How to be polite is important to us British. The British, as a rule, go out of our way to maintain polite English conversation, even when we are complaining. It’s about maintaining the high moral ground and keep up your manners. We expect people to behave in a decent and mannered way, and we notice when people are not conforming to the expected standard of polite interaction.
Take the use of “sorry” for example, it’s used so much it’s automatic, a habit. Someone might bump into you, you both would almost certainly say “I’m sorry” even though it was probably only one of you who should say it. It’s almost a cultural thing. There is no harm in saying it, your implicitly accepting that the incident was an accident and your sorry it happened.
In some ways it’s a shame, because over using “Sorry” diminishes the meaning behind the word. It’s a bit like “Thanks” (thank you), you will hear people use this word so much it’s not really a real thank you, it’s just filler. For example, you might be in a shop and an attendant approaches you and asks “Are you OK, do you need something?” and a typical response would be “No I’m fine, thanks”. It’s just a polite way of ending the conversation.
My father believed in toughness, honesty, politeness and being on time. All very important lessons.
⭐ Roger Moore
I think it’s nice to live in a polite society. The British take pride in being polite, there is an unseen standard being used when you interact with a British person. Your character and behaviour are quietly being judged and polite manners will go a long way to help your cause at work or in everyday life in the UK. It’s relatively simple, it costs you nothing and will probably help you so there is little or no harm in being polite with your English conversations.
Tentative Understatement Carafe Behaviour Manner Conform
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Hi and welcome to this latest podcast from Adept English. If English speaking is your goal, we are here to help you. We cover a variety of topics in our weekly podcasts and sometimes we help you directly with your spoken English – give you simple secrets to instantly improve your spoken English! That’s what we’re going to do today.
English people are known for being polite, for having good manners – or at least that is the reputation. Maybe if you meet a crowd of young holiday makers, perhaps enjoying themselves in Spain or Portugal in the summer, when they’ve had a few beers, you may not find that they are terribly polite. But even here, they may be! They may be extremely polite and considerate, even when they’ve had a few drinks. But beyond conversations that you might have with friends and family, politeness is important, especially here in the UK. And actually it’s in the work place, where people take most care to be polite.
People generally have good manners when they’re at work and in business. It’s seen as professional. The adjective ‘polite’, POLITE means that you’re displaying ‘good manners’. And the adjective ‘considerate’, CONSIDERATE means that ‘you consider other people’, you act in a way which notices other people’s needs and feelings. So ‘good manners’ are usually about ‘showing consideration to other people’.
So how do people show politeness in English speaking countries, particularly in the UK? What do we use in the spoken language to show that we are being polite? Well, you’ll notice if you visit the UK the obvious things, like that we say ‘Please’ and ‘Thankyou’ quite a lot. If there is a transaction – that means money changes hands – say, at the petrol station you’ll hear it.
You fill up your car with petrol, you go into the shop and you pay for your petrol and the person behind the counter will say ‘That’s £55, please’. And when you pay with your card, they may say ‘Thankyou’ and when they hand you the receipt – the piece of paper to show the transaction, you say ‘Thankyou’ to them. And on your way out of the shop, if someone holds open the door for you, you’ll say ‘Thankyou’. So lots of ‘please’ and ‘thankyou’.
And we do like to queue, that’s QUEUE – we like to ‘form a line’ if we have to wait for something. And people don’t like it if you push in. So these are basic manners – things that you’ll notice if you visit the UK.
In a restaurant, even if we are making a complaint, we’re likely to use what are known as ‘softeners’. If you ‘soften’ something – that’s SOFTEN – if you ‘soften’ something, it means you make it softer, more gentle. So the word ‘softener’ – you could be talking there about a device to ‘soften’ your hard water – a water softener. This processes all your tap water.
Or ‘softener’ could mean ‘fabric softener’ or ‘fabric conditioner’ – that’s a liquid that you put into your washing machine to make your clothes soft to touch and smell nice. But here, what I mean by ‘softeners’ – little words and phrases which English speakers use when they speak, to make themselves sound more genteel, more polite. So even when we’re making complaint, we use softeners as a way of being polite.
A photograph of confident lady wearing office clothes. The British consider it important to be polite even when complaining and especially when at work.
If someone is in a restaurant, and they’re served soup – let’s say the soup isn’t very hot, an English person probably wouldn’t just say to the waiter ‘Hey, my soup is cold!’. It would be more like ‘Excuse me? I don’t want to be a pain, but I wonder if you could reheat my soup – it’s not very warm?’ Notice all the words and phrases that soften the meaning of this sentence.
It starts ‘Excuse me?’ That’s short for ‘Please excuse me’, so really is like saying ‘Sorry’, even when you’re complaining. ‘Excuse me?’ We say that all the time. So although this person is making a complaint, they start off with something that sounds close to an apology. ‘I don’t want to be a pain but…..’ this means that the person is saying that they don’t want to be trouble, they don’t want to cause problems or extra work. The clue that a complaint is coming is the ‘but’ in that sentence.
‘I don’t want to be a pain, but…’ And even the request ‘I wonder if you could reheat my soup?’ is different from ‘Please warm my soup’. Even with the ‘please’ at the start, that last sentence sounds much more abrupt to us. And then the final part – ‘it’s not very warm’. So again, we may be making a complaint, but we’re being very polite and we do it by what’s called ‘under-statement’. That means that we make something sound less bad. So we might change ‘My soup is cold’, even though this may be true – and we say instead ‘My soup is not very warm’. That’s called an under-statement. It’s a way of softening the message, making it more polite.
More softeners in a restaurant? Someone might say to the waiter ‘I wonder if we could have a carafe of wine?’ In fact, the speaker knows that a carafe of wine will be available, it’s on the menu after all – it’s a restaurant – how would they not have wine available? They may even be able to see a carafe of wine on the next table. And the restaurant will of course be very happy to sell it to them. So actually – ‘I wonder if….’ - there is no ‘wondering’ going on here!
The verb ‘to wonder’ as it’s being used here means to ‘have curiosity about’, ‘to want to know more’. ‘I wonder if it’s possible’. So again, this is just a way of speaking that’s polite, a ‘softener’. A carafe of wine will be possible – there’s no need to wonder about it. But ‘I’m wondering if I could have…..’ or ‘I’m just wondering whether you have….’ - it sounds very nice and polite to us.
‘I wonder if we could have the window closed?’, ‘I wonder if we can have our coffee at the table?’ ‘I wonder if we could have some salad with that?’ Lots of ‘wondering’ – that’s WONDER is the verb. It’s particularly useful when you’re asking for something which perhaps isn’t standard, you’re asking for a bit of special treatment. ‘I wonder if….’
And sometimes ‘softeners’ in requests use modal verbs. This is so that you don’t sound as though you’re giving someone an order or a command. So it may sound like this. ‘Would you mind opening the window?’, ‘Please could I have my coat?’, ‘I would be really grateful if you could call me and let me know’, ‘Could you possibly save my seat?’, ‘Please would you be so kind as to look after my bag?’, ‘I’d really appreciate it if you could move your car’. So, a lot of modal verbs, so that we don’t sound as though we’re commanding people to do things.
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So softeners are used to ‘soften the message’ in a professional environment too. If you’re at work, and you have to deliver bad news to your customers or to your boss – the basic message might be something like ‘The products that you ordered are now going to be delayed’. But using softeners, the message that you actually hear might be more like ‘I just need to let you know there may be a bit of a delay with the products that you ordered’.
Can you hear the softeners there? ‘I just need to let you know’, ‘there may be a bit of a delay’? ‘The ‘may’ and the ‘bit of a’ are minimising statements. They attempt make the problem seem smaller. Some other examples? ‘The delivery is going to be slightly late’. ‘We’ve encountered one or two problems with our computer system’. ‘Your order is going to be somewhat late getting to you’. So these are understatements, ways of being polite.
And one of the things that we do to make our requests or our statements more polite – we make them ‘tentative’, TENTATIVE and that’s an adjective. ‘Tentative’ means ‘slightly uncertain, feeling your way, testing the ground’ perhaps. So with family and friends, you might be direct and say something like ‘We need to order some new cupboards’.
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In work if you’re the boss, this directness would be fine too. But in a business meeting or professional environment, where you aren’t the most senior person in the room, you don’t want to sound so direct. So the same idea might be expressed as ‘I was thinking that we might order some new cupboards’. Or ‘Perhaps we need to order some new cupboards’ or ‘Do you think we should order some new cupboards?’.
Much less direct. This means that the speaker thinks new cupboards are needed, even though this may be said as a question – and the suggestion is phrased more tentatively because the person speaking isn’t the most senior in the room. They’re not in charge of the budget, perhaps! It acknowledges that such a decision will be made by someone more senior. It defers to their seniority, their authority.
All of this can be confusing for language learners, who may wonder why the sentences need to be so complicated. But a little practice at this, at listening to this kind of polite spoken English, can go a long way to helping you understand what’s being said - and for when you speak yourself too. And if you make mistakes or you’re more direct, don’t worry? English speakers will know that English is not your first language – and will generally be very forgiving if you sound more direct. But it’s good to learn of these things.
Anyway, I hope that’s helpful for your English speaking. Learn the English we speak in practice, with Adept English.
Enough for now. Have a lovely day. Speak to you again soon. Goodbye.