Directives were described by Searle (1975) as one of five basic speech acts. In his approach, taken from linguistic philosophy, speech acts were defined by a particular fit between words (propositional content) and the world. Directives are the class of speech acts that attempt to fit the world to the words; they are attempts by a speaker to get a hearer to do something. The class of directives as Searle proposed it encompassed a wide range of action verbs in English – command, request, plead, invite, permit, and many others – without distinguishing among them in any way. He left aside such issues as the fact that words for directives would vary across languages, that contextual variables such as magnitude of the desired action and relationship between speaker and hearer would affect which kind of directive might be used, and the varied responses hearers might have to directives. The basic definition of directives as attempts to get people to do things does, however, lend itself to a connection with compliance gaining and persuasion in the field of communication (see Fitch 1994).
Searle did, nonetheless, take directives seriously as examples of how people made sense of indirectness. Because directives tend to be made indirectly, he claimed (an observation since confirmed among middle-class North Americans and contrasted with many other speech communities), they provided useful examples for understanding how hearers could recognize utterances as directives even when they seemed to be phrased as something else. “Can you pass the salt?” was a common example, as a question that no competent hearer could fail to recognize as a request for action rather than for information.
Rosaldo (1982) posed one of the most influential challenges to speech act theory based on analysis of directives among the Ilongot tribe of the Philippines. She observed that pervasive direct commands within this group upheld, rather than contradicted, a strikingly egalitarian interpersonal ethos among persons. She proposed that the failure of speech act theory lay in its assumption that language use could exist separately from social structure: “[I]t fails because it construes action independent of its reflexive status both as consequence and cause of human forms” (1982, 204). This inseparability of language use from social interaction is the central premise of the ethnography of speaking more generally, and much subsequent work on directives has proceeded as culturally situated case studies in that vein.
Before elaborating on the ethnographic work on directives, however, a strand of investigation more in line with Searle’s original formulation bears mention. Language pragmatics can be construed as the study of how people do things with words. How to do things with words (Austin 1962) was, in fact, the title of the seminal work from which Searle’s proceeded, and directives have received considerable attention from that direction. Politeness theory (Brown & Levinson 1987) developed Searle’s observations about indirectness by pointing out the face threat inherent in nearly all directives. To try to get someone to do something they were not already doing (or to stop doing something they were doing) by definition constrains their autonomy or interferes with their freedom of movement, i.e., threatens their negative face. Directives may also threaten positive face if they concern something the hearer could already be expected to know they should or should not do. Telling a parent that their child is hungry and should be fed, for example, threatens the hearer’s positive face as competent to know and meet their child’s needs.
Face Threat In Directives
The presumed face threat inherent in directives creates in many cases a social need to mitigate such threats, leading to the pragmatic question, what kinds of utterances can count as directives, being a complicated one. Commands, when formulated in conventional ways, are unmistakable: “Sailor, swab the decks.” “You will clean your room this minute, young man.” Hints, by definition, are far less transparent as to their status as directives. Rushforth (1985) gives an example of an Athabascan saying, to an assembled group of kinfolk, that if he had a dog he would go hunting. This utterance, perhaps formulated within a sequence of general conversation about dogs or hunting, was understood to be a request to borrow a dog. Similarly, many North American speakers of English have little difficulty understanding the utterance, “I’d love to see you when I get to town, but if I take the bus from the airport I’m not sure I’ll have time,” as a request for a ride from the airport.
Some pragmatics research has thus examined the tradeoff in such indirect formulations of directives: a straightforward command is clear but is likely to be face threatening. An indirect request saves face but risks being unclear, to the point that it may not be understood as a directive at all (see Blum-Kulka 1987; Blum-Kulka et al. 1989, for extensive discussion and empirical support of this point). Beyond variation in cultural norms regarding circumstances under which clarity is more important than face threat, the pragmatic complexities of directive formulation have provided rich terrain for exploration of intention and interpretation of language use, and of construction of meaning more generally.
Ethnographic work on directives proceeds from the assumption that the need for people to influence the actions of others exists in every culture, such that directives must exist in every language. Directives have thus been widely studied as an index of culturally distinctive systems of beliefs about persons, relationships, and communication (see, e.g., Hollos and Beeman 1974; Katriel 1986). Because compelling the actions of another person implies some basic need or right to do so on the part of the person who does the compelling, directives also reveal cultural understandings and enactments of power and social structure.
Naming Speech Acts
Fully apprehending the scope of directives’ meaning as an index of cultural codes more generally has been elaborated in various ways in the ethnographic case studies just mentioned. One line connecting directives with cultural codes incorporated speech acts with names (Fitch 1994). Speech events, as part of the basic set of categories proposed by Hymes (1972) through which language was integrated with social life, are actions accomplished through language use recognizable within a particular culture. A speech event that has a native term associated with it can be assumed to be significant by virtue of the name itself, which identifies an action common enough to have a term of reference. Often, the distinctions between speech events are the richest source of cultural meaning and evaluation of action. “To sweet-talk someone,” for example, is recognizable among North American English speakers as a specific form of request – one “sweetened,” for example, with flattery or with promises of reciprocated effort. “To brown-nose someone,” although bringing to mind the same kind of flattery and perhaps promises of future payoffs, carries a much more negative connotation because of the assumption that the brown-noser is engaged in an often distasteful form of self-promotion (see Hall & Valde 1995), rather than merely posing a localized request in an overtly palatable way.
Names for speech events differ from the original list of performative verbs considered by Searle to distinguish directives from other speech events (commanding, for example, was a different form of action than promising or declaring) in that they incorporate culture-specific norms and premises about persons, relationships, and the nature of communication itself. To approach the meaning of utterances as inseparable from the social groups in which they are produced is one kind of departure – the same kind as Rosaldo’s, who much earlier insisted on this inseparability – from Searle’s approach that sought to specify a limited number of logical relationships between language – an abstraction of all human languages – and the world – an abstraction of all particular social worlds. A different kind of departure from that approach that nonetheless conserved the central idea of directives as Searle defined them sought to show that utterances counted as directives partly by virtue of the sequential environment in which they occurred. In the following exchange between a preschool teacher and a child, for example, the first utterance can only be clearly established as a directive by the response to it:
Teacher: Michael, I see someone throwing dirt.
Child: Oooo-kay. (sighs, drops handful of dirt) (Fitch 1994, 199)
Conceptually, then, the notion of a directive which began as an abstraction has expanded through research and theory in several disciplines to stimulate inquiry into a wide range of questions about the nature of language and its many constitutive relationships to social worlds.
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