There’s nothing inherently wrong with being entitled. A worker is entitled to a paycheck; a customer is entitled to the goods they’ve paid for; all of us are entitled to certain inalienable human rights.
So why is “entitled” usually used as an insult?
When someone says that somebody else is “acting entitled”, what they really mean is that this person is “behaving as if they are more entitled than they really are”. In other words, there’s a mismatch between the situation and the person’s actions, at least in the observer’s mind.
To predict when these mismatches might arise, it’s important to understand the different ways in which entitlement manifests in everyday interaction. One way people broadcast their entitlement is the way they talk – specifically, how they make requests.
Entitlement in Language
We’ve probably all had an experience of interacting with someone who comes across as “demanding”. This could be because of their tone of voice, their gestures, their facial expressions, or most relevantly here, the way they ask you for something. For example, instead of saying, “Would it be possible to do me a favor?”, they might say: “You need to do me a favor”. These two requests are essentially asking for the same thing (“a favor”), but they are clearly phrased in very different ways, and convey very different ideas about the speaker’s expectations of how obligated you are to fulfill the request. Here, I’ll refer to this difference in phrasing as formatting.
Importantly, requests can be formatted in all sorts of ways. Consider the following formatting options for asking someone to close a window:
- Close the window.
- Can you close the window?
- Would you mind closing the window?
- I was wondering if you could close the window?
- It’s getting a little chilly in here.
Option 1 is unambiguously direct, options 2-4 are framed as questions but are more or less conventionalized requests, and option 5 is an indirect statement about the world – which presumably is produced in hope of an offer from the listener.
These formatting options are canonically associated with different levels of “politeness” (Brown & Levinson, 1987), though the acceptability of any given request, of course, depends on the situation. It’s probably not unusual for a boss to speak directly with their employees, whereas an employee might use more indirect formatting when speaking to their boss. Or, if you’re asking your friend for a ride to the doctor’s office, it’s probably more acceptable to use direct formatting if the situation is very urgent – say, you’ve just suffered a major head trauma.
In other words, the situation is complex. It’s not simply that different request formats map 1-1 onto different levels of politeness; these mappings are modulated by who is producing the request, and the situation it’s being produced in.
This complexity could be a real headache for linguists interested in cataloguing the phenomenon. But fortunately, a seminal study (Curl & Drew, 2008) identified systematicity in request formatting. The authors analyzed two kinds of telephone conversations: 90 “Everyday” calls between private citizens, and 59 “after-hours” medical calls to the doctor’s office. In each call, they annotated when a request occurred, and how it was formatted – e.g., was it produced with a “Could you X?” formatting, or with a “I was wondering if you could X…” formatting?
Ultimately, they found that speakers used the two formats to display high vs. low entitlement, respectively. That is, when a speaker was more entitled to make a request (e.g. a very urgent situation), they were more likely to use the “Could you X?” formatting (see below).
A: Could you call and see my wife please, she can’t breathe.
On the other hand, in situations of lower entitlement (e.g. they were just calling to set up an appointment), they were more likely to use the “I was wondering if you could X…” formatting.
A: I haven’t heard anything and I was wondering if I could come in next week…
Why it matters
People obviously request things in different ways in different situations. Why should this matter?
First, if entitlement affects how speakers format their requests, it suggests that speakers (and possibly listeners) are sensitive to differences in entitlement. This may be a conscious, intentional process (e.g. “I’m not very entitled, so I should say it like this…”), or it may be a more automatic system that speakers acquire through language use. Regardless, it’s evidence for the idea that speakers calibrate their utterances to different situations (or different listeners).
Second, it’s another step towards the original question posed above: what does it mean for someone to “act” or “sound” entitled? Earlier, I defined “acting entitled” as meaning “someone behaving as if they are more entitled than they really are”. Now, we’re in a better position to draw out what this means. One way in which this mismatch could arise is when a speaker fails to calibrate their request to their level of entitlement. For example, if a student approaches a teacher and says, “I need to know my test scores now”, the teacher might perceive that student as entitled – this is because the student has produced their request in a way that suggests they believe they are entitled to an immediate response from the listener. A less entitled request would be something like: “I was wondering if my test scores were available?”
Another area involving “entitled” behavior is when customers interact with those in the service industry. This, too, could arise out of a mismatch in entitlement models between the speaker (the customer) and the listener (the service person). Customers sometimes speak as if they are in a position of entitlement or authority over an employee – when in fact, the employee is obviously not the customer’s “servant”; they are simply providing a service, for some sort of cost.
Brown, P., & Levinson, S. C. (1987). Politeness: Some universals in language usage (Vol. 4). Cambridge university press.
Curl, T. S., & Drew, P. (2008). Contingency and Action: A Comparison of Two Forms of Requesting. Research on Language & Social Interaction (Vol. 41). https://doi.org/10.1080/08351810802028613
 Whether or not those rights are actually upheld is another matter.