Playing NiceBeing Polite is a strategy that is commonly used by English speakers. It is especially appropriate when one is making a request, talking on the telephone or engaging in a pleasant conversation with someone.

Even though much has been written about the subject, disagreement remains as to just what constitutes politeness. While there are cultural distinctions world-wide between what is and is not polite, within the English-speaking culture itself there are differences of opinion as to what makes something polite.

Expressions of gratitude are often included when we speak of politeness but friendliness is generally not. Friendliness can be expressed by being informal and disregarding certain social conventions. Showing courtesy to others or being polite, on the other hand, often includes behavior that conforms to particular cultural rules. In English-speaking societies courteous behavior may include non-verbal expressions, such as not standing too close to another person, not staring, opening a door for someone or yielding in traffic. Another way to be courteous is to speak politely. Since polite language use is an expression of polite behavior, behavioral and linguistic elements of politeness are sometimes interchangeable. While we will try to distinguish polite language use from polite behavior, it is not always possible.

We often speak politely when we are making a request. This doesn't mean that we are being manipulative (although some would disagree with this point), but rather that we recognize that the person to whom we direct our request has 'face' to maintain and we are trying to avoid any menacing gestures towards that 'face'. By 'face' we mean a public persona that we all show to others. Even though this 'face' is shown publicly, it represents the image that a person has of himself or herself. In this regard it is private and we need to show respect for it. When requesting something from someone we do not want to threaten the other person's self-image in any way.

Relative power plays an important role in establishing what is polite. If being polite includes expressing deference, then one having lesser power will defer to one with a greater degree of power or a higher social position. The manner in which one displays politeness to someone with greater or lesser authority depends on the relationship that exists. This is not to say that those holding more power are impolite to subordinates. Maintaining cordial social relationships applies to all individuals. While it is incumbent on the one holding less power to be deferential to the one with a higher social status, even the powerful don't want to be considered rude. Displaying respect for others, whoever they are, is a social convention to which one adheres when the goal is politeness.

Establishing and maintaining distance between the parties is a crucial element of being polite. Distance softens the tone of the request and allows the requestee room to decline the request without 'losing face'. Just as literally 'keeping one's distance' while standing near someone in line for example, is less intrusive physically, so establishing distance linguistically is less imposing when speaking. One way to create distance when speaking is to be indirect.

Making a request indirectly is a strategy that recognizes the potential obligation that is being imposed on the subject of our request. Rather than asking directly, "What time is it?" we can voice the same request indirectly. "Do you know what time it is?" or "Could you tell me what time it is?" This distances the parties, softens the tone and eliminates any brusqueness that might be communicated by the direct question. As most English language learners know, even the form of the question changes. "Where is the post office?" becomes "Do you know where the post office is?" The indirect form of the question is especially common when requesting anything in English.

The answer to the literal question being asked is in itself indirect. The response "Yes, I know what time it is." or "Yes, I could tell you what time it is." answers the literal question being asked but the real question is different. It is understood by both parties what the actual question is and it's the indirectness of the exchange that preserves the politeness. The subject of the request can offer (or decline to offer) the time without actually being asked. This common linguistic strategy recognizes the distance that must be kept between two individuals and while the request is granted, it is done so without any direct threat to anyone's 'face'.

Using 'would' or 'could' instead of 'will' or 'can' is a common technique we use when being indirect. While 'would' and 'could' are often associated with the past tense of 'will' and 'can', when making a request they are applied to the future time and this creates a hypothetic or unreal situation. "Would you help me this afternoon?" invokes a future possibility (rather than a certainty) and is easier to decline than, "Will you help me this afternoon?" In the same way, the tone of "Could you help me this afternoon?" is much less intrusive and imposing than "Can you help me this afternoon?" Replying, "No, I couldn't." is less confrontational than "No, I can't."

Politeness is especially important when speaking on the telephone. The physical distance inherent in a telephone conversation is overcome by the intimacy that is created by technology. A complete telephone conversation can only be heard by the actual participants. Even in a crowded room, a telephone conversation is private and personal. Regardless of the purpose for the telephone call, it is important to be polite and maintain distance. Ironically, the physical distance which has been overcome technologically in a phone conversation is re-established linguistically by being indirect. On the telephone, we do not want to be 'in someone's face'.

It is also useful to remember that one way to soften any request is to use what are known as "polite inserts". These 'magic words' (as many of us were taught) include please and it can be placed virtually anywhere in a request. The only purpose of these inserts is to be polite. They have no real meaning independent of expressing politeness. Depending on the context, "Can you help me?" may be considered gruff but "Can you help me, please?" is magically transformed. Saying "Thank you." to any gesture acknowledges the act and politely expresses your appreciation and gratitude.



Last Updated: October 24, 2016