How to Be Polite In English

Posted On: March 9, 2018

“In America people want you to be direct and to the point.” 

This is one of the cultural concepts many people learn about America (and maybe much of the West) when learning about different cultures.

Does this really apply in the U.S.?

Yes, but…. Not all the time.

In some cases, especially if we need to refuse something or requesting something, it may help to actually be indirect. Indirect communication in these situations actually helps to build relationships, be polite, and ease tension.

So, how can we be polite in English?


Polite English - in a Cemetery!

Polite English – in a Cemetery!


Easier said than done, right? We need to know what kind of words to use, in what context and the tone, body language, eye contact and non-verbal aspects may matter, too. Simply rambling on to add more words is not a good idea either. There is a delicate balance.

I came across this good video on using English politely on YouTube. The video, made by a U.K. national is below. I would teach this to the teams I coached in India that worked on teams with Americans. The same exact concepts apply to the British situation as to the American situation. Take a look at this video, then scroll below for more thoughts on this.

A common sign during a global pandemic


Asking someone for something
In the video, Tom shares the example of asking for a pen, and how to progress from asking for a pen using one word, “Pen?” all the way to the 17 word, “Excuse me, I’m so sorry to bother you but would you mind passing me the pen, please?”

How does this apply to international teams?
While this particular question may not apply on status review calls (it may apply if you go onsite…), let’s consider a different question. Maybe you are chairing a meeting and are trying to get everyone’s feedback on the topic of discussion and there are one or more team members who are not willing to speak up. In such cases, we may want to call them out only by their first name, “Jennifer?” This may not always be polite. It would be rude depending on the tone of voice. It may work if you already know Jennifer, worked with her for a long time and are on a professional, but someone friendly basis with her. Let’s see how to make this more polite.

Step 1: Jennifer?
Step 2: Jennifer, want to say anything? [Actually, this is more rude, I would surmise.]
Step 3: Jennifer, would you like to add anything?
Step 4: Jennifer, I know you have been working hard on this project, would you like to share your insights?
Step 5: Jennifer, I know you have working really hard on fixing (name problem), and this is actually your field of expertise. Would you like to share your insights?
Step 6: Jennifer, I know we have been exchanging a lot of emails specifically in relation to (X- topic). I know you have a lot of expertise in this area that the rest of the team would really benefit from. Would you mind sharing your thoughts on this?

Let’s review the above statements to assess for politeness. So, choosing any of the questions between step 3 and step 6 would work to make it more polite depending on your relationship with Jennifer and the context of the meeting. Besides adding more words, did you notice another aspect of this communication that seems to make it more polite?

The use of "please" and "thank you" with Americans is critical.

It’s personalized. Note the request in step 6. While it’s indirect, and wordy, it does highlight the fact that the meeting moderator knows more about Jennifer, her role in the project and is highlighting this. For many Americans this kind of communication is considered polite, respectful, and team building. A person who may not otherwise speak up, could get motivated to speak up when they notice their colleagues notice their work and share it with others.


Refusing an Invitation
This is a common problem that many on teams in India bring up or want to discuss. In many cases, the context relates to declining a meeting request, especially if that meeting has already been rescheduled more than once. The other context this is discussed in is when someone is onsite in the US and has to say no to a dinner, party or holiday invite. I have coached a number of people on how to respond to these situations in spoken English as well as in written English.

Use the word "please" and not "kindly"
Which sign is more polite?
Photo was taken at a rest stop off a US highway.



Asking someone to repeat or clarify what has been said
The top two main questions I have been asked by people in India on international teams are how to politely interrupt and how to ask someone to repeat something. An entire post can be created on this, but let’s look at this in context to the video.

Step 1 (rude): “What?”
Step 2 (not in video, but rude): “What did you say?”
Step 3: (in the video) “I’m sorry, what did you say?”
Step 4: (in the video) “I’m so sorry. I didn’t hear what you said. What was that?”

I want to add to these steps:
Step 5: “I am so sorry. I didn’t hear that. Could you please repeat the last part?”
Step 6: “I am so sorry. I didn’t catch the last part……” (Implied question)
Step 7: (using reflective listening) “I think I got the first part about … (summarize), but when the topic changed to (name topic), I got a little lost there. Can we go over that part again?”

Notice, that to make it even more polite, we remove ‘you’ and either use ‘I statements’ or we make it indirect (no use of you or I). Sometimes “we” can be used to make it more collaborative.

Some ask me if they can say, “Excuse me.” I often suggest that since this word has four different unsaid meanings by the tone alone, I wouldn’t suggest saying it on it’s own over the phone, nor would I suggest overuse of this phrase.

Disagreeing or Telling Someone They are Wrong
I already have a whole post on this – Polite Ways to Tell Someone They are Wrong in English. Check it out.


Please is a critical word to use with US Americans

What tips would you add here? Have you used these tips? How have they helped you?
If you are looking to build the communication skills of your virtual team members in India consider our virtual training options. Individuals or small groups up to 4 can participate in live phone or video coaching tailored to their individual needs. Jennifer Kumar, author of this post, and trainer has worked in India for more than 6 years with more than 30 companies, training over 3,000 professionals in various professional pathways. Contact us to start the conversation today.

Related Posts:
Video Tutorials on Ways to Say No
How to be polite when providing customer service

Confidently Drive Client Meetings (When It’s New to You)

Polite Sign: Nicolas Mirguet, creative commons at flickr


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