How to Be Kind & Polite in English at Work

Jan 25, 2017 | 41 comments

This Confident English lesson has been updated from its original post a year ago in January 2016. The original lesson was to answer a question from a Confident English reader about how to express kindness to friends and co-workers in English. Since last year, this has been one of my most popular lessons, so today I’m updating it with some new, useful tips. This lesson was updated in March 2017.

You know the words please and thank you in English, of course! But do you really know how to be polite to your colleagues in English? Do you know how to speak kindly to your friends or neighbors?

For example, do you have English-speaking colleagues who sometimes:

  • feel offended or think you are not interested in them but you are interested
  • think you are angry when you speak, but you aren’t angry
  • assume you’re being rude, but you are trying to be kind

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.

So today I want to help you know exactly how we use vocabulary and grammar in English to express politeness, to show kindness when we speak.

Some of these tips might surprise you but here’s why this lesson is important- knowing how to be kind and polite in English will help you to:

  • Make a good impression
  • Create a positive reputation
  • Build relationships and friendships more easily
  • Avoid offending or hurting others feelings
  • Make daily life (in English) more pleasant
  • Be more successful in difficult conversations

Kind, polite English skills for daily life.

Lesson by Annemarie

Four Strategies for Kind, Polite English Skills

 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.

Examples:

  • 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!

“Politeness is to do and say the kindest thing in the kindest way.” — An old verse

Strategy 2: Change Your Grammar

This strategy is CRAZY but it’s true. Sometimes we change our grammar tense to be more polite.

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.

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?

Strategy 4: Negative Questions are Polite

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?

Bonus Strategy!

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.

I’d love to hear about your experiences in English.

  • Have you had an experience in which someone misunderstood your kindness or politeness? What happened? How did you fix it?
  • Do you have a favorite expression or strategy to show kindness or politeness in English? If so, share it in the comments so others can learn from you!

Finally – and most importantly – never forget that: “A warm smile is the universal language of kindness.” – William Arthur Ward

~Annemarie

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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