Language Action Theory

Language has many dimensions. We have words and sounds and writing. But language also has the dimension of acts—the way that we do things with language, and that language does with us. Our rationalistic tradition, in which I was educated originally as an engineer at the Universidad Catolica in Chile, puts its emphasis on facts, the representation of facts, building models, and communicating about the truth of claims. Through life experiences, some of them tougher than others, I gained the conviction that there is a whole other world that is just as important, and no less rational—a world that is emotional, social, and historical. This is the world in which, in collaboration with others, we bring forth realities, negotiate with each other, and make history happen, all in conversations with each other. It is a world in which language is not merely about notations of facts but also poetical and political invention.

I began thinking about how people work together in my dissertation The Office of The Future.  I discovered the theory of speech acts, directives and commissives.  Directives, such as requests and offers, are spoken acts that attempt to prompt the person being spoken to perform some action. Commissives are spoken acts where the person being spoken to commits to some future course of action. I developed a theory of management that shows how certain speech acts, particularly requests, promises, offers, and declarations, serve as building blocks for activating commitments in organizations. At the core of this work is that a small, finite set of Speech Acts serve as a "periodic table" of the elements of coordination that is a generic and powerful foundation for design, no matter how complex the business process.

Speech Act What is the Action For example. . . What does it produce?
Declare A speaker declares a new world of possibilities for action in a community “We are founding a new company called IBM that will provide . . . to customers.” “We are going to lay off 10% of the staff.” “An enterprise is a network of commitments.” Leadership and a new context for action for taking care of the concerns of the community that listens to the declaration and makes it effective
Request A speaker asks a listener to take care of something that the speaker is concerned about. “Can you get my a flight to Boston in time for my meeting?” An application for a mortgage conveys a request. Commitment to action.
Offer/Promise A speaker offers or promises to take care of something that a listener is concerned about. “Would you like some dessert?” “I’ll prepare report by next Wednesday on that.” Commitment to action.
Assess A speaker assesses how some action or thing relates to specific concerns or commitments. “We are in a mature industry.” “Our customers are happy.” “John is impatient.” “Our educational system is not adequately preparing our children for the world they live in.” “Our costs are increasing.” Preparation for Action: orientation, interpretations, and attitudes towards actions or situations.
Assert A speaker asserts (i.e., reports) facts pertinent to the concern at hand. It meeting is at 4p.m.PST. The board is white. The gauge reads 200psi. Our sales were $4.2 million last quarter. Confidence that we share a reliable and observable basis for our interpretation of the situation.