If you visit an English-speaking country or work with British or international colleagues, you might wonder about the best language to use to be polite. You might even be afraid of being rude unintentionally. If this is you, keep reading! (Please note that I’m English so I’m mainly talking about British culture here.)
Some useful polite words and phrases
Please and thank you
British people say “please” and “thank you” a lot more than people in some other countries. Even if your English is not a very high level, you can make most things sound more polite by adding “please” to requests and saying “thank you” when somebody does something for you.
Obviously you should say “sorry” when you have done something wrong but British people use this word in other situations too. For example, we might say “sorry” before we ask a question, e.g. “Sorry to bother you but do you have the time?” We even sometimes say “sorry” when another person makes a mistake. For example, if somebody bumps into me, we might both say “sorry” even though it’s not my fault!
If you don’t hear what somebody says to you, don’t say “What?” That’s really impolite. It’s better to say “Pardon?” or “Sorry?” or “Could you say that again, please?”
You can say “Excuse me” if you are trying to get past somebody or if you need them to move out of your way. You can also use this phrase to get somebody’s attention in order to ask a question, like, “Excuse me, is this the train to London?”
If somebody thanks you, a polite response is “You’re welcome.” For example:
A: Let me help you with that!
B: Oh, thank you!
A: You're welcome!
If you invite some people to your house, when they arrive, you can say, "Welcome! Come in!" or "Welcome to my home," especially if they have never been to your home before. Or maybe you are hosting a conference or giving a presentation. The host or hostess says, "Welcome," and the guests do not. They can answer, "Thank you."
Be less direct
British people often like to soften their language and find ways to be less direct. Here are a few examples.
“Where’s the station?” sounds a bit rude to an English person. We would say something like, “Could you tell me where the station is, please?” or “Excuse me, do you know the way to the station from here?” If you start a question with “Could you tell me…” or “Do you know…” you will sound more polite.
Suggestions and requests
Avoid giving orders and instructions. “Could you wait a moment?” is much more polite than “Wait!” “Can you finish the report by Friday?” is better than “Finish the report by Friday.” “Can” is perhaps a little less polite than “could” or “would” but it’s fine for a boss to say “can” to an employee. British people do this even if the other person is doing something annoying, e.g. “Would you mind turning the music down?” instead of “Turn that music down!”
It’s sometimes more polite if we avoid using “you”. “Could I have a cup of coffee?” is much nicer than “Could you get me a cup of coffee?” Rather than “You have made some mistakes” you could say “I think that there are some mistakes here.”
“I would like” is very commonly used instead of “I want” to make a request. Say, “I would like a coffee please” and not “I want a coffee.” “Would you like something to drink?” is better than “Do you want a drink?”
Soften a criticism
Sometimes we use the opposite adjective to talk about something we don’t like. “The film wasn’t very interesting” sounds more polite than “The film was boring.” Imagine a teacher talking to parents about their child. “You son is very noisy” would be rude. The teacher might soften it by saying, “Your son isn’t always the quietest child in the class.”
Another way to soften a criticism is to use words like “a bit” or “a little”. If a British person says he’s feeling “a bit cold” or that it’s “a little chilly,” he possibly means he’s absolutely freezing!
A third way to criticise more politely is to use the passive because passive sentences sound less direct. “Somebody has damaged the photocopier” sounds like you are looking for somebody to blame. “The photocopier has been damaged” sounds more polite and less accusing.
Try to avoid saying things like “You’re wrong!” or “I disagree” if you want to be polite, or your conversation might turn into an argument! Instead say, “I’m not sure about that” or “I see your point but I think …”
If someone invites you to a party and you can’t or don’t want to go, or if somebody asks you to do something and you’re too busy, don’t say “No!” Say something like, “I’m sorry but …” or “I’d love to but …” or “I’m afraid I can’t because …”
This is a difficult topic because different people have different ideas about how to address people. It depends on your age and the age of the other person, the situation you are in and just your personal preferences.
First names or surnames?
We almost always use people’s first names (given names) in a social situation, even if you’re meeting somebody for the first time. I think most people probably use first names at work these days too, especially with colleagues that you see every day. If you work in a big company with many levels of management, it might be better to call the boss Mr, Mrs or Miss Smith, for example, until they invite you to use their first name. If you’re not sure, just see what everyone else does and copy them!
Children still use surnames to talk to their teachers. I would use a surname to talk to my doctor. I can’t really think of any other common situation when I would use a surname! Generally I think that people are less formal these days than they used to be.
Sir, madam, ma'am
You hardly ever hear “sir” or “madam” any more, except perhaps in a really expensive hotel, shop or restaurant. I hate being called “madam” because it makes me feel old! Students sometimes call me “ma’am” but that should only be used for your commanding officer in the police or army, or to talk to the Queen!
Another common mistake is using words like “dear”, “sweet” or “beautiful”. Grandmothers and old people can say “dear” when they are talking to children. We also use “dear” to begin a letter or a formal email. But students shouldn’t use “dear” to address their teacher! And guys, save “sweet” and “beautiful” for your girlfriend!
When I first started teaching international classes and was called "Teacher", I found it very strange. It could even seem slightly rude in this country because it might sound like the student can't be bothered to learn the teacher's name. After I understood that it was actually a sign of respect in other countries, I was more ok with it, but I never totally got used to it!
So if we ever meet, please just call me “Katie”!
When I lived in Poland, I found it strange that people in the shops and restaurants didn’t smile, and if I smiled at them, they looked at me as if I was a bit strange! In this country, people smile at strangers more often. If you are worried about whether you are being polite, say “please” and “thank you” and smile! Any other mistakes will probably be forgiven!
It can sound impolite if you just answer “Yes” and “No” all the time. It might sound like you don’t want to talk to the other person. Try “Yes, I do,” “No, I haven’t,” “Yes, I am” and so on. Even better, give a little more information to keep the conversation going.
But it depends
Remember that the best language to use can depend on the situation and who you’re talking to. I can jokingly tell my best friend to “shut up” but wouldn’t say it to my parents! I can say “Hi” to a colleague but I wouldn’t say it to my boss on my first day in a new job. I can ask a friend, “Can you lend me a fiver?” but I would ask someone I knew less well, “Could I possibly borrow £5?”
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