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Using Innuendo To Preserve Relationships

Language helps us to establish and maintain relationships.  The study of language can reveal details about the different types of relationships we have and how people interact.  Steven Pinker, a renowned experimental psychologist and linguist, examines how the mind can create multiple interpretations of what is said and even what is not said.  


RSA ANIMATE: Language as a Window into Human Nature


Pinker studies our social relations and examines the puzzles they create in our speech. The puzzle he refers to is how we use indirect speech, to convey a meaning to our listener without actually saying what we mean.

We use innuendo, hoping that our listener will read in between the lines and infer our true intent.  This art of innuendo is used so often, that we may not even realize we are doing it.  It can be used for bribes, requests, solicitations, seductions, and threats as evidenced in the following examples:

  • Bribe: You are pulled over by a police officer.  When you hand him your identification, you also hand over a $50 bill and mention that it would be easier to take care of things right away. You don’t speak of the money, but the intent is clearly a bribe.
  • Request: A simple request can also include innuendo as when someone says to you, “If you could pass the guacamole, that would be awesome.” This is an overstatement and doesn’t make much sense literally, but we recognize it as a polite request.
  • Solicitation: At a fundraiser, perhaps someone says, “We’re counting on you to show leadership in our campaign for the future.” Again, there is no direct request, but you understand that this is a euphemism that can be translated as a request for money.

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  • Seduction: Your date may ask if you would like to come in for a cup of coffee at the end of the evening.  Even though coffee is mentioned, this may be recognized as a sexual come on.
  • Threats: The irony can be seen in a comment like, “Nice store you have there. It would be a real shame if something happened to it.” This is not a compliment, rather a thinly veiled threat.

These examples bring up a question as to why we use indirect language if both parties understand the true meaning.  Pinker explains that language has two purposes: it must convey content but it also has to negotiate relationships.  He cites the three major human relationship types as defined by anthropologist, Alan Fiske:

  1. Dominance – a relationship of power and influence of one party over another, this was inherited from the dominance hierarchies of our primate ancestors
  2. Communality – this is a relationship of cooperation that stems from common interests and goals, it has evolved through kin selection and mutualism and is extended by default to family, spouses, and close friends
  3. Reciprocity – is a process of exchanging things with others for mutual benefit


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Each of these relationships has a distinct way of distributing resources as well as a distinct evolutionary basis. Sometimes these relationships apply naturally to certain people, as in the example of family in a communal relationship. However they can sometimes be extended by negotiation to others through language.

The challenge that these relationships pose is understanding what behaviors are acceptable for different relationships.  You cannot treat someone who has dominance over you the same as you would someone in a communal relationship.  

You probably call your friends and family by their first name because of your communal relationship, but you may not be on a first name basis with your boss with whom you have a dominance relationship.

The same holds true that if you had dinner at a friend’s house you would not pay them for a meal, but when you are at a restaurant, there is an expectation of reciprocity.  It dictates that you should pay for the food and service you received.


When a speaker is unclear of the relationship that exists, it is often safer to use innuendo instead of direct language.  If the proposition put forth might be incompatible with the existing relationship, the use of indirect language leaves the true meaning up for interpretation.   Even though our intent is that the listener will be able to read between the lines and know our true meaning, the potential ambiguity makes the speaker more comfortable.

The key to understanding how innuendo and ambiguity create a sense of certainty, rather than frustration, is a concept known as individual versus mutual knowledge.

With individual knowledge, you only know what you know. With mutual knowledge, you know what you know and you know that others know it as well.

Using explicit language is a way of creating mutual knowledge.  Innuendos, even obvious ones, merely provide individual knowledge.  Both the speaker and the listener know the words that were said but neither knows for sure each other’s interpretation of those words.


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Mutual knowledge leads to a collective power that can challenge relationships because both parties know the intention of what was said. In a situation where the language is indirect, you do not know with certainty how the innuendo was interpreted and the relationship can be maintained.  

Almost everyone has been in a situation where they wanted to take back something they said.  This is what happens when you use direct language and unfortunately, words cannot be unheard.  With indirect language, even though the words cannot be unheard, the meaning is unclear and can be left up to interpretation, preserving the relationship because you only have individual knowledge of what was said.  

When you are direct, you create a mutual knowledge with no room for interpretation. Therefore with overt language, you cannot take back what has been said because it’s out there and each party knows the clear intent.

Although people sometimes frown upon innuendo, it serves an important purpose in today’s society, helping us to preserve and maintain our relationships with others.


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