Request Strategies Across Languages


By making a request, the speaker infringes on the recipient’s freedom from imposition. The recipient may feel that the request is an intrusion on his/her freedom of action or even a power play. As for the requester, s/he may hesitate to make requests for fear of exposing a need or out of fear of possibly making the recipient lose face (Blum-Kulka et al., 1989, p. 11). In this sense, requests are face-threatening to both the requester and the recipient. Since requests have the potential to be intrusive and demanding, there is a need for the requester to minimize the imposition involved in the request

Above passage from Blum-Kulka et al.(1989); Brown & Levinson (1987).

One way for the speaker to minimize the imposition is by employing indirect strategies rather than direct ones (see below for levels of indirectness). The more direct a request is, the more transparent it is and the less of a burden the recipient bears in interpreting the request. The scale of directness can be characterized according to the following three strategies:

Direct Strategies (marked explicitly as requests, such as imperatives):

Clean up the kitchen.
I’m asking you to clean up the kitchen.
I’d like to ask you to clean the kitchen.
You’ll have to clean up the kitchen.
I really wish you’d clean up the kitchen.

Conventionally indirect strategies (referring to contextual preconditions necessary for its performance as conventionalized in the language):

How about cleaning up?
Could you clean up the kitchen, please?

Non-conventionally indirect strategies (hints) (partially referring to the object depending on contextual clues):

You have left the kitchen in a right mess.
I’m a nun.
(in response to a persistent hassler)

Above passages from Blum-Kulka & Olshtain (1989), pp. 201-202.

Both situational and cultural factors influence use of these request strategies. Different cultures seem to agree on general trends of situational variation. For example, a big favor usually comes with more indirect and/or polite strategies than a low-imposition request. Friends use more casual requests than acquaintances provided that the content of the request is the same. However, the specific directness levels appropriate for given situations might differ cross-culturally. A certain language (like German) may tend to use more direct-level requests than other languages (like Japanese) equally in an appropriate manner within the culture (see below for more information).

Conventional indirectness may be universal and in fact, generally the most commonly employed level of directness, occurring over half of the time in Hebrew and in Argentinean Spanish, and much more often in Australian English.

[ Distribution of main request strategy types by language... ]

[ Sub Levels of Strategy Types (scale of indirectness)... ]

Above passages from Blum-Kulka & Olshtain (1984), Blum-Kulka et al. (1989).

Request Perspectives

Requests usually include reference to the requester, the recipient of the request, and/or the action to be performed. The speaker can manipulate requests by choosing from a variety of perspectives (Blum-Kulka, S., House, J., & Kasper, G., 1989) in making requests:

Hearer-oriented (emphasis on the role of the hearer):

Could you clean up the kitchen, please?

Speaker-oriented (emphasis on the speaker’s role as the requester):

Do you think I could borrow your notes from yesterday’s class?
Can I borrow your notes from yesterday?

Speaker- and hearer-oriented (inclusive strategy):

So, could we tidy up the kitchen soon?

Impersonal:

So it might not be a bad idea to get it cleaned up.

Above passages from Blum-kulka & Olshtain (1984), p. 203.

In Australian English, Hebrew, Canadian French, and Argentinean Spanish, the most popular approach to requests is to make them hearer-oriented. The next most popular choice varies across these languages. While for English and French, it is speaker-oriented requests, the second most commonly used strategy in Hebrew is a conventionalized impersonal construction (ef_ar + infinitive ‘is it possible to’). Speaker-oriented requests are often by appearance a request for permission which implies that the recipient of the request has control over the speaker. Hence, speaker-oriented requests avoid the appearance of trying to control or impose on the hearer and are therefore perceived as being more polite.

Above passages from Blum-Kulka & Olshtain (1984), Blum-Kulka et al. (1989).

[ Distribution of perspectives in requests by language... ]

Request Segments

The request sequence in English (Australian/American/British), French (Canadian), Danish, German, Hebrew, Japanese, and Russian has been divided in the literature into the following three segments:

For a request, "Danny, can you remind me later to bring the book for you on Monday? Otherwise it may slip out of my mind":

  1. Attention Getter/Alerter (address terms, etc.):
  2. Danny,

  3. Head Act (core of the request sequence, the request proper):
  4. can you remind me later to bring the book for you on Monday?

  5. Supportive Move(s) (before or after Head Act):
  6. Otherwise it may slip out of my mind

Request Mitigators/Upgraders

Mitigating the face-threatening nature of requests can also be achieved by use of downgraders. The speaker might indicate being pessimistic with regard to the outcome of the request (negative usage) or hesitant about making the request (interrogative and modal usage ‘might’). Use of the past tense or embedded if-clause might also serve as distancing elements.

  • Could you do the cleaning up?
  • Could you remind me later…?
  • Look, excuse me. I wonder if you wouldn’t mind dropping me home?
  • I wanted to ask for a postponement.
  • I would appreciate it if you left me alone.

Some examples of other softening downgraders are:

  • Do you think I could borrow your lecture notes from yesterday?
  • Could you tidy up a bit before I start?
  • It would really help if you did something about the kitchen.
  • Will you be able to perhaps drive me?
  • Can I use your pen for a minute, please?

On the other hand, the speaker may wish to increase the compelling force of the request. This function of aggravating the request can be achieved through upgraders.

  • Clean up this mess, it’s disgusting.
  • You still haven’t clean up that bloody mess!

[ Further classification of downgraders and upgraders... ]

Above passages from Blum-Kulka & Olshtain (1984), p. 204.

Supportive Moves

If there is a Supportive Move, it appears either before or after the head act and affects the context in which the request is embedded, and thus indirectly modifies the request. Some examples are:

Are you going in the direction of town? And if so, is it possible for me to join you?

Will you do me a favor? Could you perhaps lend me your notes for a few days?

Excuse me, I’ve just missed my bus and you live on the same road. I wonder if I could trouble you for a lift?

You have the most beautiful handwriting I’ve ever seen! Would it be possible to borrow your notes for a few days?

Excuse me, I hope you don’t think I’m being forward, but is there any chance of a lift home?

Pardon me, but could you give a lift, if you’re going my way, as I just missed the bus and there isn’t another one for an hour.

[ Further classification of supportive moves... ]

Above passages from Blum-Kulka & Olshtain (1984), pp. 204-205.

Conventionally Indirect Substrategies

The following substrategies of indirect request are commonly found in Australian English, Canadian French, Hebrew, and/or Argentinean Spanish. Note that these substrategies vary as to how conventionalized the form is and how obvious the meaning is:

1. Reference to the hearer’s ability (used in all of the four languages):

English: Could you please clean up a little?

English: Can you give me a lift home?

French : Excusez-moi Madame, pourriez-vous déplacer votre voiture?
‘Excuse me, Madam, could you move your car?’

Spanish: ¿Buenas noches, podrían llevarme hasta la casa?
‘Good evening, could you take me home?’

2. Reference to the hearer’s willingness

Questioning hearer’s lack of objection in a conventionalized form (Australian English, Hebrew):

English: Excuse me, miss, would you mind moving your car?

English: Would you mind if I borrowed your notes from the last class?

Hebrew: ixpat lexa lehaxnis ktsat seder babalagan?
‘Would you mind putting some order in this mess?’

Referring broadly to the hearer’s wishes in no fixed form (French, Spanish, used only in requests for a favor):

French: Ca te dérangerais de me donner un coup de main a nettoyer?
‘Would it bother you to give me a hand in cleaning?’

French: Judith, accepterais-tu de me préter tes notes de cours. J’étais absente hier?
‘Judith, will you be willing to lend me your notes from the course. I was absent yesterday’

Spanish: ¿Tendrían inconveniente en llevarme?
‘Would it inconvenience you to take me?’

Spanish: ¿Les molestaría acercárme a casa?
‘Would it bother you to take me home?’

A unique Hebrew strategy and a conventionalized form, muxan + infinitive ‘to be prepared, to be ready’:

ata muxan lehaziz et ham’xonit?
‘Are you willing/prepared to move your car?’

tihye muxan lehasia oti leveti?
‘Will you be willing/prepared to drive me home?’

A French strategy, vouloir ‘do you want to’ (used much more frequently than in the other languages):

Judith, voudrais tu me préter les notes de cours?
‘Judith, would you like/do you want to lend me your class notes?’

Veux tu faire la ménage S. V. P?
‘Do you want to do the cleaning, please?’

3. Predicting the hearer’s doing the act

Will, would (English) and French and Spanish variants:

English: Would you wash up for me? (prediction/volition)

Spanish: ¿Me prestaría los apuntos de la clase de ayer?
‘Would you lend me your notes from yesterday?’

French: Tu me preterais tes notes de hier soir, Judith?
‘Would you lend me your class notes from last evening, Judith?’

Will you be kind enough in French:

Serais-tu assez gentille de me préter tes notes?
‘Would you be kind enough to lend me your notes?’

¿Serían tan amables de acercárme hasta la casa?
‘Would you be so kind as to take me home?’

A conventionalized Hebrew form, efshar + infinitive ‘would it be possible to’:

efshar linso’a itxem ha’ira?
‘Would it be possible to ride to town with you?'

4. Formulaic suggestions

‘Perhaps’ ulay + future in Hebrew:

ulay tenake et hamitbax?
‘Perhaps you’ll clean the kitchen?’

gveret, ulay tazizi et ham’xonit shelax?
‘Lady, perhaps you’ll move your car?’

Questioning reason (English, Spanish)

English: Why don’t you clean the mess up?

Spanish: ¿Porque no limpias todo?
‘Why don’t you clean it all?’

"How about~" (English)

How about doing a bit of cleaning up around here?

How about a rush job on the Aristotle presentation, like ready for next week?

Above passages from Blum-Kulka et al. (1989), pp. 52-57.

Non-conventionally Indirect Strategies (Hints)

(Blum-Kulka et al., 1989)

Requestive hints are opaque or obscure in nature and the speaker exploits their opacity while getting the hearer to carry out the implicitly requested act. In other words, they tend to lack transparency and clarity. There is a gap between the speaker’s intended meaning and the literal meaning; the hearer should not take the speaker’s utterance word-for-word but should infer the hidden intended message. The hearer identifies an utterance as a hint when the speaker does not appear to be intentionally conveying the meaning that the utterance actually has in reality. Opacity leaves the hearer uncertain as to the speaker’s intentions, and at the same time leaves the speaker the possibility to deny the requestive interpretation. The recipient of the request also has the potential to opt out, rejecting the interpretation that the speaker have made a request. Some examples of hints are:

It’s cold in here. (when uttered as a request to close the window)

I love this chocolate but it’s so expensive I could not afford it. (when used as a request that the recipient of the remark buy chocolate for the speaker)

Do you have any money on you? (when used as a request for a loan)

You must have had a beautiful party. (when used as a request to clean up the kitchen the morning after)

Husband: Do you know where today’s paper is?
Wife: I’ll get it for you.

[ Research Notes on the section above... ]

Above passages from Blum-Kulka et al. (1989), p. 73.

Social/Situational Variability of Requests

Requests in any languages are made in consideration of a number of social and situational factors. Although it may not so overt at times, cultures have been found to differ as to which factors count more than others, and languages vary in the extent to which they switch directness levels by situation (Blum-Kulka et al., 1989). Some of the social/situational factors include:

  • Relative dominance of the requester in relation to the hearer
  • Relative social distance (familiarity) between the interlocutors
  • Hearer’s degree of obligation in carrying out the request
  • The right the speaker has to issue the request
  • Estimated degree of difficulty the speaker has in making the request
  • Estimated likelihood of compliance on the part of the hearer

Above passages from Blum-Kulka et al. (1989), p. 40.

Australian English speakers are found to prefer conventional indirectness strategies most often and switch levels of directness less often than Hebrew, German, French, and Spanish speakers. On the other hand, speakers of Hebrew and Argentinean Spanish tend to be highly sensitive to social/situational factors. For example, they employ a high level of directness in asking a low-imposition request, but a high level of indirectness in a high-stake request (Blum-Kulka et al., 1989).

 

References

Blum-Kulka, S., & Olshtain, E. (1984). Requests and apologies: A cross-cultural study of speech act realization patterns (CCSARP). Applied Linguistics, 5(3), 196-213.

Blum-Kulka, S., House, J., & Kasper, G. (1989). Cross-cultural Pragmatics: Requests and Apologies. Norwood, NJ: Alblex Publishing Corporation.

Brown, P., & Levinson, S. (1987). Politeness: Some Universals in Language Use. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

 

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