How to Be Polite in English

When you are just getting started learning English, your main concern is to make yourself understood.  Of course, it’s nice to use expressions like pleasethank you, and excuse me, but people will forgive you if you leave them out… But will they really?

The truth is, the English language is full of little niceties and formalities, and ignoring them can make you come across as rude or unprofessional. If you have a slight accent or it's clear English is not your first language, English speakers will hopefully realise any impoliteness is not intentional, but it's always best to focus on learning the correct customs. Moreover, in some formal situations, such as job interviews, meetings with clients or colleagues, appointments with doctors, or simply when requesting help or information, it is important to make the best possible impression by speaking in a polite way. To help you communicate more effectively, we have created this guide on how to be polite in English.

 

Making a request

In English, when we ask for something or ask someone to do something, we often use the modal verbs like could, might, should, and would to sound more polite. They soften the request and make it sound less like you are ordering someone to do something. For example, a waiter in a restaurant will be more inclined to treat you well if you say “I would like a cup of tea, please”, instead of saying the more blunt “I want a cup of tea”, or, even worse, an imperative:“Give me a cup of tea”. You should avoid giving commands and phrase your requests in a less direct way, usually in the form of a question:

  • Could you please open the window?
  • Do you think you could turn the music down a little, please?
  • Would you mind telling me the time, please?
  • Would you be so kind as to pass me that book?
  • I would appreciate it if you could…
  • I would be most grateful if you could….
  • When convenient for you, could you please…

 

Saying ‘Thank you’

If your (polite) request has been met, don’t forget to say how grateful you are to the person for what they have done or said. Depending on the situation, you can use the following expressions:

  • Thank you very much!
  • That’s very kind of you.
  • Thanks a lot! (note: this expression is sometimes used sarcastically to mean the opposite. Make sure your tone is clear!)
  • Thanks, I appreciate it.
  • You are so helpful.
  • Thank you for taking the trouble to help me.
  • Many thanks! (note: this is usually reserved for written thanks and would sound a bit odd out loud)

 

Disagreeing politely

If you have to express disagreement, it's important to show that you respect the person's opinion and just happen to think differently. Try using the following phrases to soften your tone and express your opinion without the risk of offending anyone:

  • I see what you mean, but…
  • I’m afraid I don’t see it that way.
  • I understand what you’re saying, but on the other hand…
  • I respect your point, but…
  • I’m not so sure about that.
  • You could be right, but don’t forget that…

 

Turning down an invitation

Saying no to people is not always easy, so the next time you have to refuse an invitation, these polite expressions will help you avoid hurting person's feeling:

  • I would love to, but…
  • That sounds great, but…
  • I’m afraid I can’t. I...
  • Thanks so much for asking me, but…
  • Unfortunately, I can’t because...

 

Not understanding/Asking to repeat

If you did not clearly hear what another person have said, you can say “Sorry”, “Pardon me”, or “Excuse me”, or else use the phrases below to ask them to repeat in a polite way. Notice that it's polite to blame yourself for not being able to hear, even if it was actually because they spoke too softly or there are other loud noises covering them up!

  • I’m sorry, I didn’t quite catch that.
  • Could you say that again, please?
  • Would you mind repeating that?

 

Avoiding ‘finger-pointing’ statements

When dealing with a problem, coming across as rude can just make the problem worse. In order to sound more diplomatic and less aggressive, focus on ‘I’ and ‘we’ instead of ‘you’, which can come across as accusatory, and use the passive voice:

  • Perhaps I am not making myself clear.
    Instead of:
    You're not understanding me.
  • My favourite mug has been broken!
    Instead of
    You broke my favourite mug!
  • It was agreed that you'd complete the task today.
    Instead of
    You said you were going to complete the task today.
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