Your attempts to be courteous can actually offend
Expressing yourself clearly in a foreign language is hard enough, but how about expressing yourself clearly while also not offending anyone?
Being as courteous as possible in your written English is the foolproof way to avoid offending your readers, right? . .
. . . wrong!
Last week, I ran a series of workshops on professional communication at the University of Cambridge. All the participants were new graduate students whose first language isn’t English and I introduced them to the “roundabout” nature of much English office speak. That indirect way we ask for things and give feedback that is designed to keep everyone feeling happy and good about themselves.
But it struck me that even native speakers can struggle to use language that builds bridges rather than barriers.
Here are five words and phrases that you might think sound courteous and professional, but that are guaranteed to get your reader’s back up (this reader at least).
As in, “It would be greatly appreciated if you could get back to me straight away” or “I would appreciate it if you returned the document to me by the end of the day”.
I’m sure people adopt this rather formal language because they think it sounds all professional, courteous and efficient. However, to me it sounds like it’s been lifted from a final reminder letter.
In future, it would be greatly appreciated if you could talk to me like the busy but helpful and trusted colleague I am – not some feckless non-payer of bills.
What to say instead How about: “Would you be able to get the document to me by the end of the day?”
I’m smart. I can read between the lines. I can take that as a request not an inquiry.
2. At your earliest convenience
Often paired with “It would be greatly appreciated if…”.
Whenever I see the words “at your earliest convenience” I assume the writer means “at my earliest convenience – i.e. now”.
What to say instead How about “as soon as you can”? Short. Simple. Anglo-Saxon. Much friendlier.
3. On a timely and efficient basis
For example: “all work must be executed on a timely and efficient basis”.
We’ve not even started the job and all this wordy talk of timely and efficient bases is making me feel like you’ve got your lawyers on standby for my inevitable screw-up.
What to say instead How about the shorter, friendlier, less lawyerly: “we’ll need to complete the work quickly”.
A plural word that’s only ever used by police officers and officiating clergy.
What to say instead If you want to sound like you’re about to arrest someone, use “persons”. If you want to sound like someone people actually want to do business with, use “people”.
A client recently introduced the word “moreover” into some copy I’d written for them. It prompted our graphic designer to ask: “How many people use ‘moreover’ in natural speech?” (At Doris and Bertie, even the pictures and shapes people get the idea of good English).
The problem with “furthermore” and “moreover” is they just sound plain argumentative. I’m guessing the last time you used either of them regularly was in your final-year dissertation where you were enthusiastically demolishing your professor’s rival’s thesis. A great way to secure a first. A less great way to bond with your colleagues.
What to say instead You could always just drop these two words completely.
Here’s a good rule of thumb: never use a word in the office that you wouldn’t use at home. How would you feel if your spouse punctuated every tricky conversation with “moreover” and “furthermore”?