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Why do some people say things like "Would you like the salt and pepper" when they are in fact wanting it themselves? Or "would you like to turn on the ABC news" when it's they who want the news on? I live in Australia, I heard not long ago that certain schools used to teach their pupils this format. But why?!

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    Can you edit to specify how this is a language question? It seems to me to be more about etiquette.
    – Laurel
    Commented Dec 21, 2018 at 1:12
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    The second one sounds like a way of weasel-wording a request so it doesn't sound like a request.  The first one strikes me as nonsense. Commented Dec 21, 2018 at 2:30
  • I suppose the first one is a tactful way of drawing attention to the fact that something is on the table in the hope that someone will offer it to you. In less formal company you could just say "If you're not using the salt and pepper, can you pass them over here?" Commented Dec 21, 2018 at 9:12
  • Thanks Laurel, Scott and Kate. I've been on the road 2 weeks, just catching up. Appreciate your contribution. Commented Jan 8, 2019 at 2:39

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A theory about such indirection has emerged from the work of the philosopher J. L. Austen in his How to do Things with Words. To be polite, instead of baldly giving an order, making a request, or asking a question, you mention a normal precondition for performing such a speech act. In your example, there's an added twist that you're depending on a convention of reciprocity in polite conversations that if you make an offer to someone, that person may be obligated to subsequently make a corresponding offer to you, as payback.

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In my experience, I have heard phrases like "Would you care to turn on the AC?" and "Would you care to pass me the salt?", and I believe the phrases "care to" and "like to" have the same meaning but "care to" sounds better and is just a more common phrase.

This phrasing is probably used in order to be polite instead of demanding, as asking if the person doing the service wouldn't mind doing the action is more considerate than directly commanding them. It also could be used when the action being requested isn't extremely important and the person who wants the action done would prefer the other's opinion first.

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  • Thank you VB. For many years I wondered why my wife would ask in the manner of my question; I had worked out long ago what was meant; but I was stunned to learn only recently that there were girls schools in NSW, Australia, that taught this is form of request! Cheers! Commented Jan 8, 2019 at 2:42
  • @StephenMarshall "I would like" and therefore "would you like" are examples of 'polite speech' which many of us learned, not at school, but in the home (I am neither female nor Australian but I am pretty old). "I want" was, and I suspect still is in many circles, so frowned upon that we were told "I want never gets"
    – BoldBen
    Commented Jan 20, 2019 at 14:27

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