How to master the peculiarly English art of the polite command
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.