In this blog we discuss the speech act ‘suggest’. This speech act involves the situation where a speaker is communicating that he/she is as much in favour of the addressee performing a future action as in the latter’s own interests. This speech act category is closely related to the speech act ‘request’, but in the case of the latter the future action to be performed by the addressee is in the speaker’s interests. A typical example of the speech act ‘suggest’ when reinforcing social distancing is the following: “When I go shopping I will keep a larger distance from other people.”
The reason why a suggestion is important when negotiating social distancing is that it is an addressee-oriented speech act. In previous blogs, we have already indicated that orienting our interactions towards the benefit of others works better than highlighting the benefits to ourselves, because what we are aiming to achieve by social distancing runs counter to the basic norms of social interaction. A notable problem with realising the ‘suggest’ speech act is its above-mentioned close connection with the ‘request’ speech act: a suggestion can easily become ambiguous and might be interpreted by the other person as a speech act serving only the speaker’s interest – and, indeed, if we suggest a course of action when we are trying to forcefully convince the other person to keep his/her distance or to wear a mask, our suggestion is ultimately destined to become a request. For instance, unless the recipient of the above utterance is known to us, if we advise a person to follow a particular course of action when entering a shop, the utterance is very unlikely to be evaluated as a suggestion. Thus, as our research has shown, in the wake of Covid-19, ‘suggest’ is a speech act category that can only be used with people we are familiar with (and almost no one else), as the former are aware that what we are saying serves their best interests (unless the suggestion is made from a ratified position, e.g. given by a doctor). Does this imply that the speech act ‘suggest’ is of limited use? The answer is most certainly no: it is likely that there will be a number of people around us who will interpret an intended suggestion for what it is: a speech act designed to serve their best interests.
The Research featured in the blog was supported by the Hungarian Academy of Sciences’ Momentum Grant (LP2017/5)