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Five Rules of Thumb for Polite and Diplomatic Language

Our guest blogger Luke Thompson teaches at The London School of English and produces Luke’s English Podcast, which won the Macmillan Dictionary Love English Award for Best Blog 2011.

This blog post is about how hedging and indirectness in English can be used to establish a respectful and polite relationship between speakers. This is particularly relevant in business negotiations in which subtle changes in tone can have an effect on the rapport between the counterparts, which in turn affects the outcome of the meeting.

Whether you use direct language or not depends on what kind of relationship you wish to have with your counterparts. Sometimes directness can be an effective negotiating style. Nevertheless, using indirect and diplomatic language is a way to avoid sounding aggressive, which can put people off. It can allow you to say something negative while still maintaining a positive attitude, and generally it can help to create an atmosphere of respect in which reasonable agreement can be reached.

Using hedging and indirectness in statements is something native speakers take for granted. We do it automatically, especially us Brits. But learners of English have a tougher time producing this kind of diplomatic language. It could be a cultural thing, or perhaps it is because polite language is often more complex due to the vocabulary and grammatical structures used when hedging statements.

Through my experience of teaching business English over the years I have come up with a number of pieces of advice which I always tell my students. The aim is to help them to hedge their sentences, sometimes in simple ways. I’ve tried to make the advice simple by making it into a list of five points. For some reason using short odd-numbered lists really helps people to digest information! So, here is the list of my five ‘Rules of Thumb’ for polite and diplomatic language.

1. Listen and be understanding
If you show other people that you are listening to them, and that you understand them, they will be more willing to listen to you and accept your opinion. Don’t just say “I disagree”, show them that you are listening and that you understand them before you explain your opinion.
You can do this by using statements like:
Yes, but…
I see what you mean, but…
I agree up to a point, but…

For example:

I think we should wait until a better opportunity comes along.
Yes, but we might not get another opportunity like this for a while.

I think we should ask for a 20% discount because it will show them that we are serious.
I see what you mean, but I think 20% might be a bit too much. It might put them off.

2. Avoid negative words – instead use positive words in a negative form
People react to positive sounding words, even if they are used with a negative auxiliary verb.
Don’t say: I think that’s a bad idea.
Say: I don’t think that’s such a good idea.

Let’s go for a good cop, bad cop approach in this negotiation!
I don’t think that’s such a good idea. They might see through it.

3. Say the magic word: Sorry
This word can be used in many ways: to interrupt, to apologise, to show you don’t understand, to disagree. It defuses tension and it allows you to start a statement more comfortably.

Sorry, but can I just say something here?
Sorry, but I don’t really agree.
Sorry, but I think that’s out of the question.

4. Use little words to soften your statements
Break down negative sentences with some softeners.
Don’t say: I don’t like it.
Say: I don’t really like it, I’m afraid.
Don’t say: Can I say something?
Say: Can I just say something here?
Don’t say: I didn’t catch that.
Say: Sorry, I didn’t quite catch that.

5. Avoid ‘finger pointing’ statements with the word ‘you’
This is aggressive and too direct. Try to avoid saying ‘you’ and put the focus on ‘I’ or ‘we’.
Don’t say: You don’t understand me.
Say: Perhaps I’m not making myself clear.
Don’t say: You didn’t explain this point.
Say: I didn’t understand this point.
Don’t say: You need to give us a better price.
Say: We’re looking for a better price.

So, those are my five pieces of advice for being polite and diplomatic. If you are a learner of English, try to use them when you’re speaking. If you’re a teacher, consider ways you can help your students to communicate diplomatically, and let me know if there’s anything I’ve missed in my list.

To listen to Luke’s podcast for The London School of English on this subject click here.
To listen to an episode of Luke’s English Podcast on Essential Social English which deals with some similar points to this blog post, click here.

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Luke Thompson


  • These are all excellent examples, which I use with my students. There’s another option I give as well, that would fit in with your first recommendation – changing a response to a suggestion into a question, either positive or negative:

    Friday is a better day for the meeting
    Would Friday be a better day for the meeting?
    Wouldn’t Friday be a better day for the meeting?

    As you say, being indirect can keep the negotiating going.

  • To people who i don’t know, am very polite and more diplomatic to them, but i have found myself in me that to people who i know or say i meet day to day i am not diplomatic, am too stright and answer with a intension what am saying is what i feel and belive but unknowing i have made them anoyed them. i will try my best to use these 5 thumb rule more often and see if i can make any change in my personality.

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