Do you mind if …

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You're asked:

(1) Do you mind if I ask you a question?

How do you respond? There's a complexity here, no matter what your opinions about question-asking are. The problem is that (1) has the form of a yes-no question (about what the addressee's sensibilities are) but also conveys a request (for the addressee to allow the questioner to perform an action). An affirmative response to the yes-no question is a negative response to the request, and vice versa. Oh dear. (Actually, there's more.)

I'm familiar with the phenomenon, from many years back, when I used to teach courses on speech acts and the like. But: when Language Log reader Erick Tejkowski asked me about it a few days ago (he saw sentences like Do you mind if I take another piece of cake? as ambiguous, which I think is not quite right), and when Elizabeth Traugott and (lawyer/linguist) Peter Tiersma and I fell into a breakfast discussion of it a little while back (Peter was in town to talk to Elizabeth's class on forensic linguistics), I realized that I had no sources at my fingertips to recommend to people. Who had discussed it in print? Did the phenomenon have a name? Was there relevant legal literature?

To start: the yes-no question understanding of (1) is the "literal", on-the-face-of-it, understanding. If you mind, the appropriate answer is yes (I do mind), and if you don't, the appropriate answer is no (I don't mind). But the CONVEYED content of (1) is a request. So if you grant the request, the appropriate answer is yes (go ahead), and if you don't, the appropriate answer is no (don't do it).

Now a lack of fit between the form of a sentence and what it conveys is commonplace, as in famous examples like

(2) Can you pass the salt?

This has the form of a yes-no question (about ability to pass the salt), but it serves as a request (to pass the salt), and in this case the request meaning has clearly become CONVENTIONALIZED. Answering (2) as if it were a yes-no question is, in the relevant context, uncooperative and obstructive; if you just say yes and don't pass the salt, you're being an annoying asshole. (In other contexts, of course, can you questions can be straightforward yes-no questions about ability: Can you run a marathon?)

In other words, can you questions are ambiguous, with ability readings in some contexts and request readings in others (and room for uncertainty in still other contexts).

But do/would you mind if questions are different: they come with both understandings, simultaneously. They're in a middle ground between cases where content is conveyed entirely by "conversational implicature" (It's cold in here intended to convey a request to close the window) and cases of conventionalization (the can you cases). Frankly, I've never found it easy to deal with the mind questions myself in real life. The best solutions are to read out the whole answer:

No, I don't mind; I will answer your question.

Yes, you may ask me a question. / Yes, I'm willing to answer your question.

or

Yes, I mind; I will not answer your question.

No, you may not ask me a question. / No, I'm not willing to answer your question.

But yes or no alone isn't going to work.

I have a feeling that this case has been discussed in the semantic/pragmatic literature, but I don't have references to hand. (Please don't write in with reports of the problem. I assume that it's been noticed again and again. What I'm looking for is analyses.)

The next level of the problem. Do/Would you mind if conveys a request (for assent from the addressee), but the request is often perfunctory: the speaker intends to go ahead with the action, but is expressing polite consideration towards the addressee — not threatening the addressee's face — by conveying a request. So folded in with the yes-no question and the request is a component of everyday politeness.

Now back to the forensic linguistics breakfast. I forget how we got to the topic, but at one point we shifted to talking about how so many people in the U.S. consent to police searches (in the absence of a search warrant or probable cause) when it is clearly against their best interests. They know there are drugs in the trunk, yet they still let the cops search the trunk when asked Do you mind if we search the trunk?

Elizabeth Traugott and I noted that a surprising number of people in the U.S. seem not to know they have a right to refuse — this despite the prominence of the consent-asking routine in television shows like Law and Order. The police aren't asking the question out of considerateness; the law requires them to get consent.

But, I suggested, some people might not appreciate this point fully and take the question to be more like ordinary conversation (softening the cops' intention to search the trunk), rather than as a legal formula.

On to how to answer the cops' question, recalling the discussion of yes and no above. Peter Tiersma was pretty sure that judges would insist that the answer no on its own was an answer to the "literal" yes-no question — that is, to mean 'no, I don't mind', giving consent. But he wasn't sure if there was case law on the point. Nor was he sure what cops (and judges) do with answers like No, don't search the trunk, which appear to first give consent and then refuse the search.

Meanwhile, I'm hoping that someone has a line on some of this.

 

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36 Comments »

  1. Karen said,

    May 23, 2008 @ 1:42 pm

    "No, go ahead" always works for me.

  2. Erica said,

    May 23, 2008 @ 1:52 pm

    How about the fact that they are already asking you a question in the request TO ask a question. Sometimes when people ask me this question (or "Can I ask you a question?") I'll answer a little smugly, "You just did." But I at least try to add a permissive smile along with my retort.

  3. Ben said,

    May 23, 2008 @ 2:00 pm

    I've found an appropriate response to the question,

    "Do you mind if I ask you a question?"

    is simply,

    "You just did."

  4. Nagisa said,

    May 23, 2008 @ 2:14 pm

    "Yes, I mind" seems somewhat rude to me. "I'd rather you not" seems more polite, but it could just be me.

  5. Nathan said,

    May 23, 2008 @ 2:29 pm

    My answers tend to be "OK" or something like "Maybe later; I'm busy right now." In other words, I sidestep the surface question for clarity.

  6. Josh Millard said,

    May 23, 2008 @ 2:45 pm

    I (think that I) generally short-circuit the yes-no ambiguity with some sort of exhortation:

    "Do you mind if I ask you a question?"
    "Shoot." Or "go for it." Or grunting expectantly at them and waving a "c'mon, get on with it" if I'm chewing something, etc.

    And setting aside the complicated ethics of inducement in e.g. the police-search scenario, it feels like it is usually a perfunctory request — if the answer to "do you mind if I ask you a question" is actually to reject the request, it's rarely because I object to answering a question but rather that I can't for some reason of circumstance: I'm on a phonecall, or I've lost my voice, or I'm really, really chewing something.

    I'd venture that the perfunctory "I'm asking but I expect you to say yes" nature of this sort of request actually makes for a decent (if quite fuzzy) litmus test for rudeness — the failure rate on a apparently perfunctory yes-no requests as a metric for social bullheadeness, or something like that.

  7. rootlesscosmo said,

    May 23, 2008 @ 2:51 pm

    Two tentative analytic observations:

    1. The form of polite requests (which may also include "conditionals," as in "would you pass the salt, please?") is, I think, a way of dissipating the awkwardness that in fact a command is being issued–at least in the sense that "No" is so rude a reply that a UCLA sociology professor used to advise undergraduates to try it at home by way of unpacking social conventions. (The practice was known as "Garfinkeling" after its inventor.) Maybe this unstated goal–to give a command the appearance of a question whose answer is uncertain–is the reason the language winds up in complicated ambiguities.

    2. Quite often, shows like "Law and Order" portray the required request to search (or to answer questions when under arrest) followed by prompt compliance; offhand I can recall exactly one "NYPD Blue" episode in which a prisoner exercised his right to keep silent. Are these shows modeling an interaction in which the request to search is understood by all concerned as a mere formality? If so, could that be why so many people waive their Fourth and Fifth Amendment rights when asked to do so?

  8. Adrian Bailey said,

    May 23, 2008 @ 5:00 pm

    1. People shouldn't say silly things like "Do you mind if I ask you a question?"
    2. If they do, the answers "Yes" and "No" work fine.

  9. plane said,

    May 23, 2008 @ 5:00 pm

    For me, the idiomatic response to "Do you mind if I ask you a question?" is "What's up?"

    Also, this post reminds me of the opposite situation. At restaurants, servers often walk by and ask, "How is everything?" To this, nodding is an appropriate response, even though there doesn't seem to be an explicit yes-no question.

  10. John Laviolette said,

    May 23, 2008 @ 5:09 pm

    I'm no linguist, only dabbler, but along the lines of what rootlesscosmo suggests, I could swear I recall reading about degrees of indirectness when asking a question or making a request as a way to avoid the rudeness of an apparent command. Can't tell you exactly wear, but for some reason I'm thinking it was mentioned in Hugh Rawson's Dictionary of Euphemisms and Other Doubletalk. I only have/have read three of his books, and if it was in one of his, this is the most likely.

  11. John Laviolette said,

    May 23, 2008 @ 5:12 pm

    And yes, I'm aware of the weird errors I made in that comment. But I'd like to add that I recall one of the examples having to do with Thai culture, although I'm also thinking maybe Burma?

  12. S. Aloxin Botemill said,

    May 23, 2008 @ 6:06 pm

    Are these shows modeling an interaction in which the request to search is understood by all concerned as a mere formality? If so, could that be why so many people waive their Fourth and Fifth Amendment rights when asked to do so?

    On the contrary, a frequent theme seems to be suspects or persons of interest claiming those rights, and their 6th Amendment right to counsel. "Unless you have a warrant, get lost!" seems to be uttered by someone almost every episode.

    Personally, I move the 'yes/no' out of primary position in my response, to avoid confusion. Thus, "I mind; you do not have my consent" when asked for my permission. Of course, this, sometimes uncomfortably, strays from the colloquial tone cops, and doctors, try to foster during such conversations.

  13. Bill Muir said,

    May 23, 2008 @ 6:39 pm

    What do you know, John, I didn't notice any errors at all until I saw your "I made errors" comment.

  14. dubek said,

    May 23, 2008 @ 7:00 pm

    A similar (?) problem arises when faced with a question with a negation, like:

    "You don't have a dog?"

    Many will answer "no" when they want to convey the meaning that they DON'T have a dog. But a negative answer to this specific question literally means that you DO have a dog (- and the opposite for the answer "yes").

  15. Timothy said,

    May 23, 2008 @ 7:12 pm

    When considering how people answer questions that are both "yes-no question" and "request," I think it's important to consider more than the literal yes-no valence of their answer. For example, "yes," "yeah," and "sure" are all affirmative responses, but "sure" is very often used to answer requests (i.e. "Could you make a copy of this for me?" "Sure."), so if someone responds to a question like "Do you mind if I ask you a question" by saying "sure," it seems to always mean "Yes, you may ask me a question." "Yeah," meanwhile, is less clear-cut, but depending on intonation most people I think can tell whether the speaker means "Yeah, you can ask me a question" or "Yeah, actually, I do mind if you ask me a question." And lastly, I can't imagine a straight-up response of "Yes" to mean anything other than "Yes, I do mind."

    Basically what I'm saying is that our minds process responses on a deeper level than "whether the words literally meant 'yes' or 'no'" – we also take intonation and knowledge about conventional expressions for making responses into account.

    In my opinion, the beautiful thing about when people answer questions that are both "yes-no question" and "request" is that most of the time you can tell which part they were responding to by the way they say their answer. So if you ask me "Do you mind if I ask you a question?",

  16. Timothy said,

    May 23, 2008 @ 7:13 pm

    Oops! Ignore that last paragraph above – I thought I'd deleted it.

  17. Jangari said,

    May 23, 2008 @ 9:30 pm

    It gets worse with those awfully complex polarity questions that are (probably stereotypically) characteristic of the coourtroom, such as:

    Were you not there at the time of the shooting?

    Michael Walsh has a paper from some years ago about Indigenous Australians in the courtroom, who, although being competent speakers of standard English, speak it in a conversationally aboriginal way. They will answer the syntactic question – if they were there, they'll answer 'no (it is not that case that I wasn't there)' – while Anglo Australians, and I suspect most European enculturated people, will answer the semantic question – 'yes (I was there)'.

  18. Philip Spaelti said,

    May 23, 2008 @ 10:16 pm

    I suspect most European enculturated people, will answer the semantic question – 'yes (I was there)'.

    I am surprised at this assertion. It is certainly not true for languages like German, French, which have a dedicated "protest yes" ("doch" in German, "si" in French). For me in English I feel that "yes" alone is simply not a clear answer in this context. A valid answer would be something like "I WAS there." with stress on "was". I actually might even put a "No" before this, so: "No, I WAS there."

    With Japanese speakers (speaking English) the typical problem is that they answer such questions "yes", when they want to say "I wasn't there." Anyway a pure "yes" answer to such a question is, to me, incomprehensible.

  19. Lugubert said,

    May 24, 2008 @ 5:08 am

    The dialect in the Swedish Bothnian island Gotland uses yes/no the "Japanese" way. "You weren't there, were you?" "Yes." = "I agree, I wasn't."

    My "Do you mind" answers: I might; Just try; Let's see; Shoot (unless the person is a Texan) etc. I'll remember the "You just did"!

  20. John Atkinson said,

    May 24, 2008 @ 5:31 am

    <>

    I don't watch these police dramas, but if the police asked me "Do you mind if we search your trunk?" and I, quite within my rights, said "Yes I do mind. No, you may not", I'd expect them to immediately become convinced that I was guilty as hell of _something_, whether or not they'd thought so before, and to continue hastling me till they found out what it was. On the other hand, if I said "Go ahead", there'd be a non-zero probability that they'd just take a perfunctory glance inside and, with any luck, miss the stash planted there under my underpants.

    So, the fact that so many people answer "Go ahead", whether or not they're guilty, almost certainly has nothing to do with innate politeness, and everything to do with it being the response that _is_ "in their best interests".

    But maybe your American police are different?

  21. Adrian Bailey said,

    May 24, 2008 @ 9:24 am

    Dubek: In English, in order to agree with a statement or question, we copy its positive or negative. Thus, "You don't have a dog?" is answered "No" if we don't have a dog. And
    "You're not happy(?) > No (I'm not happy)."
    (note also: "You're unhappy(?)" > "Yes (I'm unhappy).")

    Trickier is disagreeing with a negative. Unfortunately we don't have an equivalent of "si"/"doch"/"de" etc. People don't tend to give one-word "yes" or "no" answers, but rather say e.g. "Yes, I do have a dog"/"Yes (or no) I am happy." (Note the emphatic "do" and "am".)

  22. language hat said,

    May 24, 2008 @ 10:44 am

    I've found an appropriate response to the question,
    "Do you mind if I ask you a question?"
    is simply,
    "You just did."

    Apparently by "appropriate" you mean "enjoyable for me." I certainly do not consider it, or any other non-responses designed to point out to one's hapless interlocutor that they have failed in their presumed duty to be logical robots rather than human beings, appropriate for an actual conversation.

    As to the original issue, I think most people simply clarify in their answer: "No, go ahead," or whatever. The idea that a "yes-no question" has to be unambiguously answerable with a simple "yes" or "no" is not realistic.

  23. Guy said,

    May 24, 2008 @ 12:18 pm

    @dubek – we can take this even one step further and combine your negative question with a "do you mind":

    "You wouldn't mind if I ask you a question, would you?"

    Again, any yes/no answer can be interpreted either way.

  24. Rick S said,

    May 24, 2008 @ 1:55 pm

    Regarding questions with complicated request/response relationships, perhaps you would also consider:

    (1) You weren't there, were you?

    (2) You were there, weren't you?

    These consist of assertions together with negated requests for confirmation. What's odd is that although the question polarities are inverted, the answer is invariant. That is, a "yes" answer to either question indicates that you were there, and a "no" answer that you weren't. I'm not sure, but I think the answer is even invariant over differences in intonation:

    (3) You WEREN'T there, WERE you! [more of an assertion than a question]

    (4) You weren't THERE, were ^you? [much more doubt involved]

    I suspect the existing literature on this form would be a fruitful place to begin searching for Prof. Zwicky's answer.

  25. Jason Orendorff said,

    May 24, 2008 @ 8:19 pm

    From now on I'm going to answer these questions, "Yeah, no."

  26. Robert Hutchinson said,

    May 24, 2008 @ 8:50 pm

    Adrian Bailey: People shouldn't say silly things like "Do you mind if I ask you a question?"

    I think it's only silly if you read it as nothing more than a literal inquiry into the addressee's opinion on being asked a question. But, just to pick a few possible contexts, it can mean "I'm about to ask you a somewhat personal question", "I am trying to break the silence in a less awkward fashion than just blurting out my question", and "I hope I'm not interrupting you by asking this question".

  27. MattF said,

    May 25, 2008 @ 2:50 pm

    I'm in the 'shoot' school. It's sort of noncommittal about whether or not it's OK to ask– more like 'Well, go ahead and try, we'll see what happens'.

  28. Suzanne Kemmer said,

    May 26, 2008 @ 9:39 pm

    "Do you mind if I ask you a question?" sounds to me like a personal question is coming. Here's why I find it manipulative.

    The 'do you mind if I [do X]' is a politeness formula; it asks for your consent for some ideally very small social liberty that the speaker wants to take. It's polite because the speaker is acknowledging that X, although trivial, might infringe on the interlocutor's comfort. I think the expected answer to the question is some indication of consent (whatever our problems are in current English for phrasing that). Of course people can abuse the formula by using it in cases where the infringement in larger: it SOUNDS like they're just checking with you out of politeness whether you object to something unobjectionable, and you would be unreasonable to say you minded. If the X is something objectionable people often still feel they need to either consent, or be very apologetic if they don't. (I used to see this interaction with the "do you mind if I smoke?" question, when the person asked for consent did not want to give it, but felt bad to withhold it when most people thought of smoking in enclosed spaces as a minimal infringement on others' comfort.) Warrantless searches are in the non-trivial category so it seems manipulative to ask for consent in this way.

    Fill out the formula with "ask you a question" and I think another layer of manipulation is added. To ask a question sounds such a trivial thing! Why would anybody mind? Well, because it's obviously not going to be a trivial question that you wouldn't mind answering in public. It's going to be a personal question that they can't just come out and ask you because they don't know you well enough. "A question" is ambiguous: the generic reading yields an expectation of 'trivial infringement' , but the person asking of course has a SPECIFIC question in mind that they know to be an imposition.

  29. chris said,

    May 26, 2008 @ 9:50 pm

    I agree with the observation that the extra levels of indirection add politeness, and I'd add that I bet 1) it is most common coming from a person who isn't in a position to make demands, and is trying to sound more polite, and that 2) the jocular hyperliteral response is most common coming from someone in a position of more power in a situation, using slight ridicule to assert dominance.

    (I may be reading too much into this — it just reminds me of a conversation I heard recently where this seemed to be going on.)

  30. Ben Artin said,

    May 27, 2008 @ 1:05 am

    I highly recommend Citizens Guide to Surviving a Police Encounter at http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=3435730304776119545

  31. Kailin A said,

    May 30, 2008 @ 11:43 am

    I am a 20-something editor, and I wonder if this and similar constructions have contributed to the "yeah, no" phenomenon that you noted recently on this site. We all subconsciously want to answer the question correctly but know that it has two conflicting answers. "Yeah, no" seems to be a good way around it.

  32. David Scrimshaw said,

    June 1, 2008 @ 1:38 pm

    To see if the ambiguity in "do you mind" questions showed up in any recent Canadian court cases, I did a search for the phrase on Canlii.org.

    The search turned up 41 results. In most of them, nothing turns on that question and answer, but there are a few cases where the question and response are material factors in whether a person gave informed consent to what would otherwise be a breach of their rights.

    I made a table with excerpts and notes that can be viewed at this page.

    Some of the examples are transcriptions of exchanges in the courtroom or recordings of interrogations, and show that generally the questioner will take any response to mean they have permission to do what they want to do.

    In R. v. Rube, 1992 CanLII 890 (BC C.A.) , at trial, Rube tried to claim that when he said "no" to the question "do you mind if I come in?" he meant the police officer could not come in. However, the prosecutor tripped him up on cross examination and the judge detemined that Rube in fact consented to the search.

    In R. v. Delorme, 2003 SKPC 73 (CanLII), the accused admitted that he gave permission to search the trunk thinking exactly the way John Atkinson said he would think in this situation: that by saying he did not mind a search, they might just let it go. Based on this case and others, I think saying you don't mind is not such a good idea and instead saying "yes, I mind, do not look in my trunk" is likely the way to go unless you have just cleaned out your trunk.

    The most interesting legal interpretation of a question that starts with "do you mind" may be in R. v. Head1994 CanLII 294 (BC C.A.). The trial judge ruled "The form of Constable Woodworth's question, 'Do you mind or do you object if I look inside the car,' implies a right to refuse." This was upheld by the BC Court of Appeal and so if police ask this way, they do not have to explicitly mention that the person has the right to refuse.

  33. marek said,

    July 2, 2008 @ 7:04 pm

    Recently , he asked 'would you mind if I call you tomorrow'. I answered No, I do not. Means that it is perfectly okey with me that he will call me tomorrow

  34. Jorge Olguin said,

    October 26, 2010 @ 11:12 am

    Just to empathize.. In spanish: "Te importaria si te llamo mañana" – "do you mind if I call you tomorrow", It's hardly used, and the ones that use that construction, are the ones that perhaps know english or see lot of Law and Order (like me). "Te puedo llamar mañana" – "Can I call you tomorrow" is the one that ask permission, and not promotes action like the former. In spanish it is as ambiguous as it's in english, this issue.
    greetings

  35. Nick said,

    February 5, 2011 @ 1:06 pm

    the Magnetic Fields exploit this complexity pretty well: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=km8AwsqNFw8 ("if you don't mind.. / why don't you mind?")

  36. David Gunshore said,

    March 8, 2011 @ 9:32 pm

    The statement "do you mind" is abused in today's society. People that ask it are automaticly assuming one will answer "I don't mind." Therefore what is the point of even asking if they are gonna do it? This statement has a feel of not asking permission, i.e. "Do you guys mind if I join the group?" Where only one person answers, " No I don't mind" Not giving anyone else a chance to answer. Even if one minded and said I minded they are labeled as a non team player. The person asking could curb it and ask, may I join and not assume.

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