Kind & Polite English for Work [Professional English Skills]
This Confident English lesson has been updated from its original in January 2016.
In January 2016 I received an email from one of my students with the message, “Please help! Today my coworker told me I don’t sound friendly in English. I’m devasted.”
What was surprising is my student felt she was kind and polite in English, especially at work. So what was the problem?
Here’s the problem: the words, the expressions, the phrases that are kind in one language are not always kind in another. The language strategies we use to express politeness in one language aren’t the same in another. If we translate from one language directly into another, it doesn’t always work.
Unfortunately, English does not have a formal and informal version of ‘you’ to immediately show a higher level of formality and politeness.
Nor does English have word endings that change.
Since that email in January 2016, I’ve continued to get emails with questions such as:
- How can I be more polite in difficult conversations in English?
- How can I show that I’m friendly and interested in other people in English?
- My coworker said that I sound aggressive when I speak, what can I do?
In today’s Confident English lesson, you’ll learn 4 strategies for kind and polite English at work. With these strategies, you’ll be able to:
- Be more diplomatic in English
- Switch from direct, assertive language to indirect, formal language
- Be more flexible in English so you can say what you want, how you want
Kind, polite English skills for daily life.
Lesson by Annemarie
Four Strategies for Kind, Polite English Skills
Kind & Polite English Strategy 1: Use Modals
Modals are those words you learned in your English classes such as: would, could, might, may.
It seems so simple, but using a modal can change a direct, aggressive question into a polite request. They soften your requests, questions, and commands, which means you won’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.
- Send me those documents before the end of the day. → Could you send me those documents by the end of the day?
- I need to borrow your pen for a moment. → May I borrow your pen for a moment?
Yes, it’s that easy. Use modals the next time you send a request by email, ask for something on the telephone, or when you need something from a friend and you’ll sound more polite!
Kind & Polite English Strategy 2: Change Your Grammar
In English, the Present Simple Tense can sound direct, maybe too direct so…
If you’re at work talking at an important business meeting, of course, you want to be polite! You want to sound smooth, confident, and kind. If you sound too aggressive or direct, it might cause a problem in the discussion.
Here’s how you can do this: Change the present tense to the past tense or a progressive (-ing) tense. Your meaning is still in the present, but you change the verb to add softness, to be less direct.
TIP: We 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.
- Can I ask a question about the agenda? –> I wanted to ask a question about the agenda.
- I think you need help with the deadline. → I thought you might like some help with the deadline.
Kind & Polite English Strategy 3: Use Vague Language
Vague language means not too specific or too direct. We often use expressions such as: a bit, around, kind of, -ish, a few, quite, slightly, a little
We use these expressions – or qualifiers – to provide less direct information, for example with times or quantities.
- I’d like you to spend around 4 hours to get this project completed. If you can’t complete it by then, let’s talk so we can make necessary changes.
- Why don’t you come to my office at 2:00-ish ( = around 2:00) 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?
Kind & Polite English Strategy 4: Use Negative Questions
For formal conversations, or when you want to be diplomatic, use negative questions to give your advice, make a recommendation, provide a suggestion, express your opinion, or ask a question.
Using negative questions softens the language and changes strong language into indirect language.
Here are a few examples:
- We need to review these documents one more time. → Don’t you think that we should review these figures one last time?
- Yes, we’ve met before. I met you at the conference last year. → Haven’t we met before? I think it was at the conference last year.
- You must consider how the client might respond. → Shouldn’t we consider how the client might respond?
Sometimes we simply must give bad news, provide negative feedback, or say no to someone. But the good news is, you can still do this with great kindness in English. Use some of the highlighted expressions below to help you do that!
Say No / Deny Something / Give Bad News / Disagree
- I would love to but I have to work late that night.
- Unfortunately, he isn’t available.
- I’m afraid we can’t change the date of the meeting next week.
- I’m sorry to say that your proposal has not been approved.
- With respect, I have to disagree with you.
Saying You Can’t Do Something
In more professional situations, we sometimes have to tell someone that we can’t do something.
- I can’t complete this project by 4:00 p.m.
- I can’t meet you tomorrow.
To say “I can’t” can be negative and it could sound like a failure. Instead, you can use the words “not able to” or “unable to” to soften the language.
- I’m not able to complete this project by 4:00 p.m. but I should have it finished tomorrow morning.
- I’m unable to meet you tomorrow. I’m sorry.
- I’m really sorry but I’m not able to come to your dinner party on Saturday evening.
Get more in the lesson: Better Ways to Say Yes, No, Maybe, and I Can’t
Now it’s time for you to practice what you’ve learned! I have 2 challenge questions for you.
- You have a meeting scheduled with your boss tomorrow, but something came up and you need to request changing the time of that meeting. How would you do that in an email or a telephone call? What language could you use from today’s lesson for a polite formal request challenge?
- You’re in a meeting with a potential new client. During your conversation, this potential client says something that you didn’t quite understand, and you want them to repeat it. So how would you ask that in a formal, polite way?
You can share your answers with me in the comment section below.
While you’re there, I recommend reading the comments or answers from others in the Confident English community. It’s a great way for you to see how many options are available when we use these different strategies for polite kind language in English.
Finally – and most importantly – never forget that: “A warm smile is the universal language of kindness.” – William Arthur Ward
P.S. Do you have a colleague or friend who would LOVE to know how to be more polite in English conversations? If so, please share this lesson with them.
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