How to be polite

Non-native English speakers sometimes sound abrupt and impolite to native English speakers. This is because they often use language that is too direct, and does not have the correct “distance” from the hearer or reader. It is therefore important to use the correct polite expressions.

You can make your speech and writing more polite by using the following:

  • modal verbs (such as would, could, might)
  • different verb tenses
  • polite conditionals
  • the passive voice
  • negative questions

Modal verbs

DIRECT: Please send me the documents.
POLITE: Could you please send me the documents?

DIRECT: If you want to send such a letter we can draft it for you.
POLITE: If you would like to send such a letter we would be happy to draft it for you.

DIRECT: You should consider the following course of action.
POLITE: You might like to consider the following course of action.

Changing the tense of the verb

The present simple tense is very direct. Choosing a different tense increases the distance and softens the meaning of your words.

Use a progressive verb form rather than a simple verb form:

I am looking forward to hearing from you.
I am assuming that the rest of the documentation will follow.

Use a past tense instead of the present (present meaning remains):

What did you say your name was? (i.e. What is your name?)

Use a past progressive (present meaning remains):

I was wondering whether you would like our advice on this new issue that has arisen.
I was thinking that you might like to meet the head of our Employment team.

Use the future tense (present meaning remains):

I hope you won’t mind if I copy Richard onto this email.

Polite conditionals

These use modal verbs and the past tense. Again, present meaning remains. They can be used for requests, advice or recommendations:

I would appreciate it if you arranged for immediate payment.
I would be grateful if you signed and returned the document by the end of the week.
It would be more secure if you changed the password more frequently.
Due to the complexity of the matter it would be best if you asked a tax advisor to take a look at it.

You can also use a modal verb in the “if” clause (this is an exception to the standard rule on conditionals):

I would appreciate it if you could send it back as soon as possible.

NOTE: Remember to include “it” in the phrase “I would appreciate it if…”

The passive voice

The passive voice is an impersonal verb form which creates distance (and avoids making accusations):

DIRECT (active voice): It seems that you made an error in the calculations.
POLITE (passive voice): It seems that an error was made in the
calculations.

Negative questions

This is a way of softening advice or recommendations. These are more commonly used in speech than in writing.

Negative questions are a diplomatic way of speaking with clients and superiors.

DIRECT: We’ve met before.
POLITE: Haven’t we met before?

DIRECT: We should include this point in the statement of claim.
POLITE: Shouldn’t we include this point in the statement of claim?

DIRECT: This clause needs renegotiating.
POLITE: Don’t you think this clause should be renegotiated? (+ passive)

DIRECT: We should go with scenario 2.
POLITE: Wouldn’t it be better if we went with scenario 2? (+ conditional)

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