Real World English – Directness

Written by Ed Pegg

Welcome to the tenth in this series of posts on Real World English by Ed Pegg. In this series of videos and blog posts we are looking at how words are used in context around the world and how differences in usage in different countries and cultural contexts can cause misunderstanding. We look at differences between US and British English, some common expressions in other English speaking countries and also give you an understanding of the complex topic of pragmatics – how language is used in context. In the tenth video Ed looks at the question of how directly we speak to people in different situations.

I was having dinner with some friends the other day and one of them shouted across the table ‘Ed, pass the salt!’ I immediately passed the salt. Later the same week, I was having lunch with some new colleagues and one of them asked ‘Can anyone see any salt?’ The salt was next to me so, again, I passed it to her. Why did these people use such different language to achieve the same result?

In British English, it’s quite common to be direct with people you know well, but more common to be indirect when you’re less familiar with people. My friend was being polite by showing that there is no distance between us, and my new colleague was being polite by acknowledging the distance. As we’ve mentioned in these posts before, you need to consider the context before choosing the appropriate language.

These differences will probably be true in formal contexts in the USA too but, in general, Americans tend to be more direct in personal situations and are much more willing to ‘open up’ to strangers. If you’re talking to an American, you may find yourself discussing quite personal topics, like your relationship or children, at an early stage of your acquaintance. Don’t expect this when making small talk in the UK. Here, it’s more common to talk about ‘safe’ topics like the weather, until you know someone well.

These different styles of directness are also important at work and may need translation. Remember, the answer to any confusing statement is in the context. For example, if an employee goes to their manager and says ‘Have you got a minute?’ what they really mean is ‘I need to talk to you now’ or ‘I have to tell you about a problem’. The conversation starts with an indirect question to give the manager room to decide if they have the time to deal with the problem now.

These different styles can be confusing, but the trick is to think about the relationship and situation and it will then be much easier to find the hidden meaning of what is being said.

I hope you are enjoying learning about English in the real world and I look forward to seeing you next time for the final post in this series. You can catch up on the previous videos and posts, and you can follow my series of monthly blog posts on this topic using the tag realworldenglish.

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Ed Pegg

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