Utilitarian relevance and face-management in the interpretation of ambiguous question/request statements


Often, requests are made in an indirect manner and phrased in such a way that they can also be construed as questions. For example, the sentence ‘Is there any coffee left?’ can be construed either as a question about coffee or as a request for coffee. This article offers a combined test of some key predictions of two approaches to the disambiguation of question/request statements (1) the face management approach, which gives a prominent role to variables such as status and potential loss of face; and (2) the utilitarian relevance approach, which gives a prominent role to the goals pursued by the speaker at the time he or she issues the statement. Ambiguous question/request statements provide a natural test bed for the latter approach in particular. A board game paradigm is developed to allow for a clean, orthogonal manipulation of all variables. The results wholly support the utilitarian relevance approach and offer new perspectives on the face management approach.

Memory & Cognition
JF Bonnefon
JF Bonnefon
Behavioral Scientist