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Issues in Applied Linguistics

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A Cross-Cultural Study of Indirectness


When compared to other ethnic groups, the Japanese are often said to communicate using indirect speech patterns. This characterization, however, is mostly based on casual observation and there have not been many empirical studies.

This study investigates whether or not the Japanese are more indirect than Americans in conversations between same status interlocutors and whether the use of indirectness is influenced by in-group and out-group distinctions for speech acts of requests and complaints, as determined by a questionnaire study.

The results of this study did not support the hypothesis that Japanese students are more indirect than American students in complaint and request situations. Americans tended to behave similarly in all situations studied, while Japanese responded and acted differently in different situations. However, Japanese students are not more indirect toward out-group members. These results suggest that Japanese may be more direct than assumed, at least when there is no apparent status difference. Although it may be true that Japanese traditionally value indirectness more than speakers of other languages, this does not mean that Japanese speakers are necessarily more indirect than others.

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