What You Say Isn’t Always What You Mean

I love using witty commercials to get a conversation going with my clients about the importance of social skills and these two Citibank commercials are perfect!

I love Citibank’s tagline: Wouldn’t it be great if everyone said what they meant? 

For people who struggle with social skills, life would be easier if everyone said what they meant.

This is especially true when dating. People want to avoid awkward moments, so they mask their true intentions with niceties. Most people want to avoid hurting others’ feelings so they tell “white lies”.

Some cultures use more direct language but here in America, our language is filled with indirect and implied language in order to reduce awkward situations and appear more polite and agreeable.  So, it’s important to think about others’ thinking to figure out people’s true intentions.

After you show these commercials (use dating video only for older student), use examples like this to keep the conversation going about the need to think about others’ thinking:

This is a conversation that happens on a regular basis in my home. My husband gets a lot of practice thinking about my thinking just to figure out what’s for dinner! The implied language is in parentheses.

Husband: What should we eat for dinner?  

Me: I doesn’t matter. (It does matter)

Husband: We could make hamburgers.

Me: We could… or we could make tacos. (I don’t want hamburgers)

Husband: What about steak?

Me: We already have the ‘fixins for tacos. (I don’t want steak either)

Husband: Ok… Tacos it is.

Me: Perfect! That was easy.

Husband: It SURE was. (It was NOT easy. Why didn’t you just say you wanted tacos in the first place?)

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Use this visual to help your students or clients think about the thinking of others. Help them learn to pick up on clues from context, tone of voice, and body language to help them figure out what people REALLY mean. Then, ask them to come up with their own examples of how people don’t always say what they mean.

Get creative and have fun!

Michelle Garcia Winner  has a great book that contains many useful worksheets related to indirect and implied language. I couldn’t do my job without this book!

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You can purchase it here:   Social Thinking Thinksheets for Tweens and Teens

Check out my Teachers Pay Teachers site for more social skills activities. You can find it here: The Creative SLP

Directly speaking, how INDIRECT is your teaching?

“Boys and girls!”

“I’ll begin when you’re ready.”

“I’m busy.”

“It’s time to do your work.”

If you work with children, you probably have heard teachers or parents make similar comments. I know I’ve been guilty of it in the past! When I first began working with students with language disorders, I quickly realized I’d have to make a conscious effort to change the phrasing of my directions and requests. I learned during my training as a speech-language pathologist about how to help improve inferential language comprehension, but didn’t realize how much of our social and conversational speech is indirect until I began working.

I love learning about what’s relevant in the field of business and brain research and finding ways to apply that to education. As I listened to the Steven Pinker talk about indirect language as a window to social relations, it reminded me of how important it is that teachers, parents and other educators be aware of and make a conscious effort to not use too much indirect speech when giving directions to students. So much meaning can be missed for students with language based learning difficulties.

It’s in our nature to use indirect speech acts as a means to be perceived as polite. For example, in my early years as a speech-language pathologist, I unconsciously asked students, “Are you ready to work?” They often laughed and replied, “No.” I quickly learned to be more direct in my directions and requests. Instead of doing what’s in our nature to be polite, I learned to give direct and simple commands. Instead of asking, “Are you ready to work,” I’d tell them, “Now it’s time to work.”

So enjoy this informative and eye-opening video from RSA ANIMATE that illustrates a section of Steven Pinker’s TED talk “What Our Language Habits Reveal” and, as you get ready to start back school (Where did the summer go?) ask yourself, “How indirect is my teaching?”

Instead of saying:                            Say this instead:

“Boys and girls!”     ——–     “Sit down and stop talking.”

“I’ll begin when you’re ready.”  ——–  “Sit down, get your paper & pencil  and stop talking.”

“I’m busy.”    ——–   “I can’t talk to you right now.”

“It’s time to do your work.”  ——–  “Stop talking and begin working.”


*THERE IS a time for indirect language in education. Indirect language can be a great way to get students thinking for themselves during instruction and when teaching and building critical thinking skills. My point is to reduce indirect language when giving directions and in general consider when speaking to students, “How much of my language is indirect and which students are struggling to read between the lines?”

*ALSO, use indirect language to get a discussion going when working on building social skills. Have students role play different social situations and help students practice observing non-verbal language and tone of voice to determine the speaker’s true intentions and meaning.