Do I Need to be More Polite? – The Language Professional

Do I Need to be More Polite?

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​'Excuse me, would you mind terribly if I were to ask you if you could possibly tell me the time, please?' 

​​Ok, it's a bit little bit over the top, even for English.

But we're ​often told ​of the importance of sounding polite in English. So, ​how do we sound polite? And should we always speak this way?

People brought up in English-speaking countries may remember their parents telling them "mind your Ps and Qs" as a child. This phrase simply means 'mind your manners' or 'be polite' when it comes to speaking.

The first lessons taught to children will be familiar to many English language learners:

  • Remember to say 'please' and 'thank you'
  • Don't say 'I want', say 'I'd like'
  • Don't say 'what?', say 'excuse me?' or 'pardon?'

Native speakers have grown up learning never to break these rules and they have now become standard behaviour in society. Say the wrong thing and you risk being misunderstood or even harming your relationships.

​Mind your ​Ps and ​Qs!

​Politeness in the workplace

​Here are a few examples of some common polite phrases from the workplace:

​Impolite

​Polite

​A​sking for permission

- I need to leave work early​.

- I want to leave work early.

- I'd like to leave work early.

​- Would it be possible to ​leave work a ​​little early?
- Is there any chance I could leave work a little early​?

​Requesting

- Print these documents.

- You need to print these documents.

​- Would you mind printing these documents for me, please?

​Asking to repeat

- What?
- What did you say?

- Repeat.

- Again.

- Sorry?
- Excuse me?
- Sorry, could you repeat that?

Disagreeing

- No.

- You're wrong.

- I'm afraid I don't agree.

​Offering a better ​suggestion

- ​No, we're starting at 10am.

​- No, I think we should start at 10am.

- I can see your point, but don't you think that ​10am would be more appropriate?

Correcting

- You're wrong.

- I think you might be mistaken

​Criticising

- Your report is terrible!

- You need to work on this report.

- ​​​I'm afraid ​your report is below standard.

- I like what you've done here, but this part needs work.

Should we use these polite phrases all the time then?

​Not exactly.

​There are a few things that matter when it comes to speaking more politely and less politely.

  1. ​Distance - ​The closer your relationship with the person you're speaking to, the less likely you'll feel the need ​to be careful with what you're saying​. So, you're often allowed to relax when speaking with close friends or close colleagues. And the ​opposite is true for ​those whom we have a less close relationship with: strangers, ​people we have just ​met, distant colleagues, clients. But even in ​a conversation with a stranger ​you may find the relationship distance reduce very quickly, ​which allows you to lower the formality.
  2. Power -  ​​The higher the status of the person you're speaking to, the more likely you'll be minding your Ps and Qs as you show them signs of respect. So, in the workplace, this means your boss or any other superiors. At home, this ​often means your grandparents or perhaps your parents.
  3. Topic - The more sensitive the topic, the more polite we'll need to be - if we really must ​bring the topic up​. How sensitive a topic is depends on the cultural background of the speakers. Western culture generally sees topics ​​​such as income, weight and age as sensitive, whereas they ​might be everyday conversation ​in other cultures. Aside from this, the type of thing you are saying is also important. For example, if you're short on change and need to ask even a close friend for money, you're probably going to need to phrase your question politely or else be quickly disappointed! The more serious the topic, the more likely you'll need to watch what you're saying.

​'It's not what you say, but how you say it'

​Up until now, we've only looked at ​what​ we can say in order to be polite. However, it's ​perhaps more ​important to ​sound​ polite ​in the way we speak.

Simply reading out one of the polite phrases above in a dull, flat voice ​may be considered just as impolite as reading off the impolite list!​​​ And even if you read off the impolite list with a perfectly respectful, honest intonation​, who knows? You may well ​escape without offending anyone!

​​KEY TAKEAWAYS

  • ​​Politeness is often required for specific purposes, like requesting, asking for permission, correcting and ​criticising
  • The need for politeness depends on many factors, including:
  • ​- The relationship distance between the speakers
  • ​- The power or authority of the person you're speaking to
  • ​- The topic that you're talking about
  • It's also important to ​sound​ polite by using intonation correctly​​​
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