Sometimes when I teach English here at Smith School of English in Ikoma, students ask if there is a special way to be polite in English, like there is in Japanese. I used to have trouble answering them. I started to mention ‘would’ or ‘could’ but they say those are not only for politeness. And they are right.
Is There a Polite Form in English?
Well, no, there is not a ‘form’ like there is in Japanese. We do not have a word that we use only for polite times or with a certain level of person. In fact, English society in North America is quite flat, with no huge differences in levels of people except in their standard of living. We do not have to speak certain ways to certain people most of the time.
But we do speak differently depending on the relationship, of course. Things like how well we know someone, if they are older or younger can (not always) change what language we use (depends on the speaker, too…). But that is for another article.
So How Are English Speakers Polite?
We get into politeness through indirectness, and adding structures. Instead of changing the words (which we do, of course), we add structures to the language. Let’s take requests. If you want to ask someone for something or to do something for you, you might need to soften it, depending on who that person is and how much you want the thing you are asking for. What are these softeners?
What are the Structures?
The first level up is to change into the ‘would’s and ‘could’s. That changes the level quite easily. And that will do for most situations. But sometimes, you want a little more in there to help carry your request. Then you can add the structure I call an explainer. You explain why you want the thing you are asking for, or why you need it. This softens things and helps bring out some empathy from the person you are asking.
Then there are a few times when you are already in a bad position. Suppose you recently made a mistake that offended or upset that person, and now you need to ask them for something. Start by making a small apology. Something like, ‘sorry to bother you…’ is just fine. This should soften most of the hard hearts out there and help you get what you are asking for if it is reasonable and doable by the person you ask.
This Doesn’t Sound Easy
Well, it isn’t easy. But then again, it is not hard. It isn’t easy because you don’t have fixed words that you can memorize. Just memorize and say them and you are ok. No, there are no words like that.
On the other hand, it is really easy. Just follow the structures and use your own words. It will be fine. And no-one can correct you, since it is not a black and white situation. If you follow the structures I suggest, you will be able to make very subtle changes in the politness level you are speaking at quite easily with a bit of practice. If you are teaching, then try this out next time you teach how to make requests. Be sure to discuss different kinds of relationships as well.