While learning a language, it’s common to struggle with vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation. Students often fear making mistakes and are anxious about ‘sounding right’ while speaking. Before I started teaching, I worked in sales and marketing. My job involved dealing with customers from across the globe. I was surprised to find that a few customers sounded rude during a friendly discussion. Others sounded very polite even while talking about difficult situations like a delayed delivery or quality issues. I always wondered how these people managed to think of the right words at the right time and most importantly say them the in right way! Before I became a teacher, I thought that simply adding the word ‘please’ to sentences made them polite. But once I started teaching, I realised that there is a lot more to sounding polite in English.
It is actually very simple, people who sound polite don’t change the message, they simply change the way the message is delivered. Instead of being direct and upfront, a slight change in the choice of words and expressions helps package the message far more politely and professionally.
Let’s look at some common situations where you may need to use polite language. We’ll also look at how you can sound more polite in these situations.
We all find ourselves in situations where we need to present our point of views politely and respectfully E.g. in meetings at work, a family discussion or even a conversation with friends. In such situations, we may need to present our personal points of view. So, we can use polite expressions like the ones listed below before stating an opinion:
- Personally, I think that...
- It seems to me that...
- In my opinion, ...
- I feel that…
- I believe that…
TIP: Don’t say ‘According to me’ when you wish to express your personal point of view. ‘According to’ is used to refer to someone else’s opinion, generally in official context. You can read more about it here https://dictionary.cambridge.org/grammar/british-grammar/according-to
Sometimes in a discussion, you might need to express a point of view that represents what is thought by people in general. Maybe you read it in the news or heard it from somewhere and you want to refer to it during the discussion. In that case, you can use these expressions:
- (Some) people say that...
- I’ve heard that...
- It’s a fact that…
- According to…
This is a very common situation that we encounter in our personal and professional lives. We need people to support us and do things for us, and sometimes they have nothing to gain from it. So, it is very important that when we make requests, we sound as polite as we can. Imagine a friend telling you “Turn the fan on, it’s hot!” and another one saying “It’s hot. Could you please turn the fan on?”. I’m sure you’ll agree that the second one sounds more polite. So, use expressions before requests to make them sound polite
- Could you please…
- Would you please….
- Would you mind….
TIP: You can use can or could to make polite requests. However, could is more formal and polite than can.
Making suggestions and giving feedback
I remember having a conversation with a student ‘Ravi’ on a business English course that I taught. Ravi had a job at a senior level in the logistics department of a multinational company and managed a team of six executives. His job involved dealing with difficult situations, sudden change of plans and he had to immediately make a lot of suggestions to his team to get the work done. Ravi was very helpful and he did get the job done. But when the Human Resources department gathered peer feedback, he was shocked to learn that many of his team had said that he was rude and they felt like he gave them orders! This got him worried and he wanted to know how to sound more polite.
A role play task helped me understand how Ravi gave suggestions to his team. A fellow student played the role of his colleague and approached Ravi with an issue. During the role play Ravi said things like ‘Call the clearing agent.’ Or ‘The billing details are wrong!’ and ‘Check the product code.’ I recorded the role play and we looked at it together. Ravi realised that in the role play, his colleague was asking for suggestions and ideas on how to get things done. But the way Ravi gave those suggestions, it sounded like an order and could seem rude. We worked on making suggestions in a different way by using some expressions like:
- You could call the clearing agent.
- How about going over the billing details once more?
- What about checking the product code in the invoice?
- Let’s double check the details on the invoice before we process the shipment.
You can use also these phrases to politely extend an invitation to someone. For example, “How about meeting tomorrow for dinner at my place?”. OR “Let’s go jogging tomorrow morning.”
You can also use these expressions to give feedback, if your role requires you to do so. The next time a colleague asks for some feedback on a presentation they made or a meeting that they organised, you can use these expressions. Begin with something positive or something that they did well, then give your feedback and after that add a suggestion. For instance, you could say ‘That was a very well-structured presentation. You had all the facts in place. You could work on handling the questions from the audience. How about telling them at the beginning that you’ll take all questions after the presentation?’
TIP: Add these expressions before your suggestions to present them more politely. When you make suggestions, people are free to accept those ideas or reject them. Remember to ‘sandwich’ your feedback – first give praise, then add your feedback and a helpful suggestion for improvement as applicable.
Imagine it’s a bright and lovely Sunday morning, you are sitting on your cozy sofa with a warm cup of coffee and reading the newspaper. Just then a house guest, who stayed overnight, walks up to you and asks, ‘Where’s my coffee?’ How would you feel? Well, I don’t know about you, but I’d probably get upset by the directness of the question, which to a fluent speaker of English can sound quite rude. But if the same person came up to me and said ‘Good morning. I was wondering if there’s any coffee for me?’ I would smile and bring that cup of coffee from the kitchen counter and hand it over to my guest.
The first question was not incorrect, it was just too direct. It’s sometimes okay to use these direct questions with close friends and family. But with people you’ve just met or with your colleagues it is better to use indirect questions, which are more formal and polite. You can make questions indirect by adding these expressions to the beginning of the question:
- I was wondering if/whether…..
- Would it be possible to……?
- Do you mind if……..?
TIP: Drop your voice at the end of the indirect question to make it sound more polite. Remember, indirect questions follow the structure of positive statements – subject before the verb!
I was wondering if you could share some more tips with me?