Politeness and courtesy are qualities that are valued in most societies, but it can be difficult to know how to modify what you say to make it more polite when English isn’t your native language
Use please and thank you
The most basic terms for making what you say sound more polite is to use please and thank you. However, ensure you are using them in the correct context, or you may sound insincere.
Please can be used at the start or end of a sentence when you are asking for something e.g.
“Please can I pet your dog?”
“Can I pet your dog, please?”
Thank you can be used at the start of a sentence if it followed by ‘for’ e.g.
“Thank you for carrying my bags.”
It can also be used at the end of a sentence in the same way as ‘please’ e.g.
“No, thank you.”
“I don’t need any help, thank you.”
- Phrase requests as suggestions
“Can we reschedule our meeting for next week?” is a perfectly acceptable sentence, but “I was wondering whether you would mind rescheduling our meeting for next week?” is politer. It shows that the speaker is aware that the person they are asking might not be willing or able to reschedule the meeting. Acknowledging that this may be inconvenient shows that the speaker is considerate of the other person’s time and schedule. Furthermore, demonstrating consideration of others generally makes people more inclined to help.
- Say sorry
It is something of a cliché that if two British people bump into one another, both will apologise. However, apologising when necessary fosters good relationships between people, and is especially important in the workplace. There is no need to apologise profusely for minor mishaps, but a simple ‘sorry’ can make your speech and writing sound much more polite e.g.
“Sorry- I forgot to send this report to you”
“I forgot to send this report to you.”
- ‘Soften’ your English with modifying words
Modifying words like ‘quite’, ‘really’ and ‘much’ can transform the way your speech and writing are interpreted when making negative statements e.g.
“I don’t have much time”
“I don’t really like going to the theatre”
“I can’t quite hear you”
sound politer and less abrupt than
“I don’t have time”
“I don’t like going to the theatre”
“I can’t hear you.”
- Choose your words according to the situation
The words and phrases we use depend on both the context in which we are speaking or writing and our audience. Informal language used in a formal context, such as a job interview or meeting, could be interpreted as arrogant or suggest that the speaker isn’t taking the situation seriously. Likewise, excessively formal language in an informal setting could be interpreted as unfriendly. Ensuring the language you use is appropriate to the formality of the situation is one of the simplest ways to be sure that what you are saying or writing is polite and will not cause offence.