“I won’t lie, it wasn’t amazing”: Modeling polite indirect speech


Why are we polite when we talk to one another? One hypothesis is that people expect others to choose what to say based on their goals both to transfer information efficiently (an epistemic goal) and to make the listener feel good (a social goal). In our previous work, we found that when these two goals conflict, they sometimes produce white lies. In the current work, we expand on this theory to consider another prominent case of polite speech: indirect remarks using negation (e.g., "It wasn't amazing"). With minimal extensions from our previous framework, our formal model suggests that a pragmatic speaker will produce more indirect remarks when the speaker wants to be informative and seem considerate at the same time. These predictions were borne out in a language production experiment. These findings suggest that the conflict between social and epistemic goals can account for a broad range of politeness phenomena.

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