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Teaching Business English: Being direct

Type: Article, Reference material

In this article, Ed Pegg looks at the issue of how to deal with directness in Business English classes.

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Is it a problem if learners are very direct? What can I do about it?

A couple of months ago, I was teaching a German student who had to leave class early to attend a meeting. She asked me, ‘I was wondering if it would perhaps be possible for me leave the class at four pm today, if it’s not too much trouble?’ I laughed, agreed and asked her why she’d asked such a complicated question. She told me that she wanted to be polite and had been taught that the longer your sentence, the more polite you would become. She had a point, but it was still kind of odd.

She’s not alone. Many of my learners are concerned about how polite they sound and are particularly worried about sounding ‘too direct’. But what is ‘directness’, is it a problem and how can you help learners concerned about sounding direct? Also, is politeness just a simple case of making your sentences as long as possible?

Let’s consider those points in turn.

What is directness?

Direct language means that someone says exactly what they mean in a simple, honest, transparent fashion. In some contexts, this is absolutely fine and is actually the best thing to do. However, in some situations, using simple, honest language has the potential to sound rude, and this is what most people are concerned about. This leads us on to our next question …

What is the connection between directness and rudeness?

Language is always used in a particular context. There is a relationship between the speakers and a communicative result that they aim to achieve using their speech. It’s this context, not the language you use, that determines whether you are rude or polite. For example, consider the following:

You are asked for some feedback on a presentation by a colleague. You thought that there was too much information on the slides, making the presentation boring. There are numerous ways you could bring this up. Let’s look at two alternatives:

  1. ‘I thought there was too much information on the slides.’
  2. ‘Maybe you could think about reducing the amount of information on the slides.’

Which would you choose? For me, it would depend. If I knew the person well, and particularly if I knew they favoured clear, honest communication, I’d choose option 1. If I didn’t know them very well, or knew they were sensitive to criticism, I’d choose option 2. By phrasing my criticism indirectly, option 2 gives my colleague the option to reject the feedback without feeling bad. The reason being I didn’t tell them what was wrong, I just made a suggestion.

What we’re talking about here is ‘face’ – your positive self-perception. Most people think of themselves as talented, intelligent and nice. Any situation that shows that one of your self-beliefs may not be true creates a potential conflict. This is known as a ‘face-threatening act’. When the threat to face is high, it’s common for people to choose more indirect language, as it disguises the threat. If any offence is taken, indirect language allows both parties to pretend that the conflict has not occurred. When more direct language is used, it’s much harder to avoid conflict.

The key point is: it’s the situation that determines the correct level of directness.

So, is directness the problem?

Going back to the actual meaning of directness – being simple, honest and transparent – these are positive characteristics. And as we said earlier, it’s the situation, not the language itself, that determines the level of politeness of different language.

Giving praise is an example where direct language is probably better than indirect language. Some people get embarrassed when they’re praised, and a long, indirect approach may increase this embarrassment. Therefore, a simple, direct approach would be most common to keep the potential embarrassment limited.

In my experience, the problem most learners experience is not a tendency to be over-direct. It’s actually an inability to assess the situation and match an appropriate level of language to the context in which they’re in.

Therefore, it’s not a question of language ability but rather language selection. By recognizing the context, and understanding how different language choices will affect the relationships in that context, learners can choose better language to achieve their purpose. This may well be direct or indirect, depending on the context.

How can I help?

So, helping learners choose the appropriate level of directness is less about language acquisition and more about selection of known language. Therefore, it’s a great addition to simulation and role-play activities. Here’s what I do in role-plays:

  1. Set the context and pre-teach any unknown vocabulary.
  2. Discuss the situation, relationships and appropriate level of formality and directness.
  3. Run the role-play and record incorrect and inappropriate language usage.
  4. Lead an error correction session.
  5. Introduce any inappropriate language (under/over formality, high levels of directness or indirectness) and elicit why it’s inappropriate.
  6. Allow learners to reformulate inappropriate language and discuss alternatives.
  7. Change the situation, formality and level of relationships, and then repeat steps 1–6.

By doing this, I’ve found that learners not only consider the accuracy of what they say, but also begin thinking about the best language to use in specific situations. When this happens, learners who are too direct begin to modify their language, when necessary, while those who are very indirect begin to simplify their language.

So in conclusion, if you wish to help learners make better language choices, the key is to enable learners to consider language usage in specific contexts.

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Readers' comments (1)

  • Thank you Ed
    I often discuss this with my students who are mainly 1-1 business people at quite a senior level. I start with writing "Give me £10" at the bottom of a piece of paper and then we try to make it more polite. We explore vocabulary, use of the past/continuous tenses, additional softeners, intonation etc until we get to " I was wondering if you could possibly lend me £10? I've left my wallet at home".

    We then do some exercises using scenarios because, as mentioned in the article, it will depend on the circumstances.

    I also take the opportunity to remind students that native speakers who use indirect questions don't really listen to their own words, they're just phrases that are telling you that a request is coming - so concentrate on the request itself rather than trying to understand the first part.

    I have now formed the opinion that whilst indirect language may be about "saving face" it is also about getting the other person's attention and making it very hard for them to refuse your request - but that's another lesson.

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