traditional response and certainly sounds a lot more sympathetic.

You might think that the best way of dealing with a genuine complaint is to own up promptly and honestly to any fault. It's not that simple. If the manager does so, it might void or invalidate the company's public liability insurance. If you read the small print on a British car insurance document you'll find that the insurance is void if you admit liability following an accident. Even if the accident is manifestly your fault, you might be doing the aggrieved person no good at all if you admit it. The USA has become such a minefield of litigation that some American companies have carefully prepared scripts for staff use in any complaint scenario. The scripts stress sympathetic responses which never confirm or agree that there is a problem. My daughter got her jacket covered in thick oil on a Universal Studios ride in Florida and talking to the customer service department afterwards was a bizarre lesson in non-committal techniques. In the end the only redress we could get was the offer of a $5 T-shirt for a ruined $80 jacket.

Reflective Listening

A more subtle (and advanced) way of dealing with the complaints situation is reflective listening where you bounce back or summarise what has been said without adding new information or comment. The whole point is never to show agreement or disagreement.

Customer: You've been out of stock of tomato ketchup for two weeks …
Manager: Hmm. You buy a lot of tomato ketchup.
Customer: I would if you ever had any! You should do something about it!
Manager: I'm sorry that you're upset about it.
Customer: Is this any way to run a *!@*! supermarket?
Manager: You're concerned about the way we run our stores.
Customer: This is the worst supermarket I've ever seen. You're a total *!@*! incompetent!
Manager: I'm sorry that you think that.
(At which point the customer still attempts to throttle the manager).

You can use the same technique for everything from psychotherapy and counselling, down to defusing a small child's anger. The problem is that all but the most subtle users of the technique are transparent and therefore extremely irritating.

Tense and Distancing

The use of past tenses in non-past situations is a distancing device, and one way of looking at all these non-past topics (reported speech, unreal conditionals, the use of would in general) in terms of communication skills is to show that they're unified.

The "past" form is less immediate, or more remote than the basic form. This contrast is one of the most fundamental in the English verb. The choice between the two traditional tense forms expresses the contrast, from the speaker's point of view, between immediate and remote events or actions.(Lewis, 1986, p. 69)

So the use of a past tense distances the speaker from the event being discussed. This distancing might be purely temporal – It happened yesterday. It might indicate a report: I heard he did it. It might indicate an unreal situation: If I had enough money, I'd retire tomorrow! It also happens outside these neat structural blocks. Take this example.

A Does she know the truth about him?
B Yes, she does. / Yes, she knows about him. (direct, factual)
I guess she knows … (slight distancing)
I would think she knows … (would used as distancing: it's an opinion or guess, not a fact)
I would think she knew … (would + knew even further distancing: it's more tentative a guess)

This is a more complex area, and makes for a good overview of the use of tenses at Intermediate level upwards.

Non-committal Responses

You can avoid committing yourself in more complex situations. In a recent TV interview in the UK, a Japanese diplomat was expounding on his country's economic policy. The British interviewer gave a long paraphrase of his argument, finishing with Is that what you're saying? The diplomat paused significantly, then replied, Yes … kind of. In other words, You've got it generally right. But I'm not going to admit that exactly, just in case I might have said the wrong thing somewhere.

Kind of indicates that he had a good grasp of American English, though in common with other so-called Americanisms (You're welcome/ There you go/ I guess / Do you have …?), the use is spreading very rapidly in British English. We once got our three kids to track occurrences of There you go versus Here you are during a day out doing Christmas shopping in London. There you go won by about five to one. Another Transatlantic expression is Are you finding everything OK?, which we first noted in stores in Chicago. Coursebook authors are always delighted to find genuine expressions employing the present continuous. Only six months later, I heard it twice in the same day in London (Virgin Records and Tower Records). If you wanted to transcribe kind of in a script for a video, or were representing real dialogue in a book for native speakers, you'd probably write kinda. Sort of would do just as well. A more formal alternative would be more or less. Other possibilities are In a way and In some ways.

It depends is the answer many students would love to have on hand for difficult questions. What an all-purpose escape.

A So we're all agreed. We'll build the power station next to the school.
B It depends …

A Great. You'll be at my party on Saturday.
B It depends …

Add Well and you reinforce the point:

A I love you too, let's set a date for the wedding.
B Well, it depends …

You could argue that in teaching non-committal sounds and expressions you are teaching students to be fuzzy rather than clear. But of course this is exactly the point. In many such situations the speaker wants to be fuzzy.


Lewis, M. (1986). The English Verb. ITP.

Peter Viney is the author of popular ELT courses in both British and American English, including Streamline, Grapevine, Main Street, Survival English, Handshake--A Course in Communication, English Channel, and the recently published, In English series. He is co-series editor of the Storylines series of graded readers. Peter was a pioneer of ELT video and has been one of the most prolific video materials writers. As well as writing original video materials, he is the co-adaptor of the three Wallace and Gromit animations into ELT versions. His current areas of interest are adult learners at the lower levels and communication skills in ELT.