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Bob is eating in a café and is approached by a manager who says to him “if you don’t mind, I’m going to have to politely ask you to leave.”

Bob nods in acknowledgment at what was said, but, as he does mind, and it does not happen to tickle his fancy to leave at that moment in time, he duly notes the manager’s polite request, while declining to indulge it as the manager may have liked him to.

Has the manager officially revoked bob’s license to remain in the premises, such that he would be justified to start putting his hands onto Bob in order to enforce this “polite request”?

Are the scales of this question especially tipped towards yes if it took place in a place such as England where polite requests are often euphemisms for exercising unceremoniously fanged legal prerogatives, compared with Wales with largely similar laws but a comparatively much less euphemistic and more blunt cultural norm for communicating such imperatives to other people?

Alternatively, Alice gives Charles her phone number impulsively but then decides against having anything to do with him. But instead of ever asking him not to contact her, she makes polite excuses to him each time he sends her messages like being super busy that week, or being ill, hoping that Charles will take the hint that she does not wish to speak with him. But Charles persists, until Alice calls the police telling them that she is being persistently harassed by Charles. Has Charles done anything whatsoever wrong?

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    The "politely ask you to leave" isn't a request. It's just a polite way to say "get the F out of here before I bang you one." The politeness is probably decorum for the benefit of other customers in earshot, not the unwelcome one. But you seem to have asked two entirely different questions. Dec 19, 2023 at 19:18
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    If the proprietor wishes a customer to leave the premises, they can say it in any way they please. What was unclear? Was the customer so stupid that they didn't understand the underlying sentiment, or such a mischief maker that they want to challenge the request? It's schoolboy politics. Dec 19, 2023 at 19:41
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    So you are saying that an indecent customer requires the proprietor to consult the law for the proper words to use to evict them? It is possibly their indecency that gave rise to the situation in the first place, and a decent person would take their cue and leave, sans tip, PDQ. Their action, though, thoroughly proves the point. Dec 19, 2023 at 20:31
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    If intent was more important than the actual words used we wouldn't need lawyers. Dec 20, 2023 at 19:48
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    @WeatherVane, "So you are saying that an indecent customer requires the proprietor to consult the law for the proper words to use to evict them?". Of course not, but flip the example and consider the language of a formal written eviction notice: Would you include vague polite language hinting that such eviction is optional, desirable, might happen at some point, etc.? Words matter, and this is a legitimate question regarding the effect that the choice of words have on enforcement or application of law. Dec 21, 2023 at 14:49

2 Answers 2

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The meaning of a verbal statement is determined from the entire context by the finder of fact.

Are the scales of this question especially tipped towards yes if it took place in a place such as England where polite requests are often euphemisms for exercising unceremoniously fanged legal prerogatives, compared with Wales with largely similar laws but a comparatively much less euphemistic and more blunt cultural norm for communicating such imperatives to other people?

Yes.

We trust judges to be capable of decoding the meaning of everyday speech, in their community, including the meaning for different forms of politeness and euphemism.

It is a command rather than a request when the finder of fact can accurately conclude that the meaning of the statement to a third-person observer in its overall context is that the statement is a command was what was communicated.

The same words, spoken by a different person in a different context and manner might mean something different. The very same words, spoken in a highly deferential tone to Prince William's wife addressed with her formal title, in connection with a deep bow, at a venue that is a mile from Buckingham Palace, for example, might be reasonably construed to be a gentle request rather than a command.

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    An extreme example: "Would you like another green tea?" in Kyoto is a request to a guest (and soon-to-be trespasser) to be done and leave already.
    – Trish
    Dec 19, 2023 at 23:21
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    @TylerDurden it's a special quirk of how people in Kyoto talk, just like people are called lad/lass in some regions and by different names in others. It sounds super hospitable and nice, but is meant as a couched "please leave" to "get lost". The proper answer to it is to deny the "offer" for green tea and leave.
    – Trish
    Dec 20, 2023 at 21:39
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    @TylerDurden The issue isn't "cowardice", the issue is what a verbal expression means in a particular register and dialect of a language in the context of the overall interaction. In the same way, when someone in a legal proceeding says that someone committed a "crime against nature" that doesn't mean that they cut down a tree or caused a species to go extinct.
    – ohwilleke
    Dec 20, 2023 at 21:43
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    @ohwilleke and yet CON would be a legally defined term. An every day expression in a culture that revolves around ambiguity and saying things without actually saying them presented to me an interesting legal question. Obviously the culture is one of cowardice and discretion, as well as ambiguity, in communication. But then why are legal contracts not written in this way in societies have such communication cultures? Dec 20, 2023 at 22:12
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    @TylerDurden "CON would be a legally defined term." What makes you think that?
    – ohwilleke
    Dec 20, 2023 at 22:17
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In the US, it depends on who is asking. Although a polite request by a premise owner or agent would ordinarily be interpreted to be requirement (you have been told to leave, staying constitutes trespassing), a polite request by law enforcement to conduct a search remains a polite request and not a command, which then encompasses very many searches by police that would be deemed unreasonable without consent. On the other hand, a citizen's "polite request" for a lawyer ("I might need a lawyer") is not an official request for an lawyer (hence termination of interrogation), an unambiguous assertion is required. See Solan & Tiersma Speaking of crime for detailed analysis of the asymmetry in US case law regarding suggestions vs. commands, when legal force is a factor.

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  • How about a politely neutral and ambiguous "need" to see ID? Dec 20, 2023 at 21:28
  • @MichaelHall not sure I follow this. Dec 20, 2023 at 21:36
  • @MichaelHall, If you are required by law to show ID then it doesn’t matter what words are used to communicate the requirement, you must do as the law requires (RCW 7.80.060, RCW 46.20.017). If you are not required to produce and do not do so, a law-abiding officer will not escalate the issue. If you do produce ID and suffer a legal consequence, you cannot defend against that consequence on the grounds that you were illegally compelled to produce ID, because “I need to see” is not coercive (judging from past cases). “You need to show”, OTOH, would likely cross the line to coercion.
    – user6726
    Dec 20, 2023 at 22:16

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