Indirection basically refers to saying one thing and meaning another. Most messages communicate multiple messages simultaneously. For example, there maybe a surface message, and an underlying message.

One form of indirection is mitigation:

  1. Softening
  2. Changing bald imperative to request
  3. Example of university president talking to secretary

Lack of mitigation and indirection often signals difference in status. The norm among women is to avoid signaling status differences. This was the problem with Judge Toal (described in class): She commonly used bald imperatives to command an office of women, who did not appreciate it.

According to Tannen, men are more comfortable with differences in status, so that they may regard mitigation on the part of a superior as inappropriate or evidence of weakness/lack of confidence. So men are less likely to use mitigation at the office, or to use it only with female subordinates.

However, certain kinds of indirection are a prerogative of power. For example, in the military, if a superior officer says "It's warm in here", that means "You! Open the window! Now!"

Women tend to be indirect in public talk but more direct in private talk. Men tend to be direct in public talk, and more indirect in private talk. Why? An issue of each being comfortable in their own traditional spheres?

In the case of life and death situations (such as in airplane cockpits), indirection used by, say, a junior officer in addressing the captain, can be very dangerous, because the underlying message might be overlooked.

People who use a lot of indirection tend to prefer others to use it on them, and vice-versa. So many women subordinates, for example, prefer a boss that says "I have a problem. I really need to get this report done, but I can't do it myself. What do you think?' and then the subordinate can volunteer to write the report. In contrast, men often think they are being manipulated when people are indirect, and would rather just be told directly. The indirection is perceived as deceitful.

Carl: Say, Dick, did you finish that book you borrowed?; Dick: Well, y'know, I've been so busy lately....Things have been frantic around here. This means "give the book back", but a direct request is unsafe. If he frames it directly and is refused, it causes a conflict. But if phrased as a question about whether it is finished yet, it allows a refusal that is interpreted in terms of the face value of the question. You never hear: 'give me my book back'. 'no. I don't want to'. Also never hear: Jane: I wonder if that's a watch on your wrist? Tom: The news will be on soon. Instead, you would hear: "Can you give me the time?" "Its 6:30". Indirection in this risk-free situation would be odd.

Gloria: The car's out of gas. Harriet: There's a garage around the corner. Here, Gloria is really asking for help. It would be rude to be direct in response, as in: "is that so? Then you can't go anywhere". The response that a garage is around the corner is also indirect: you have to know that there is gas at garages. Indirection only works with shared knowledge.

Irene: how was your evening? Joe: not bad at all. He means very good. But that would be banal. Not bad at all requires just a little more brainpower, and is fun. It's like taking the scenic route on your home from work. Its not the most efficient, but its nice. We tend to be direct only when the main purpose of conversation is information transmission. When there is no hidden relational message.

What are the effects of indirection?

Requests Reports
Avoid rudeness appear evasive and rude
minimize difference in status can signal deference
Commands not heeded ambiguous
If not heeded, saves face of commander can be interpreted as lack of respect
appear weak or uncertain  

High context cultures like Japan use indirection a great deal. Indirection is seen as more polite than directness. Polite and indirect speech are easier to ignore. So very high status people use it, and so do very low status people.

Other functions of indirection: