People often ask me how they can be more polite in English. They tend to feel that they are too direct and sound rude, whereas they feel that English speakers are polite and diplomatic all the time.
First off, in all languages there are people who are more and less polite. And languages with fewer words tend to be more direct than languages with many words. But there are tricks to being more polite in English.
Asking a question …
- Asking a question instead of making a blunt statement gives the illusion that the other person has a choice, and makes you look generous. You can make your point without causing offence.
Making things less personal
- I don’t agree with that is more diplomatic than I don’t agree with you.
Taking the blame
- We understood is more diplomatic than you said.
- I’m sorry, I was probably unclear on that.
- Perhaps I didn’t make myself clear is more diplomatic than you weren’t listening.
Pointing out the positive first and using the word interesting
- That is a very good point. However….
- I see your point. However…
- You make some interesting points…
- That is an interesting argument…
Signalling that you are going to be more direct
- To be frank and With all due respect/with respect signal that you are about to be more direct, while remaining diplomatic.
Using word cushions to soften the blow
- in fact
- not exactly
- I’m sorry, but…
- a little
- I’m afraid
- a bit
- not very
Use would/should/could to make your statements less direct
Avoid harsh sounding words like get, must, can’t
- Instead of saying ‘you are wrong’ we would say ‘I am afraid we don’t quite see things that way’
- Instead of saying ‘be at work on time’ we would say ‘Would it be possible to come to work a little earlier from now on?’
- Instead of saying ‘I am worried’ we would say ‘we are a little concerned’
I remember when I was learning Italian I was shocked at how direct people were. Everything in English is cushioned; we say “could you please wash those dishes before you leave” and in Italian you would say “wash those dishes before you leave.” In English, we use lots of conditional phrases like this to take the imperative out of our commands. I assume that this makes English that much more difficult for people to learn, as you have to adjust to this round-about way of telling people what you want them to do. But you’re right, the language is (or can be) extremely diplomatic.