As a teacher of English as a foreign language, it's a good idea to teach students polite words and expressions right from the start. While diplomatic language often includes difficult vocabulary, it's actually not that hard to add some polite spice to a simple sentence - even for beginner students.
Of course you can make sentences a lot more polite by using the two magic phrases "please" and "thank you". However, there are a lot of other ways to use more polite language when speaking to others.
For English leaners, the problem mostly comes down to the fact that words and expressions that are considered "kind" in one language, aren't always kind in another. English uses a lot of language strategies to express politeness that simply aren't used in other languages. That's why when we translate directly from English to ther languages or vice versa, it doesn't always work.
Four Top Tips for Kind, Polite English Skills
Strategy 1: Use Modal Verbs
Modals are words such as: would, could, might, may. It's such a simple thing really but using a modal can change a direct, aggressive question into a polite request. Modals soften your requests, questions, and commands, and thus don't sound rude or too direct.
- Order me a coffee, please. → Would you get me a coffee, please?
- Please leave. I have to take this phone call. → Could you step out of the room for a moment? I have to take this phone call.
Strategy 2: Change Your Grammar
This strategy might seem strange - but it’s true. English speakers often change the grammar tense to be more polite. In English, the present simple tense can sometimes sound too direct, so the speaker simply changes the present tense to the past tense or a progressive (-ing) tense. The meaning of the sentence is still in the present, but you change the verb to add softness and to be less direct.
TIP: We especially do this with verbs such as hope, feel, think, want, wonder. For example:
- Do you have time to meet tomorrow to discuss this?
→ I wondered if you had time to meet tomorrow.
→ I was wondering if you had time to meet tomorrow.
→ I’m wondering if you have time to meet tomorrow.
- What is your name?
→ What did you say your name was?
- I’d like to finish this meeting by 4:00 p.m.
→ I was hoping to finish this meeting by 4:00 p.m.
Strategy 3: Use Vague Language
Vague language simply refers to not too specific or too direct. This includes expressions such as: a bit, around, kind of, -ish, a few, quite, slightly, a little. We use these qualifiers to provide less direct information, especially with times or quantities.
- I’d like you to spend around 6 hours to get this project completed. If you can’t complete it by then, let’s have a talk so we can make necessary changes.
- Why don’t you come to my office at 4:00-ish ( = around 4:00) for a quick meeting.
- That’s not quite what I had in mind. What if we made a few changes?
- That estimate is a bit high, don’t you think?
Strategy 4: Negative Questions are Polite
This is a very clever and easy trick for formal conversations or when you want to be diplomatic! Use negative questions to give advice, make a recommendation, provide a suggestion, express your opinion, or ask a question. When you use negative questions, you soften the language and change strong language into indirect language.
Here are a few examples:
- We need to review these files one more time. → Don’t you think that we should review these files one last time?
- Yes, we’ve met before. I met you at the trade fair last year. → Haven’t we met before? I think it was at the trade fair last year.
- You must consider how the client might respond. → Shouldn’t we consider how the client might respond?
There you have it! Four simply strategies to sound more polite in English.
Finally – and most importantly – never forget that: “A warm smile is the universal language of kindness.” – William Arthur Ward