How to Make Subtle Requests and Suggestions Using Implicature

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Learn how to make subtle requests and suggestions using implicature. We talk about the phenomenon in pragmatics called implicature and the purpose of implicature. If you want to be more polite and less direct, subtle communication is key. Implicature provides subtlety in communication, which will improve your English.

Have you ever wondered how to make a request without being too direct? 

Sometimes when we’re too forward or direct with people it might be considered a bit rude. Some people might interpret it as being bossed around. And no one likes taking orders from people.

So now the question is, how do you request that someone do something, without sounding bossy?

Today I’m teaching you how to make requests in subtle ways so that it doesn’t sound like a request.

This same strategy can be used for making suggestions as well, also in a subtle way because most people don’t like taking unsolicited advice from others.

Alright, let’s get right to it.

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What enables us to be subtle while making requests or suggestions is a phenomenon called implicature. 

An implicature is something that the speaker implies indirectly and needs to be inferred from the context. It requires reading between the lines, so to speak. That means, understanding what is being said, asked, or requested based on the speaker as well as the context. It can be overlooked if we’re not paying attention, because the speaker does not directly or explicitly,  literally express the meaning. This is why it is very subtle and can easily go unnoticed or undetected if we’re not attuned to implicature. 

Implication is part of pragmatics which is a subdiscipline of linguistics. Implicature allows us to communicate more effectively because it is considered more polite, subtle, and delicate. It’s light touch because it allows meaning to be inferred without having to spell everything out  explicitly to communicate. What’s beautiful about implicature is it highlights the nuances of communication.

Ok now that we’ve laid the groundwork for implicature and explained the purpose of implicature, let’s take a look at a few examples.

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Let’s say Person A is complaining about not fitting into their pants after the holidays.

Person B is going to use implicature to make a subtle suggestion. Where body image and appearance are concerned, it’s very important and wise to tread lightly, because it is a sensitive topic. Using implicature here would be most appropriate in this context.

Let’s see how Person B uses implicature to make a subtle suggestion.

Person B says: You know, I had a similar issue and what helped was drinking more water throughout the day as well as increasing my activity levels. 

Person A: That’s actually a really  good idea. I will try both of those things. Thanks.

Notice how Person B didn’t say “You should” or “You could” or “You might want to try XYZ.” In fact, Person B didn’t use any modal verbs at all, yet it was clear that they made a light-touch suggestion. The key here is that Person B talked about their own experience and what worked for them.

But now imagine the same question but this time Person B does not have experience with this problem of their pants not fitting them after the holidays. So now let’s see how they can still make a suggestion using implicature.

Person B: I’ve been doing a really fun and challenging strength training program the last few months. It’d be great if you joined me for it because I think you’d really like it.

So here , as you can see, is a subtle suggestion that Person A start strength training to build muscle. So the common knowledge here is that muscle takes up less space than fat and that building muscle will burn fat. And so what’s implied is that if Person A does a consistent strength training program, they’ll burn fat and build muscle, thus getting to fit into their pants, so achieving their goals!

Notice how Person B invited Person A to do the program with them. They didn’t say, “Oh, you should burn fat.” or “I suggest you build muscle.” Instead they subtly suggested they start a strength building program. 

Let’s have a look at one more example with a suggestion.

Person A feels lost and directionless career-wise and is hoping to find some clarity on what to do about that.

Person B says: I was on this job search site the other day and there were so many interesting opportunities popping up left and right. This is a good time to be in the job market.

Alternatively they could answer in this way.

Person B says: Do you remember that surfing trip I took after film school a while ago? That was an incredible life-changing experience and it really helped me do some soul searching becauseI was able to prioritize my hopes and my dreams. And you know, it was only a week but it was definitely the reset that I needed to help me get into the right direction.

Ok so again with this response, the person is sharing personally what helped them when they found themselves in a similar situation. Right, in this case being lost career-wise. So person A can infer that taking a short trip, possibly somewhere in beautiful nature, can help get one’s priorities in order and figure out what direction they want to go in, for their career and life in general.

Notice how in both examples, Person B did not say “I suggest you do XYZ.” or “You really should do blah blah blah…” or “If I were you I might try ABC….” Instead, they were much more subtle about their suggestion and this is a much more delicate way of giving someone advice, particularly if their confidence and self-esteem are a little bit low at that moment. 

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OK, so we just covered making subtle suggestions using implicature. Now let’s look at some examples showing how we can use implicature to make subtle requests.

Like I said at the beginning of this lesson, people don’t like to be told what to do. They also most certainly don’t like to be ordered around.

Sometimes, when a request is direct it can feel to the listener like the speaker is bossing them around. And we most certainly don’t want the listener feeling that way. This is why you may have heard that being too direct in American culture is often frowned upon and considered rude.

Luckily, thanks to implicature, we can be subtle about making requests.

Compare these two utterances.

Can you please turn the AC on?

Versus

This sweltering heat has got me sweating all day. It’s unbearable.

Alright, so now let’s unpack these two utterances.

So “Can you please turn the AC on” or “Can you turn the air conditioner on?” depending on how you want to phrase it, are clearly requests, right? And they are direct.

But what about “This sweltering heat has got me sweating all day. It’s unbearable.” So at first glance it might look like the person is just complaining about the heat, right? But that is where context comes into play. The person sees that there’s an air conditioning unit in that person’s apartment but let’s suppose they don’t have the AC controller so they can’t turn it on themselves. That’s why they have to request it. Therefore they point out how hot it is in the apartment.

If they want to make it a bit more obvious then they could say:

This sweltering heat has got me sweating all day. It’s absolutely unbearable. You’re so lucky to have AC in this apartment. Some NYC walk-ups don’t have AC!  

Alright so as you can see this is a little bit longer, but now it’s crystal clear that the person is making a subtle request to have the AC turned on.

In the first example, turning on the AC could still be gleaned from the context, however the listener would have to be more attuned to the request and remember and make the connection that they have an AC that they can turn on!

Alright, now let’s have a look at another example.

Oh my goodness. Would you look at the time? I’m famished.

What can you infer from this sentence? The person is very hungry and wants to eat, right?

So here, they’re making a subtle request to get some dinner.

Now let’s look at another way of making a subtle request.

I had a super light breakfast and then I didn’t even have time for lunch today. No wonder I’m starving!

Alright, so this doesn’t look much like a request, right? It just looks like the person is saying how hungry they are. Maybe a little hangry -- you know, when you’re hungry and little bit angry at the same time? Okay, but if you look closely you’ll see that this person is making a request to eat dinner together. 

Now, on the subject of food and eating, if someone says “Should we grab a bite” or “How hungry are you?” They are trying to gauge the person to whom they are speaking hunger levels and if they would like to have a meal together.

If the person were to respond: “I could eat” that’s a subtle way of saying I’m not super hungry, but hungry enough to have a snack or small bite together, meaning a small meal.

So those are also subtle nuances right there, and we need to be actively listening and paying attention to the conversation to uncover those inferences.

Let’s look at another example of implicature.

Your birthday is on a Friday this year and Monday is a national holiday. Nice long weekends are perfect for a weekend getaway!

The subtext in this utterance is a subtle request for going away for the long weekend to celebrate the person’s birthday! You might want to use that yourself!

Alright and for one final example.

Person A is an avid fitness enthusiast and does many different types of training and exercise. Person B is bored of their workouts and is going to make a subtle request now using implicature.

Person B says: “I just finished my 20 week program. It was great, but you know, now I’m thinking about switching gears and maybe doing some agility and plyometrics training but I don’t really know where to start.”

Person B could end it there of course, but if Person A does not pick up on this subtle request to train together then they might want to add the following phrase.

“You know, your agility program looks incredible and you seem really happy with it.”

You can always start with less and if the request isn’t clear to the listener or if they weren’t paying close enough attention then you can always add an extra utterance or phrase like the one we just added above, to make things clearer.

Alternatively, you could lay it all out there, making the subtle request as obvious as possible and then wait for the listener to reply.

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Subtle requests and suggestions show the nuances of communication and enable us to communicate more efficiently because this light-touch approach is much more likely to get a better response from the listener, meaning the response that you want.

So try out these strategies for making subtle requests and making subtle suggestions using the phenomenon we call implicature.

The light-touch is definitely appreciated because you’re not putting pressure on the listener to fulfill the request or to listen to your suggestion, which they may or may not want to hear. Instead of being direct, which can come off unintentionally as rude, you can instead use implicature for more subtle communication. And ultimately, that subtlety will give you better communication outcomes. 

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Alright Advanced English learners. Hope you enjoyed this lesson on implicature, it’s definitely one of my favorite’s in pragmatics, and it’s definitely important because it will enable you to be a better communicator in English which is ultimately the goal! Subscribe to the channel if you haven’t already and be sure to share this lesson with someone you think would really enjoy and benefit from this. I’ll see you right here for your next lesson where we’ll continue to advance your English. 

Until then, keep up the awesome work.

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You might want to check out this video from my other channel, Explearning communication for more information on implicature

See you in the next lesson!