'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:
Asking 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?
- Print these documents.
- You need to print these documents.
- Would you mind printing these documents for me, please?
Asking to repeat
- 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?
- You're wrong.
- I think you might be mistaken
- 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?
There are a few things that matter when it comes to speaking more politely and less politely.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!