making suggestions

I'm at the conference of the International Pragmatics Association in Manchester (UK) this week, and I was interested to see that there's a poster in the poster session (which is already posted, though the session's not till tomorrow) on directive speech acts in AmE and BrE. 'Directive speech act' means an utterance that is intended to get someone to do something. Being an impatient sort, I've looked up the author of the paper, Ilka Flöck of Carl von Ossietzky Universität Oldenburg, and found an earlier paper by her on another aspect of the issue. The PDF is here, if you'd like to read it yourself.

The British (and English people, more specifically) are often stereotyped as being very indirect in their style--that is, implying their meanings rather than saying exactly what they mean. (The stereotypical British use of irony is a classic example of this--saying the opposite of what one means in order to implicate one's true meaning.) Americans, on the other hand, are often stereotyped as being very direct--brash or bossy, even.

So, what happens when people from these cultures make suggestions? For her study, Flöck defines suggestions as follows:
A speech act is understood as a suggestion when the following conditions apply:
- The speaker (S) wants the hearer (H) to consider the action proposed.
- S and H know that H is not obliged to carry out the action proposed by S.
- S believes that the suggestion is in the interest of H.
- S may or may not include herself in the proposed action  (Flöck 2011: 69)
Flöck looked for suggestions in two corpora of spoken English: the Santa Barbara Corpus of Spoken American English and the British component of the International Corpus of English. Skipping to the end, she found that:
Apart from modest preferences for one or the other head act or modification strategy, no major differences between the two varieties could be observed. Unlike other speech acts, suggestions might therefore not have a strong potential for intercultural misunderstanding.  (Flöck 2011: 79; emphasis added)
That is, on the whole, the British and Americans do not differ in whether they prefer direct or indirect strategies for suggestions. What Flöck did find were some differences in how the indirect strategies are phrased, with the British modifying their requests more (using 'upgraders' and 'downtoners') and Americans relying more on the 'head' of the suggestion--the unadorned sentence and its verb phrase in particular.

Now, I do not want to claim that I am not bossy. I'm a first-born. I'm a teacher. Of course I'm bossy. But at the same time, I do not perceive myself as being anywhere near as bossy as a certain Englishman thinks I am. And I suspect that this might be because of some of the different preferences for phrasing Flöck noticed.  One difference was in the modal verbs used in suggestions. British speakers used more modals of obligation (should, shall), while Americans tended toward(s) can, but Americans also used more Why don't you...?  (Note: the fact that you say either is not counterevidence to this! Both cultures use all these strategies--but at different rates in the corpora.)

The British-preferred modals of obligation are considered by Flöck to be more direct.  That is, they're communicating the directive meaning: 'I think you should do this'. Can on the other hand, is (arguably--depending on how you like your modal verb analysis) ambiguous between a weak obligatory meaning and a capability meaning: i.e. 'you are able to do this and therefore you have the option to do it'. My question is: might should-preferers perceive can as too ambiguous for use in this context, or find its option-giving meaning to be insincere? Or am I basing too much of my hypothesi{z/s}ing on the fact that my husband thinks I'm bossy?

I can also see that Why don't you... might be perceived as bossy. It has no modal at all. It sounds like it's implying that the other person should have already thought of doing the suggested thing.

And I think (but these kinds of self-reportings are notoriously [BrE] dodgy) that I use can (e.g. Can you do it this way? You can try this.*) a bit and that I use Why don't you a lot more than BH would. And when he either automatically does the suggested thing or takes issue with me being bossy, I sometimes say: Wait a minute! It was just a question/suggestion! 

The British indirectness tends to come from the use of modifiers, such as with understaters like a bit, to begin with, for the moment and downgraders like just, perhaps, at least, maybe, probably. With these markers missing, no wonder British people (for it's probably more than just BH) find me bossy.

Because I'm away from my books and because it's hard to google research on US/UK interactions,** I haven't anything more hard-evidency to offer you about mutual stereotypes of bossiness or about suggestion styles. My suspicion is that Americans are more likely to expect negotiation to follow suggestions, whereas the British are more likely to expect compliance (possibly with a bit of griping about it afterwards--this fits with the British complaint culture: see this or this, for example). 

Flöck's paper here at IPrA compares her corpus results to what people do in the classic pragmatics research tool: the Discourse Completion Task (essentially, a written role-play).  And I'll just say, it looks like the DCT doesn't do very well.  Go Corpus Linguistics!

Before I leave, to the long-suffering Better Half: Happy Anniversary!

* Could is not in Flöck's modal comparison chart. I'm assuming that when she says can, she means can and not can/could, but I might be wrong about that. For me, could is much more natural in suggestions than can, and it's a bit more indirect).
** Because one gets everything on American-Chinese interactions that happen to cite something from the British Journal of Psychology and so on and so forth.

Flöck, Ilka (2011) "Suggestions in British and American English. A corpus-linguistic study." Paper presented at the 33rd annual meeting of the German Linguistic Society 2011 [Deutsche Gesellschaft für Sprachwissenschaft, DGfS], Göttingen, February 2011. 

Flöck, Ilka (2011) "‘Don't tell a great man what to do’: Directive speech acts in American and British English conversations." Poster presented at the 12th International Pragmatics Conference, Manchester, July 2011


  1. I see why Why don't you? could be seen as bossy, because after all, the listener may prefer not to say why not.

    "Why don't you listen to the Pink Elephants?"

    "None of your beeswax."

  2. A lot would be in the tone of voice and relationship between the speakers but to me 'Why don't you?' can easily carry an implication of incompetence. "Why don't you reboot the pc (as anyone with an ounce of sense would have tried five minutes ago)?

  3. And I thought BH stood for British Husband!

  4. I make a distinction between suggestion and advice which does not seem to be covered by Flöck's analysis. I would amend it thus:

    SUGGESTION The speaker (S) wants the the hearer (H) to consider the action proposed

    ADVICE The speaker (S) wants the hearer (H) to perform the action proposed

    For me You really should try this is not a suggestion. It needs a tweak of syntax to transform it into unbossy Do you think perhaps you should try this?. Or as an alternative to Shall we try it?, I might say Should we try it? — provided that the context excluded any sense of 'Would it be a good thing?'

    For me — and perhaps for BH — Why don't you? smacks more of advice than suggestion. And a piece of advice can so easily come across (intentionally or unintentionally) as a disguised order.

    Of course, the tone of voice can easily overturn any nuances conveyed by syntax or choice of words.

    And prefacing the advice with If you ask me may well soften you should into a suggestion.

    Personally, I think I favour
    • bald I suggest
    You could or You could always
    There's or There's always
    How about?
    Shall we? and its strange variant What say we?
    You might try

    I'm not fond of Why don't you?, but quite like the unbossy variant Why not? And there's always Have you considered? — although this can degenerate into sarcasm or condescension.

  5. Being completely non-linguistic here, I find myself irritated by my American husband often saying "can you make me a drink?", which to my British ears sounds like an order and leaves me no option. (It would be rude of me to say no unless I am physically unable to do so.) On the other hand, I often find myself making suggestions, such as "I suggest you use one egg in that recipe instead of two", and while it sounds as if I am giving a choice, I am not because actually I expect the other person to comply.

    It helps to have these language differences pointed out because it shows me that it isn't just us, it's our language. Thank you!

  6. @semidetbrit, that sounds like an order to my American ears, too. It isn't asked in a way that leaves room for polite refusal. "would/could you make me one, too?" sounds less demanding to me if you're already making drinks. (And if you aren't already mixing drinks, an option for refusal might be "you've got legs; get it yourself".)

  7. I'd agree about not just the content of the sentence, but the tone in which it is offered and the stresses placed on individual words will make a huge difference in how strongly it's received. I'm currently out in Australia, where the speech pattern of upward inflection at the end of the sentence is grating on me, because I'm so used to that speech pattern only being used for query in BrE.

  8. Anecdotally, I know I experienced a bit of difficulty, both when I moved from the UK to the US and when I moved back thirteen years later, in phrasing my suggestions and requests with the right level of directness/indirectness; I discovered with some dismay on my return that I'd forgotten how to make the kind of extremely indirect suggestion (more of a hint than anything that would show up in a linguistic corpus as a suggestion) that I used to prefer.

    On the other hand, I think the most indirect way of making a suggestion I've ever encountered was from an American friend, who would say in a tone of mild curiosity something like, "Oh, don't you eat your eggs from the small end?"

    There's also the British use of "Would you like to ..." That was used a lot by my secondary-school teachers, and in that context was a strong suggestion verging on an order, though when I use it to my mother it's a very mild appeal to consider something she might enjoy.

  9. ellarien

    Could it be that it wasn't only you that changed in those thirteen years?

    Making suggestions that don't sound like orders is a tricky social accomplishment. If you get it wrong, it ruins the social dynamic. And we're all too quick to perceive bossiness, even when unintended. I wonder whether there isn't a sort of benign arms race in which speakers constantly make tiny incremental changes to counter subtle feedback from hearers —little signals that they (the speakers) are verging on bossiness.

    Maybe it's those thirteen years away from local feedback that prevented you from making the tiny but effective changes that the rest of us made.

  10. I get complaints from my British husband for using "you might wanna" too much. I think it is even more indirect than "why don't you", but he thinks it's bossy.

  11. just stumpled upon your article as i know ilka flöck from university, so please excuse me being a smart ass, but her first name is ilka with an a. ;)

  12. Hm, that's not how I'd use the word 'smartass' (you'd have to be a non-productive comment for that)--but thanks for pointing it out, and I'll change it forthwith!

  13. I'm guessing John Cowan is American because, with respect, he's wrong about "Why don't you" not seeming bossy. For most British people, I think it would sound bossy in most situations. It sounds like you're expecting someone else to have done something and that way of speaking is I think frowned upon to a large extent in Britain. Most people expect a slightly more restrained way of speaking such as: "Would you by any chance be interested in listening to the Pink Elephants?"

  14. "Can you..." sounds to me like a question ("Can you play the piano?") or a request ("Can you pass the salt?") to me. I don't think I'd ever use it to suggest something. Maybe "You can", as in "You can do x, if you like". "Could" seems much more natural as a suggestion.

  15. Lynne:
    As an American (New Jersey), whenever I was in a supervisory position, I usually prefaced my requests with, "(Name), do me a favor and..."
    When dealing with a colleague, I would usually say, "What's our usual procedure in dealing with...?"
    This may sound manipulative, but in both cases, I think it negates the implication that I am: 1) ordering you to do something, and 2), taking advantage of your good nature, while 3), completing the transaction. Any modal verbs (would, could might) remain in the conditional, thereby lessening the impression of obligation on the part of the auditor.

  16. So glad I stumbled across this blog, which is a fascinating insight into the British/American language differences I am slowly learning to deal with, and a welcome return to the world of linguistics.
    This post struck me in particular, however, because I have experienced a very similar situation with my Aussie partner, who often takes my suggestions as directions or commands. Which leaves me all too often attempting to convince my irritated other half that "it was just a suggestion!!"

  17. @Andy JS:
    I'm guessing John Cowan is American because, with respect, he's wrong about "Why don't you" not seeming bossy.

    I'm guessing that, regardless of your nationality, you didn't read his comment very carefully. He is explaining why it could seem bossy!

  18. I do wonder sometimes about these studies, particularly when they don't take into account variations across a culture. I'm from the American South and deal with people from both US/UK fairly frequently. Of course this is anecdotal, but I often find that people from the northern US strike me as being more direct/"bossy" than either the British or those from non-Northern parts of the US. It seems to me that US Northerners are especially direct, but this isn't something shared by all Americans.

  19. "Why don't you...?" reminds me of a British children's television programme from some years ago now that used to be shown during the school holidays. Its full title was something like "Why don't you turn off the television and go and do something less boring?" and the programme was full of "less boring" suggestions for kids.

    I think I tend to say "Couldn't you.." when making a suggestion, but goodness knows what I actually say!

  20. If I say why don't you it might mean that I'm puzzled by your behavior, and by implication that I think you are doing something the wrong way or not the best way. And it might mean that I want to hear reasons for your action or inaction. Yet there are also times when neither of the above is true, when it really is a way of suggesting a course of action, nothing more.

    Why don't you think it over and let me know what you decide?

    I can't see any offense or bossiness in that, although I se that someone who is not used to this idiom might be taken aback, thinking something like "What makes you think I'm not planning to do that?"

    (On the other hand, any suggestion of a course of action for another person, no matter how expressed, has the potential to come across as bossy, depending on personalities and relationships. Also depending on content: if I say "Why don't you go screw yourself?" the offense does not lie in either my inquisitivenes or my criticism of the fact that you are not screwing yourself yet.)

  21. @Marc Leavitt:
    As an American (New Jersey), whenever I was in a supervisory position, I usually prefaced my requests with, "(Name), do me a favor and..."

    I would be SO annoyed if my boss used that formula! You're not asking a favour, you're delegating work and issuing assignments. (Unless the request really was for a personal favour, in which case I take it all back.)

    I agree that "why don't you..." sounds very bossy indeed. It carries a strong implication of "I know what you should be doing, and it's not what you are doing now".

    Context is everything, though. If both speaker and listener are in a groping, puzzle-solving frame of mind, then "why don't you" comes across as a more tentative suggestion, more like "why not". I'm picturing two people playing a video game: "That doesn't work either... hm, why don't you try the yellow key in the blue door?"

  22. I can think of examples where "Why don't you ... ?" carries no more bossiness than what any suggestion might carry.

    "Why don't you think it over and let me know what you decide?"

  23. There's also a cultural issue. If you're British and my sort of age, then 'Why Don't You?' automatically reminds you of the aggressively bossy TV programme title 'Why Don't You Just Switch Off Your Television Set and Go Out and Do Something Less Boring Instead?' which was usually abbreviated to 'Why don't you?'

  24. Mark Leavit

    In Britain, if not in America, Do me a favour tends to be a relatively mild way of saying 'Stop annoying me' or 'Don't do what you were going to do, because it will annoy me'.

  25. "I don't suppose you'd/ you could/ you'd mind..."

    is probably my most indirect British way of making an explicit suggestion (as opposed to an entirely oblique one.)

    Naming a television programme 'Bugger Off and Stop Watching' [paraphrasing] seems highly counterproductive. I suppose the ratings war was yet to begin in earnest, what with there being less than three channels. Or fewer.

  26. Solo

    "I don't suppose you'd/ you could/ you'd mind..."

    For me, that isn't a suggestion at all — just a very polite request.

  27. For non-Brits, and for Brits who are too young or (like me) too old for it to be part of their childhood, here's a clip of Why don't you?. Strange.

  28. I think (and the comments here seem to agree) that any form of suggestion is perceived as an outright request in the UK, and any modification of it ('why don't you' 'have you tried') just makes it more annoying (my mother used to say 'would you like to...'). As someone already said, actual suggestions are so subtly phrased as to be invisible to any search.

  29. Mr. Crosbie

    I agree my example is often a polite request but I might say to a friend "I don't suppose you'd fancy going to the cinema tomorrow night?" or something like that, with no expectation of an affirmative answer and no loss of face if they say no.

    I find most of these hesitancy type features are only annoying if you really can't say no. I wouldn't expect an employer to hedge requests or directives like in the examples above, but when I was on an unpaid internship last yearthey were very conscious of the fact I was working for free and therefore suggested or asked I do things, rather than ordering.

  30. How about the British 'would you' ("wouldjou")?
    My British boyfriend uses this at the end of phrases all the time, apparently as a polite request, but to my Canadian ears it's a rude command. I would only use it when very annoyed with someone.

    His use: "Pass the wine, would you?"

    My use: (we're running late) Hurry up, would you?!

  31. Solo

    but I might say to a friend "I don't suppose you'd fancy going to the cinema tomorrow night?" or something like that, with no expectation of an affirmative answer and no loss of face if they say no.

    Hm. Yes, I have to give you that. But I have a strong feeling that this is only possible because the speaker is involved. By contrast consider: "I don't suppose you'd fancy going to the cinema to check what's on tomorrow night?"

    I suggest the problem is that the last two of Flöck's conditions are too disparate to work cleanly together.

    A speech act is understood as a suggestion when the following conditions apply:
    - The speaker (S) wants the hearer (H) to consider the action proposed.
    - S and H know that H is not obliged to carry out the action proposed by S.
    - S believes that the suggestion is in the interest of H.
    - S may or may not include herself in the proposed action

    The problem as I see it is that if S does include themself (another device to avoid 'himself or herself') in the proposed action, it muddies the test that he/she believes that the action is in H's interest. For the speech act to be a suggestion, surely there must be a condition that

    — S believes that the interests of H take precedence over any interest or desire of S to be included in the proposed action

  32. girl on the train

    Pass the wine, would you is a common British form of request.

    I don't see how interrogative would it could ever be a suggestion.

    Would i?, would he? etc are tags used
    — in genuine questions (Then I wouldn't know about it, would I?
    — in pointed rhetorical question They wouldn't admit it, would they?
    — to imply a threat Oh he would, would he!

    Combined with you, there's the additional possibility of polite command.

    Even by the test of Flöck's conditions set out in the OP 'Pass the wine, would you' fails to satisfy:

    - S believes that the suggestion is in the interest of H.

    Your boyfriend (S) believes that passing the wine (the putative suggestion) is in his interest (the interest of S) rather than your interest (the interest of H).

    For much of British culture, tagging would you onto an order is sufficient to mitigate it into a request in contexts where only minimal politeness is necessary. We don't take offence because
    — we know the convention
    — we hear in the intonation that the speaker is not being rude

  33. Lots of interesting discussion here...just dropping in quickly to echo what David Crosbie & others have been pointing out--not everything that tries to get somebody to do something is a suggestion. A lot of the things that people are raising here are requests--which would be another blog post! We're also seeing some invitations here. I take DC's point that IF's definition doesn't quite make the distinction clear between invitations and suggestions--though in real life the distinction isn't always clear either. E.g. "Why don't we try that new restaurant?" could be both an invitation and a suggestion for where to eat.

  34. Lynne

    "Why don't we try that new restaurant?" could be both an invitation and a suggestion for where to eat.

    OK, so let's add a condition

    S and H know that S can make it possible for H to perform the action proposed

    With that condition, it's an invitation. Without the condition, it's a suggestion.

  35. With that condition, it's an invitation. Without the condition, it's a suggestion.

    As it stands, this is just re-phrasing the problem. I suppose what I was trying to say is something like this:

    1 If the speaker believes that all the necessary conditions are met, then the speech act is intended as a suggestion/request/invitation etc.

    2. If the hearer believes that all the necessary conditions are met, then the speech act is interpreted as a suggestion/request/invitation etc.

    3. The hearer’s belief is rarely deduced from the speaker’s form of words. You think you know whether
    'Why don't we try that new restaurant?' is a suggestion or an invitation because you think you understand the relationship between you and the speaker.

    Even when there's a conflict, understanding the relationship prevails over linguistic signal. Lynne's BH feels a momentary pang when she says 'Why don't you...?' once too often. But he doesn't seriously think that she's trying to boss him. How do we know? Well, he's still BH, and Lynne feels comfortable in writing about the mini conflictette.

    If we want to know which language forms signal suggestion/request/invitaion etc irrespective of the interpersonal dynamics, we'd better confine our observation to what strangers say to each other.

  36. I would likely find "why don't you" aggrieving is that is sounds like a demand that I justify my non-compliance. almost a "You'd better have a damned good reason why not."


  37. ellarien, my mother also says "would you like to", when she means "please would you", all the time, and it has irritated me no end all my life. It seems very passive-aggressive, as she is not actually interested in my enjoyment of the requested action, only whether I am willing to comply. When I was younger and more belligerent, I would respond "No, I wouldn't like to do that at all".
    It was drummed in to me at school not to say 'Can I?' or 'Can you?' unless specifically asking about one's ability. It should always be 'may I?' or 'Would you?'. I have distinct memories of standing uncomfortably cross-legged because I had asked my teacher 'Can I go to the bathroom?' instead of 'May I go' and got the abrupt answer back 'I'm sure you are quite capable. Stand there for a while and we shall see'! She would eventually relent, after a suitable period of embarrassment had expired (but before any 'accidents' thank goodness!). It still grates on me to hear 'Can I have' and the like.

  38. I've been turning this over in my head, trying to figure out what would be the American version of what "Why don't you" means to British ears. To me, I picture a friendly old-time movie character inviting me over for dinner.
    One thing I am sure of is that the past tense- "Why didn't you x?" is more of an accusation.
    Hmm. For me, there would be three ways of making a suggestion- I would rarely use "Why don't you" in a situation where the outcome would affect me; pretty much only in an attempt to offer help.

    Say someone was trying to boil water, and having trouble with it (suspension of disbelief)
    "Why don't you use the microwave?" would be a good-faith suggestion. It wouldn't mean I thought they were stupid for not having thought of it already, just that I thought it might help them along.
    "Why don't you /just/ use the microwave?" Would suggest they had missed something obvious.
    And "Just use the microwave." would be an impatient/rude version of the suggestion, not at all helpful or in good faith.
    Again, it seems that all of the above would be perceived quite differently by BrE speakers.
    Good to know :)

  39. Massachusetts age 25-

    From what I've heard spouses have a tendency to read bossiness and accusation into whatever their partner says, however politely or discreetly it be said.

    Other social relations such as military hierarchies can elevate suggestions into requests and requests into orders.

    I think the final test to whether an utterance is a suggestion or a request is how it is followed up.

    P.S. The counterbalance to direct requests appearing bossy is indirect requests appearing insincere.

  40. Mikal Ann mentions "You might wanna". I used to hear "You wanna?" a lot in US TV programs and movies when issuing commands disguised as requests, as in "You wanna gimme a hand?", "You wanna sweep the yard?" - the intention was never to find out someone's attitude to the task. (Nowadays I seldom watch TV or go to the cinema, so I have no idea whether the use continues.) It sounds SO false to me! A very different use from the strong suggestion of "You want to watch your step, young man!" (or else . . .).

  41. BrE (Scot, 60+). I don’t remember a time when I didn’t watch American tv and fins. I have rarely had problems with understanding who was the good guy and who was bad, or who was supposed to be nasty and who was nice. As with suggestions/requests, it’s all in the tone of voice. But every so often, something stops me dead.
    British tv recently carried an advert for M&Ms sweets, which began with a wife/girlfriend saying “Babe, I could do with a snack”. To our British ears, both the wording and the tone sounded incredibly demanding and rude.
    In the film The Karate Kid, in reply to his mother, the lead character says “What?”, not requesting a repetion, but meaning something like “What have I done?”. This was at a point in the film where he was still a good guy, and from the context it wasn’t meant to be rude, yet to me, it sounded extremely abrupt and rude, to the point where it has stuck in my memory for over 30 years.
    Evidently, words and meanings are not the only things that are misunderstood when crossing the Atlantic. It sometimes happens with tone of voice as well.


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