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Your Guide to Being Polite in Difficult Situations: Part One

Image representing students learning how to be polite in difficult situations

One of the most difficult things to do when you’re speaking in a foreign language is to use diplomatic language.

To be “diplomatic” means saying what you need to say without offending, upsetting or angering someone. It’s a way of being polite in a situation where you don’t think the other person will like what you have to say.

This is particularly important in a work situation.

There may be many times in your job when you don’t agree with what your co-workers or even your boss has said or done, you need to tell them that they are mistaken about something, or you are uncomfortable with what they have asked you to do.

These situations can be very awkward. You probably don’t want to sound rude by contradicting or correcting people that you work with. You certainly don’t want to sound disrespectful. But if you don’t speak up, there could either be much bigger problems later on – or you could find yourself in a situation that makes you very unhappy.

Every culture and country is different, and what counts as direct and straightforward in one place might sound very rude in another. However, it’s usually better to be too polite than not polite enough. In this blog post I’m going to focus on the correct diplomatic language to use in the UK, because British people tend to expect more politeness and gentler language than some other English-speaking countries.

I’m sure you already know how important it is to use polite terms like “please”, “thank you”, “sorry” and “excuse me”, to listen carefully to what other people in your team are saying, and never to talk over people you work with. These are the basics. But there are many other specific words and phrases that will help you put your point across without causing offence.

These words and phrases should be used when you are doing the following things (in fact, it helps to use them in informal conversations with British people, as well as at work!):

  • Asking someone to do something for you
  • Giving someone bad news
  • Giving an instruction in command. In other words, in any situation where you have to tell someone to do something!
  • Disagreeing with someone
  • Objecting to something. In other words, explaining why you don’t think that this is the right thing to do, that it isn’t fair, or it won’t work.
  • Suggesting a different way of doing things
  • Blaming someone else for something
  • Negotiating

In all of these situations, it’s a good idea to use “softer” language. If you are too direct or blunt, you could make other people embarrassed or angry. This means they are likely to argue with you or refuse to listen to what you say, which makes things a lot worse!

So how do you soften your language?

Let’s take a look at some verbal techniques you can use.

First of all, there are modal verbs.

The most common way to soften your language when you are asking for something is to use sentences with modal words like “could” or “would”.

For example, it sounds politer in English to say “Would you mind writing up this report?” or “Could you write up this report for me?” rather than “Will you write up this report?” or even, “Can you write up the report, please?”.

This is also true when you are requesting something. For example, it is much politer to say “Would it be possible to take next Wednesday off as holiday?” than “I want to take next Wednesday off as holiday”.

Using terms such as “might” or “may” makes the command less direct, too. For example, it sounds politer to say, “You might have to work a bit later today” or “I might need you to change this” instead of “Can you work late?” or “Please change this”.

There are several other ways to soften your language and we’ll look at these next week, in Part 2. Until then, if you have any questions about using modal verbs to sound more diplomatic, let us know in the comments section below.