How to master the peculiarly English art of the polite command

Polite English is very confusing

As regular readers will know, I’m a strong advocate of business English that’s short and to the point. But there are times when business writing demands more words, rather than fewer. When, for the sake of good business relationships, it pays to be wordy and indirect.

This issue came up during a workshop on professional communication I led recently for a group of non-native English speakers at the University of Cambridge. The one or two students who had worked with English people confirmed they had often had to “read between the lines” when dealing with English colleagues.

Those who hadn’t were quite bamboozled when presented with some of the contorted phrases we English can resort to in an effort to avoid appearing brash, abrupt and aggressive in the workplace. In the English office, using understatement verging on opacity is a sign of good manners.

Here’s how to master the peculiarly English art of the polite command

1. Don’t be too direct

Let’s imagine your boss would like to discuss something urgent with you and sends you an email saying the following:

Please come to my office right away.

Perhaps the boss wants to discuss the agenda for an upcoming meeting. Or ask the employee to take on a new project. Or give some feedback on a piece of work.

But whatever the boss’s intention, an English employee receiving such a direct command is likely to think, “Uh-oh, I’m in trouble. I’m probably going to be fired”.

2. Use different vocabulary to soften the request

A sensitive boss might choose to use less direct words:

Please pop by my office when you have a moment.

Notice how the phrases “pop by” and “when you have a moment” downplay the importance of the request by implying the boss would like a brief meeting that can, perhaps, be squeezed in on the way to the coffee machine.

However, few native English speakers would necessarily interpret this statement in such a way. The sense of urgency may not be explicit, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there: many native speakers would be hot-footing it to the boss’s office as soon as possible.

3. Turn the command into a question

Indeed, the author may want to make the request appear even less forthright by changing the command into a question:

Would you pop by my office when you have a moment?

Would you be able to pop by my office when you have a moment?

Would it be possible for you to pop by my office when you have a moment?

Would you happen to have a moment to pop by my office?

Note: these are not enquiries about the recipient’s willingness or ability to pop by the boss’s office. The illusion of choice in the matter is just that – an illusion. Each of these sentences may be phrased as a question, but do not doubt that each expresses a polite command.

4. Ask “would you mind?”

In fact, sometimes the question may be phrased in a way that appears to give the recipient even more choice in the matter. For example:

Would you mind popping by my office for a moment?

Note: the correct response is not “Yes, I would mind, actually”, but to get yourself to the boss’s office as soon as you can.

Sometimes the command may be couched in a statement in which the author seems to be telling you they are musing upon whether you would be willing to accept this apparent choice:

I was just wondering if you could pop by my office when you have a moment?

I was just wondering if you’d mind popping by my office, if you had a moment?

5. Express it as a negative question

More confusingly still, the author might phrase the command as a negative statement or question such as:

You couldn’t pop by my office when you have a moment, could you?

You wouldn’t mind popping by my office when you have a moment, would you?

I don’t suppose you’d mind popping by my office for a moment, would you?

A native English speaker can instinctively see the command behind all these roundabout questions and opaque understatements. But to a non-native speaker, they must be absolutely baffling.

6. Avoid overstatement

Indeed, some writers whose first language isn’t English mistakenly use overstatement, rather than understatement in a bid to be polite. And more confusingly still, such an approach can have the opposite effect to that intended. Take the following:

I would greatly appreciate it if you would come to my office at your earliest convenience.

I would be extremely grateful if you would come to my office at your earliest convenience.

I would be most thankful if you came to my office at your earliest convenience.

It would be most appreciated if you came to my office at your earliest convenience.

In these examples, the use of words such as “appreciate”, “grateful”, “thankful” and “at your earliest convenience” seem very polite on the surface. But when your ear is attuned to such understatement as “I don’t suppose you’d mind popping by my office for a moment, would you?”, such exaggerated politeness sounds sarcastic.

Obviously, most English people would be very forgiving of a non-native speaker who used such language. But if we heard it from someone whose first language was English we would detect a distinct hint of ironic deference. The words convey an extreme sense of urgency and the writer actually comes across as annoyed rather than appreciative.

If English is your second language – or even if you’re an English-speaking American or Australian, we’d be keen to hear what you think about the peculiarly English art of the polite command. Let us know your experiences in the comments.


17 comments so far . . . come and pitch in!

  1. Clare says:

    Lovely post! The art of writing tactfully is something I’ve often taught in business writing workshops for non-native speakers of English – often alongside the use of modals such as would / could etc.

    In my experience, this isn’t something that speakers of Romance languages have a problem with (French, Italian etc) as there are similar concepts in these languages. But it is a problem that Germanic speakers tend to have, where “directness” is generally favoured over “diplomacy”.

  2. Liz Smith says:

    Great article!

    As an American who was lived in the UK for 21 years, I long ago mastered the art of opacity. I think Americans, too, probably tend towards couching commands in such a way, though maybe not to such an extent. But I have the distinct pleasure of working with Dutch colleagues who are simply baffled by the circuitous route native English speakers take to any given point. They are wonderfully direct, and it’s refreshing not to have to work too hard to understand what they want.

  3. B. Ligerent says:

    This is a great guide about how to be politely indirect in English. But as a native English-speaking copywriter who’s lived and worked all over the world and speaks a number of languages from pidgin-level to relatively well, I have to say that the phenomenon isn’t limited to English at all.

    To speak any language fluently, there are always subtleties to master. In some languages this will be polite indirectness (and not just Romance languages; non-European languages as well). In some languages you’ve got to learn to speak in negative constructions … where it’s polite or just common to say the opposite of what you mean. In many languages there are dozens of pronouns and terms of address or even a large number of verb forms, and you’ve got to accurately judge your relationship to whomever you’re addressing before you speak. Etc. Etc. Etc.

    A non-native English speaker would still be understood if speaking directly. They just wouldn’t jive culturally. The same is true of an English speaker who uses a basic pronoun in another language because they don’t know the subtleties of address.

    We express our cultures through our languages so this is as much an issue of cultural understanding as it is linguistic understanding.

  4. Tom Freeman says:

    This is spot on. I’m British and this is exactly how we communicate. You might call it ‘passive-assertive’. The kind of directness in your first example just comes across as too blunt or even ominous.

    One woman I work with takes it probably a bit too far – her usual formulation for asking me to do things is “Would it be OK to do X?” This ingeniously omits to state that it’s me she wants to do it, which has once or twice made me think she was asking permission to do it herself.

    But most of us know we’re like this and we can adapt. I have several colleagues from other countries, and when a German or American, say, makes a request so directly it seems less of a threat.

  5. Richmonde says:

    Ils sont fous, les Anglais!

  6. Camelia says:

    Lovely post! As a non native English speaker I did encounter some adjustement issues addressing my requests or perceiving my boss or someone else requests. Where my frank nature and also way of speaking would come across sometime as rude ( I was just speaking my mind! ) on the other extreme I would not perceive the diplomatic way of request as a request but rather a matter of my choice or permnission from the other person to do something! I thought it might not be my business and not wanting to be intrusive I made a choice of NO. Sometime I was in troubles. LOL

  7. Bridget says:

    I would just say,

    “Would you come to my office please as I would like to discuss blah blah blah”.

    I hate waffle and it is confusing too as the blog suggests. But then I also hate ambiguity. There your go, direct and to the point hahaha

  8. I’m Canadian, and we’re supposed to be pretty meek, but I agree with Bridget that waffle isn’t necessary. Add a sentence in front or after “please come to my office”, and your intended tone becomes a lot more evident.

    I need your opinion on something. Please come to my office.

    And don’t forget punctuation!

    I need to ask you about something…please come to my office.

    I’m selling chocolate bars for my kids’ school fundraiser! Please
    come to my office!

    And the horrid last resort…the emoticon

    Please come to my office. 🙂

  9. Matthew says:

    A wonderful post. I especially liked how you were able to convey the how vital it is to be clear in your writing with something as simple as a “please come to my office” email.

  10. dlm says:

    great post. informative

  11. Kevin Mills says:

    Perhaps there’s another post in the appropriate response to such a request. Clearly the best one would be to drop everything and race to the boss’s office. But what if you can’t get there immediately?

    “I’m on my way, but you know how the lifts are.”

    “Sure, I’ll be right there. It’s not bad, is it? Tell me it’s nothing bad.”

    “You have an OFFICE? They just give me a corner of the stationery cupboard.”

    “Can you give me five? Don’t want to lose my place in the queue for Nickelback tickets.”

    “I can spare a moment, but no more. And it had better be good.”

    “Sure, I’ll be right there. I’ll be bringing some associates if that’s OK.”

  12. Jestyn says:

    Working in government, sending Telexes made this whole over/under thing even harder – I guess it came from the days of telegrams when you had to keep things short, but we were taught to say “Grateful for your views on”… meaning “I need a 5 page report immediately.”

  13. Clare Lynch says:

    Jestyn – thanks for your input. That’s another hilarious example!

  14. Chris says:

    “I don’t suppose you’d mind…”. That is a potentially ominous phrase loaded with hidden threat depending on the context. Or maybe I just have a permanently guilty conscience.

  15. Steve says:

    Splendid. I always have to be careful to avoid a natural tendency towards flippancy working in an international team 🙂

  16. Gerry says:

    I agree with Rita Marshall — and I’m puzzled why you would ask American and Australian readers but not Canadian or Indian ones — to respond.

    In Canada, a lot of how we write is a combination of American and British usage. For instance, we spell colour with a “u,” but tire with an an “i.”

    How we give instruction is similar. We might ask an employee to pop by the office, but would also give some indication why we are asking (“I need your help with something,” “I’d like to pick your brain,” “we need to talk about what you said during the teleconference.”). This way, the receiver can mentally prepare for what will happen once the door is closed.

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