- Language level: upper intermediate and advanced B2-C1
- Skills: Speaking, email writing (Business English)
- Time needed: 20 mins
- Focus: style, tone
- Associated Course: How to Look Professional & Fluent by Using Polite & Diplomatic English
When you speak English at work, your first priority is probably that people can understand you. That’s a good priority to have! However, you might also want to sound smooth, confident, professional and kind. So you should definitely make this a priority too.
In other words, to be all of these things, you can start by using polite, diplomatic and modern English!
- Do you always know which register to use at work? (Register means the degree of formality of language that you use).
- Are you always sure that your tone is appropriate when you speak in English?
- Are you always confident that you use the correct words and expressions when you write emails?
If you answered ‘no’ to one or more of these questions, read on!
Why is using polite and diplomatic English important at work?
It’s not an exaggeration to say that being successful in your professional life can have a lot to do with how others perceive you. And, when you can use this style of language with certain people, you can find that you achieve the result that you are aiming for.
Otherwise, you may risk being rejected or even completely ignored by the person you are addressing.
Translating doesn’t always work: English has its own way of being polite
The words, register, tone and expressions that you use in your own language to be polite and kind more often than not do not translate in the same way into English.
That is to say, the language strategies that we use to be polite and diplomatic in English are particular to English – so translating usually doesn’t work.
Therefore, to help you get it right, we’re going to look at the grammar and the vocabulary that will upgrade your English to being polite, kind and diplomatic.
Let’s have a look!
Read the two conversations and pay attention to the tone used in each one.
A: How can I help you?
B: Hello. I want to speak to the Sales Director.
A: Do you have an appointment?
B: No, I don’t
A: I see. That will be difficult. She’s very busy.
B: Of course, I understand that. I need a few minutes though.
A What about?
B There’s a mistake with our invoice. It’s a rather large discrepancy so I want to sort it out face to face.
A: You should call her about this. She’s definitely busy until 10.30 so you have to wait.
B: No, I don’t want to call. I’ll wait.
A: How can I help you?
B: Hello. I was wondering if I could have a quick word with the Sales Director.
A: Do you have an appointment?
B: Actually, no, I don’t
A: I see. That won’t be easy. She’s very busy.
B: Of course, I understand that. I just needed a few minutes though.
A: Could you tell me what it’s about?
B: Well, there seems to be a mistake with our invoice. It’s a rather large discrepancy so I thought it might help to sort it out face to face.
A Why don’t you give her a call about this? As far as I know she’s busy until 10.30 so you would have to wait.
B: I’d really rather speak to her in person. If there’s a chance to see her at 10.30, I’d prefer to wait.
Which conversation do you prefer, and why?
In the first conversation, the language is direct and clear. However, to a native speaker it may feel COLD and IMPOLITE.
The second conversation has words and phrases that make the language feel more polite and diplomatic: I was wondering if, Actually, That won’t be easy … (the words in bold do this).
We are aware that the exact meaning may not be meaningful or clear to you, if you are a non-native speakers. Yet this ‘softening’ of words is really important to English speakers.
Polite Language: For or Against?
Some people argue that ‘polite’ language can sound fake and confusing. On the other hand, others would argue that polite language is way of showing people respect.
I do agree with the first point of view to a certain extent. Some situations definitely call for being as direct and clear as possible. (You might want to check out our lesson: How to be assertive)
However, I firmly believe that you can be polite and diplomatic without being indirect or vague. At the end of the day, people value politeness and are more likely to react positively towards you when you treat them kindly. On top of that, using polite language is more likely to get the results you were hoping to achieve.
Now let’s look at HOW to do it in English.
Strategy 1: change the grammar you are using!
Eh? I hear you ask! Let me explain.
Using the present simple can sometimes come across as rude, a bit too direct and bossy. By changing the tense, the meaning is still in the present, but the style becomes more diplomatic, softened, more friendly and less direct.
Here’s how to do it:
Present > past
When is deadline? > When did you say the deadline was?
Simple > continuous
I hope you can (join us for the meeting) > I was hoping you could (join us for the meeting)
Past + Continuous (progressive)
I think you can > I was thinking you could
I wonder if I can > I was wondering if I could
Use Indirect questions
I need to know … > Could you tell me …
Make a negative question so that it becomes a suggestion, not an order
It is better to… > Wouldn’t it be better to …
Use the passive to depersonalise the issue
He promised us … > We were promised …
Use the 2nd condition instead of the 1st
If you can …. I’ll be very grateful > If you could …. I’d be very grateful
We can try > We could try …
We will need > We would need / We might need
Strategy 2: Use these words and expressions
When information may not be true, or you are unsure if it is accurate you can use:
- Apparently …
- It seems that …
- As far as I know …
- It would appear that …
Reformulating something that you have said because it was too strong, direct or definitive:
- Or rather,…
- I mean, …
Giving bad news or a refusal
- I’m sorry, but …
- I’m afraid .. (BrE)
Making things less serious
- A small / a slight > There me be a slight delay
- A bit / slightly > The price is slightly higher
Use ‘just’ and ‘sorry’
- Can I ask you something? > Could I just ask you something?
- I disagree > Sorry, but I don’t really agree
Replace negative sounding adjectives with ‘NOT’ + ‘Opposite Adjective’
- That’s terrible > That’s not great
- I think that’s a bad idea > I don’t think that’s a such good idea
Replace: You said with I understood
- You said you’d give us a 4% discount > I understood we could have a 4% discount
Don’t finger point
- You don’t understand me > Perhaps I’m not making myself clear.
- You didn’t explain that properly > Sorry, I’m not following
Use vague language
- Have you read my email yet? > Did you have a chance to read that email?
Share your experiences with us!
- Have you ever been misunderstood when you were trying to be kind?
- Have you ever struggled to know which phrases to use in order to be polite?
- Have you had difficulties writing emails to international colleagues? What happened? How did you fix it?
Please share your thoughts in the comments below. ⬇️
Dive Deeper & Learn How
To consolidate, practice & activate the information in this lesson, try our training course: How to Look Professional & Fluent by Using Polite & Diplomatic English