Why it’s sometimes hard to understand English speakers (Hints)

One of reasons it’s hard to understand English speakers is we don’t say what we mean. Really! We often say one thing, when we mean another!

In this video you’ll learn how to understand English speakers when they drop hints and make indirect requests. We look at some common ambiguous English phrases and explore the social benefits that ambiguity can bring.

There are lots of reasons why English speakers can be hard to understand and today we’re going to look at one of them. The thing is sometimes we don’t say what we mean. We say one thing but we mean another. This lesson is going to help you understand us, even when we’re indirect.
Let’s look at an example.

Is that pizza?
Yeah, come and have some.
Oh thank you.

Look at what Jay said here. Did he really mean ‘Is that pizza?’ Of course it was pizza. He really meant ‘I want some pizza’? So what’s happening here is Jay’s dropping a hint. A hint is something we say that suggests something indirectly.
When people want things, they often drop hints. Let’s look at some more examples. Lisa’s going to ask three questions. What does she really mean?

Are you going past a mail box on your way home?
Oh, are you going to get coffee?
Have you got a moment?

Did you understand her? Let’s see what she really meant.

Are you going past a mail box on your way home?
Yes, do you want me to post something for you?
Yes, I would like that.

So she meant ‘I want you to post a letter for me’. OK, next one.

OK, I’m off
Are you going to get coffee?
Yes, would you like me to get one for you too?
I would like that very much.

So she wants me to get her a coffee. OK. Last one.

Have you got a moment?
Yes, how can I help?

She wants some help. Now notice Lisa’s questions were all ambiguous. They might mean one thing, or they might mean another.
Maybe she wanted to know my route home. Maybe she wanted to know where I was going. Maybe she wanted to know how much time I have. Her questions weren’t 100% clear. They were ambiguous.
Researchers have found people are often ambiguous when they make requests and it seems to have two important social benefits. Firstly, being ambiguous can create the appearance of agreement and harmony. We like to agree with one another if we can.
Suppose you have a tray of biscuits and I say, ‘Mmmm. Those biscuits look nice’ What will you say? I hope you’ll say ‘Oh, please have one’, then I’m happy because I get a biscuit and you’re happy because you want to give me one. We both get what we want and the world is harmonious.

Oh those cookies look really good.
Have one. Jason, have one too.
Thank you

Now the other reason we’re ambiguous. It’s because it makes it easier to say ‘no’. Let’s see how it works.

Oh those cookies look really good.
Yes, I made them for Jason’s kids.
How old are your kids Jason?
Oliver’s eleven and Lola’s six.

So do you see what happened there? We could all pretend that Jay hadn’t asked for a cookie and I didn’t have to say no.
Here’s another example.

Can I have some of that pizza?
Errr, I bought it for the internet team.
Oh, no problem

Now that conversation was more difficult. Jay asked directly and Kathy had to say no. She felt bad. But what if Jay’s ambiguous.

Is that pizza?
Yes, it’s for the internet team. They’re going to be working late tonight.
Oh, is there a problem?
Yeah, the servers down.
Oh my.

That conversation was easier. He and Kathy both pretended he’d never asked.
So if you ask directly, you go on record. People have to say no. But if you’re ambiguous you can take back the request and the conversation can take a different path. Ambiguous requests can be good for relationships and that’s why people are often indirect.
OK, now it’s your turn. You’re going to see Jason making four indirect requests – dropping four hints. You have to decide if Jay’s answers are appropriate, and if not how should he reply? Are you ready?

Is that door open?
Is it cold in here or is it just me?
It’s just you.
Is that today’s paper?
Vicki said you’re going to the movies tonight.
Yes, we are.

Were Jay’s answers appropriate? No. What should he have said? Let’s see.

Is that door open?
Oh yes. I’ll close it.
Is it cold in here or is it just me?
Ooo. I’ll put the heating up.
Is that today’s paper?
Yeah, here you are.
Ah, thanks.
Jay said you’re going to the movies tonight.
Yeah, do you want to come too?
Oh I’d love to.

Did you get them right? That’s great. Then now you should know how to understand English speakers when they don’t say what they mean.
If you want to say what you mean very clearly in English, we have lots of videos with natural English conversations to help you. Make sure you subscribe to our channel and check out some more of our lessons.

Do you know the key phrases you need to ask for things more directly? Click here to learn about them.

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