Exercises for Polite = Indirect

For each speech situation, judge which utterance is the least direct and which is the most direct.  Which one(s) do you think would be appropriate for the situation?


A teenager wants to tell a close friend that she (the friend) smells bad, not to hurt her feelings, but to help her understand that there is a problem with her personal hygiene that needs to be fixed if she wants to be around other people.

a )“You smell bad.”
b) “I don’t think your deodorant is working.”
c) “We need some air freshener in here.”


very indirect (least direct) = c ; most direct = a

(c) is the least direct. It raises the issue of air freshener, which implies a bad smell, but doesn’t directly attribute it to the friend. This is the least threatening way to approach the issue, but the friend might miss the point, so it might not be effective. The speaker might start with this statement, but then follow it up with (b).

(b) is more direct, but still depends on the friend understanding the inference that a deodorant not working results in a bad smell. It does assume that the friend is wearing deodorant, and blames the deodorant (not the friend) for the situation – which allows the friend to save a bit of face. Also, the hedge “I don’t think…” allows for the possibility that the speaker might be wrong. This would be the most appropriate of the three choices.

(a) is completely direct and thus seems unnecessarily harsh. It would be likely to hurt the friend’s feelings, who might see the lack of hedging as a sign that she is being judged negatively and rejected.


 Two co-workers were told to finish a task together before they leave. It is now their normal quitting time and the task is not yet finished, but one of the co-workers would like to leave anyway.

a) “You know, I’m not really much help to you. You’re much better than I am at this.”
b) “Would you mind maybe finishing up without me?”
c) “I need to leave. You’ll have to finish without me.”


 very indirect (least direct) =  a; most direct = c

(a) is so indirect that it functions as an off-record request, easy for the co-worker to deny. It tries to flatter the co-worker into granting permission, but could just elicit reciprocal flattery such as “don’t be ridiculous – you’re great at this!” or “I couldn’t possibly do it without you.” Similarly, a speaker might try to be indirect by giving a good reason why they need to leave : “I was supposed to meet a friend for dinner…. We’ve been trying to find a time we could meet for months now….”, but that could just elicit an expression of sympathy and a reciprocal comment such as “Yeah, I know what you mean, I promised my kids we’d go to the movies.” This level of indirectness is perfectly appropriate, but may not be effective at achieving the speaker’s goal. (At least not immediately – it’s a great way to start a negotiation or a compromise: “If you finish up this time, I can do X for you.”)

(b) is more direct (as it makes the request explicit), but is indirect enough to be polite, since it is phrased as a “would you mind” question and includes an extra hedge (maybe) for good measure, and as such, it is perfectly appropriate. The co-worker is given freedom to deny the request (“Yes, I’m afraid I would mind.”), so will most likely not be offended that the speaker made the request, and again, since the relationship has been reinforced by these displays of caring, if the request is denied, a negotiation can begin.

(c) is the most direct, but also the least appropriate in this situation. No attempt is made to explain why the speaker “needs” to leave; it is not phrased as a request and so the co-worker appears to be given no choice in the matter; the lack of overt concern for the needs of the co-worker implies “I’m more important than you are.” The co-worker is likely to be angry and offended at this treatment, not willing to negotiate or compromise, and the working relationship will be damaged. 


Two former college roommates meet at a reunion and discover they now have similar jobs. One would like to know how much the other earns.

a) “How much do they pay you?”
b) “Are you earning pretty good money?”
c) “Real estate is really expensive in your town…. They must be paying you pretty well.”
d) “I don’t know how much your company pays you, but I suspect it’s a lot more than I’m getting.”


Both c & d are very indirect, but c may be marginally the least direct since it raises the distractor topic of real estate; most direct = a

Money can be a touchy subject, even between friends, so most people don’t want to address it directly.

Both (c) and (d) are indirect – they’re statements rather than questions. Both are appropriately polite ways of implying interest in the information without obliging the friend to respond. The friend could simply smile rather than give the desired information, or make some comment such as “It’s not about the money, I just love what I do,” or whatever. Both (c) and (d) even offer the friend potential changes of topic. In response to (c), one might talk about the price of real estate, or whether one owns or rents, or what else may be expensive or cheap in that area. In response to (d), one might follow up on why the speaker thinks his/her company isn’t paying what it should, or what other benefits the company might offer, or whether the friend is really happy working for that company, etc.

(b) is a more direct question, but one that the friend might feel comfortable with because it is both vague and subjective. (One person’s idea of “pretty good money” might be another’s idea of a pittance.) Of course, the response is likely to be equally vague (“I do all right”).

The most direct is, of course, (a), but starting with that question would generally be thought impolite. If the speaker really wants to know, they need to start by implying interest (as in c & d), then step up to the vaguer question, then and only then, if the friend seems comfortable, should they ask directly, understanding that this may still make the friend feel uncomfortable (in which case they may still get a vague answer in reply or a refusal to answer).


 A mutual friend has introduced two people at a social gathering, and the two discover they have a lot in common and enjoy talking to each other.  One would like to ask the other on a date, to further explore if they’d be compatible for a romantic relationship.

a) “Would you like to go out with me, on a date?”
b) “Maybe we could meet for coffee some time.”
c) “Would you like to see (that new movie) this Saturday?”
d) “Are you involved with anyone currently?”


 very indirect (least direct) = b; most direct = a.  All are perfectly appropriate for the situation, but the less direct ones risk being misunderstood, while the most direct is most likely to be met with rejection if it is asked too soon. 

(b) is a statement, not a direct question. Even if the new acquaintance agrees with the statement, it is only in theory, with no specific time mentioned, and there is no indication of romantic interest. It’s not even entirely clear if they would be meeting on purpose, or whether they might just happen to accidentally run into one another at the coffee shop. Presumably, if the response to this was favorable, the speaker would follow up with a more specific suggestion.

(c) is a more specific invitation, and a direct question (requiring a response) but again, although appropriate, it does not distinguish between a romantic interest versus a just-friendly interest. The speaker doesn’t even specify “with me” (although there is no conceivable reason why s/he would ask specifically about the other’s desire to see that particular movie on that particular day, if not to indicate they should go together). The other person may well want to specify “you mean, like, a date?” before answering.

(d) is a very personal question, and typically would only be made to indicate a romantic interest. (The reason the speaker would want to know this information is because if the other is committed to someone else, pursuing a romantic interest at this time would be futile.) This is often how someone might ask permission to ask for a date, but it does not directly accomplish the agreement to date: if the person just says they’re not involved with anyone, the speaker will feel more confident about then asking for a date. But this gives the other person the opportunity to prevent an embarrassing situation if they don’t want to go on a date, either by saying that they are involved (even if it’s a “little white lie” to avoid embarrassment), or by saying “no, but I don’t have time to date right now,” or “I’m really enjoying being single right now” or “I just got out of a bad relationship, and I need some time before I try again,” or some other face-saving way of indicating that the speaker should not continue down this path.

The most direct and unambiguous is, of course, (a), but while this is perfectly polite (and flattering!), it may seem to come on too strong. Few of us have the heart to risk rejection in this way, without first testing the waters with some less direct approaches, so someone who is so direct may appear to have a very intense attraction and this may scare off the person they’re interested in.


 Two friends have just seen a movie together. One wishes to express a negative opinion of the film.

a) “Well, that was…. interesting.”
b) “That was awful!”
c) “I’m not sure why the critics gave that such great reviews.”
d) (heavy sigh) “Well, you win some, you lose some.”


  very indirect (least direct) = d; most direct = b.

If the two friends are good friends, all of these would be fine. The different choices might just be a matter of personality (how direct/indirect the person likes to be generally,  or how playful). If it is a new friendship, the speaker might hesitate to express too strong of an opinion, for fear that a potential disagreement might weaken the friendship.

(d) is the least direct, because it doesn’t mention the movie at all, although the inference is  clear: the heavy sigh indicates disappointment, so this is obviously one of the “lost” ones in the speaker’s opinion.

(a & c) are slightly more direct, because they offer an opinion about the movie, and it’s clear that the opinion is not (entirely) positive, but both seem to offer room for negotiation. (c) acknowledges that the critics disagree with the speaker (so it wouldn’t be weird for the friend to do so, too). The long pause before the choice of adjective (“interesting”) in (a) makes it clear that the speaker couldn’t find a more positive term, but gives the friend the opportunity to point out ways in which the movie really was interesting (in a more positive way).

(b), of course, is quite direct.


 One friend strongly disagrees with something the other friend just said.

a) “Are you crazy?”
b) “I’ve kinda got to argue with you on this one.”
c) “You don’t mean that.”
d) “I disagree.”


 very indirect (least direct) = a; most direct = d.

Although as a general rule, less direct = more polite, this is a clear counterexample.

Accusing someone of being crazy (a) is always a bit threatening, even when it’s intended as a joke. This is indirect because it doesn’t refer directly to what the friend said, but the timing of the question forces the inference that “not only do I disagree with what you said, but only a crazy person would say such a thing.” This is appropriate only if they are very good friends, and it is said in a joking way (with a smile and a laugh).

(c) appears to claim only disbelief in the speaker’s sincerity, not to be arguing with the actual claim made, but in general, we don’t (shouldn’t) tell people what they mean. The inference here is that you shouldn’t mean it, you couldn’t mean it, because the idea is so wrong. It’s a little more polite than (a), but still likely to cause offense if used outside the bonds of a close relationship.

(b) is more directly “arguing” about “this one,” but it is not completely direct because it hedges (with kinda), indicates that the speaker doesn’t want to argue with the friend (“got to,” not want to), and “on this one” is a subtle way of reminding the friend that they generally agree. This is a nicely strategic way of arguing with someone without causing offense!  

(d) is entirely direct – but it might be fine if the two are close friends, if this is an argument about something fairly trivial, and if the speaker continues on to explain their reasoning.


 A mother wants her son to clean his room.

a) “I’ve told you before to clean your room.”
b) “I don’t know how you can find anything in here.”
c) “Would you mind cleaning your room?”
d) “Clean your room!”
e) “This place is a pigsty.”


Both b & e are very  indirect (if we have to choose a ‘winner’ for the title of ‘least direct’, we’d go for b, since it doesn’t have the intensity of negative judgment that we see in e); most direct = d.

All of these would be appropriate enough, as a mother can generally speak any way she likes to her son. (In politeness terms, they know each other intimately, and the mother is in a position of power over the son.) Her choice of phrase, then, will most likely be interpreted as corresponding to her emotions: how upset is she about the messiness, and how angry will she be if he does not comply?

(b) is a statement, not apparently a command. It seems to imply that the mother thinks the son’s room should be cleaner (because it’s too messy for him to find anything), but doesn’t explicitly state that he should clean it. This is a very gentle way for her to chide her son: not only does she appear to blame herself (“I don’t understand”), but she offers him a logical “out”: if this is her only objection to the mess and he can find things just fine, there’s no reason for him to clean his room.  She’s not going to be angry if he ignores the implied request.

(e) is a metaphor, said with more intensity (hence the exclamation point). It’s a lot harder to “read” emotions without facial expressions and tone of voice, but when spoken, this would undoubtedly be accompanied by expressions and tones of disgust. Even without the vocal cues, it is clearly intended as an insult: pigsties are disgustingly filthy and no human would want to live in one. If her son lives in a pigsty, he must be pig, right? Obviously, she must want him to clean it, even though this is still an “off-record” form of request.

(c) is a conventional form of indirectness: phrasing a request as a question about whether one “would mind” makes it seem like the other person has a choice. Nonetheless, it is clear that the only reason she would ask such a question is because she wants him to clean the room, so this functions as an “on-record” command.  If he does not comply, she will be annoyed.

(a) is simply a true statement, not apparently a command, but the intent is clear: it makes reference to the act, makes it clear the mother wants her son to perform the act (which he is obviously able to perform), and emphasizes that this is not the first time she has made the request. This is direct enough to show she is already annoyed; if he does not comply, she will likely become quite angry. (Note that she will feel that her statement is true even if she has only been indirect in her previous requests – because he should have interpreted (c) as “telling him to do it,” even though that’s not what it literally said.)

(d) is the most direct. If she says this, she’s already pretty angry.  


 An employee would like his boss to turn on the air-conditioning.

a) “Boy, it’s kind of heating up, isn’t it?”
b) “Did you want to maybe turn on the air-conditioning?”
c) “Turn on the air-conditioning, please!”
d) “Gosh, it’s like a sauna in here.”
e) “I’m too hot to think; my brains are scrambling.”


Both a & d are very indirect. (If we have to choose a ‘winner’ for the title of ‘least direct,’ we’ll go for a, since it contains an extra unnecessary tag question.) Most direct = c.

(a) is so indirect, it appears to be merely a comment on the weather.  The employee knows he can’t order his boss to do anything, and even making an on-record request might be too socially threatening, so he might start by making a comment like this, even adding two different hedges to signal his social discomfort at making the request (kind of, and isn’t it?)  Likewise, (d) is a simile, calling attention to the heat, but not explicitly asking the boss to take action.  These are appropriate, but may be ineffective.

If the boss doesn’t take the hint, the employee might graduate to an indirect comment like (e), which not only mentions the weather, but makes it clear that it’s having a negative effect on the speaker, who might not be able to do good work under these circumstances.

If the boss still doesn’t take the hint, the employee might escalate to the more direct (b), which makes it clear that the employee would like for the boss to turn on the air-conditioning, but is still appropriately polite because it is phrased as a question, not a command, contains a hedge, and also makes it seem like this is something the boss would want to do for his own sake.

A direct command (c) is not usually appropriate from a subordinate to someone with more power. Even with the ritually polite “please,” this could damage the working relationship.

Video Exercise:
In this video, the young woman is using some gentle sarcasm to be indirect. Imagine a circumstance in which she would say this, and what she would intend to communicate by saying this in that situation.


Someone telling her a story has noticed her lack of enthusiasm and interest (presumably, she has not been paying enough attention, not giving active listening cues, not showing genuine interest or amusement). They ask “Am I boring you?” The yawn answers “Yes, you’re boring me,” and the sarcastic answer “That’s my favorite story” makes it clear that she has heard the story many times before. The friendly smile and happy facial expression makes it clear that she still enjoys interacting with the storyteller, though.

Written Exercise:
Come up with three different indirect ways of requesting someone 1) to lend you a large sum of money, 2) to tell you if they’ve considered divorcing their spouse, and 3) to take care of your pet for a week while you’re out of town. Can you think of different reasons why you might ask it one way instead of another? (Different situations, relationships, emotions or attitudes, etc.?) We’re not going to give our answers here. Instead, ask a confederate to look at your responses and discuss them with you. Would they accomplish the act a different way? Why?
Exercise: Real-Life Application
The situations in the previous exercise were somewhat arbitrarily chosen, and may not be relevant to you in your own life. Identify three different non-trivial requests for action or information that you sometimes need or want to make. Come up with indirect ways of accomplishing these. Again, ask a confederate to look at your responses and discuss them with you. Would they accomplish the act a different way? Why?
Role Play / Video Modeling Exercise:
Take one of your answers to one of the previous exercises and actually make the request to a confederate (with the camera pointed at the confederate). Which signs of discomfort did the confederate show? (Did they send signals that you should really back off, or willingness to negotiate?) Discuss your impression with the confederate: did you interpret the signals the way they intended them? Watch the video together to see if there were other signs of discomfort you may have missed. (Watching in slow motion may be helpful: some of the micro-expressions go by awfully quickly in real life.)
Exercise: More Real-Life Applications
Keep a journal and jot down what socially threatening acts you had to accomplish over the course of an entire day. When you have time, think about whether you were appropriately (in)direct in your approach to the act, how successful you were in accomplishing the act, and what you might do differently next time. Discuss these with a confederate.
Exercise: More Real-Life Applications
Keep a journal and jot down particularly indirect utterances you notice others making. Can you figure out what they were really trying to accomplish? (If not, can you go back and ask them – when they’re not busy, of course – to explain?) When you have time, try to figure out why they were being so indirect (which will require an analysis of the threats involved in the situation, so you may want to complete the power & solidarity module before completing this exercise).

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