how to speak polite and diplomatic English

How to speak polite and diplomatic English

… and how learning polite and diplomatic English can improve your career!

by Kerin. Updated Feb 5th 2021

When you speak English at work, your first priority is probably that people can understand you. That’s a good priority to have! 

However, you might also want to sound smooth, confident, professional and kind. So you should definitely make this a priority too. In other words, to be all of these things, you can start by using polite, diplomatic and modern English.

When English can sound aggressive

Have a look at this sentence from a message I received from a student:

Can you explain why I only have access to 6 courses? I thought I was on the year plan.

You might be thinking…what’s wrong with it?! The grammar looks correct, the vocabulary is fine …. the meaning is clear… so what’s wrong with it? 🧐

Here’s the thing: it is correct and it is clear. But to a native speaker, it is also a bit rude! Since the writer has used a direct form, it comes across as being slightly aggressive.

Perhaps that was the writer’s intention! (See: How to be assertive in English). However, it is more likely that the writer has no idea that his question could be considered rude.

Read on to find out how to make it polite and diplomatic.

Why is using polite and diplomatic English important at work?

Using a polite and diplomatic style in English can make the difference between being successful or not.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that being successful in your professional life can have a lot to do with how others perceive you. And, when you can use this style of language with certain people, you can find that you achieve the result that you are aiming for.  

Otherwise, you may risk being rejected or even completely ignored by the person you are addressing.

Translating doesn’t always work: English has its own way of being polite

The wordsregistertone and expressions that you use in your own language to be polite and kind more often than not do not translate in the same way into English.

That is to say, the language strategies that we use to be polite and diplomatic in English are particular to English – so translating usually doesn’t work.  

Therefore, to help you get it right, we’re going to look at the grammar and the vocabulary that will upgrade your English to being polite, kind and diplomatic.

Let’s have a look! 

Read the two conversations and pay attention to the tone used in each one. 

Which conversation do you prefer, and why?

In the first conversation, the language is direct and clear. However, to a native speaker it may feel COLD and IMPOLITE.

The second conversation has words and phrases that make the language feel more POLITE and DIPLOMATIC: I was wondering if, Actually, That won’t be easy … (the words in bold do this). 


We are aware that the exact meaning may not be meaningful or clear to you,

if you are a non-native speaker. 

Yet this ‘softening’ of words is really important to English speakers. 


Now let’s look at HOW to do it in English: 

I said earlier that this phrase style of question came across as a bit rude:

Can you explain why I only have access to 6 courses? I thought I was on the year plan.

So how can we make this question ‘softer’? There are several things we can do in order to make our English more diplomatic, such as change the grammar we use, make indirect questions, use modals, use negatives, use the second conditional … and so on. For example:

Could I ask why I only have access to 6 courses?

I was wondering why I only have access to 6 courses?

I’d appreciate it if you could tell me why I only have access to 6 courses.

Let’s look more closely at the strategies you can use to make your English polite and diplomatic

Strategy 1: change the grammar you are using!

Advanced English Grammar: using the present simple can sometimes come across as rude, a bit too direct and bossy

By changing the tense, the meaning is still in the present, but the style becomes more diplomatic, softened, more friendly and less direct.

Here’s how to do it:

Present > past

When is deadline? > When did you say the deadline was?

Simple > continuous

I hope you can (join us for the meeting) > I was hoping you could (join us for the meeting)

Past + Continuous (progressive)

I think you can > I was thinking you could

I wonder if I can > I was wondering if I could

Use Indirect questions

I need to know … > Could you tell me …

Make a negative question so that it becomes a suggestion, not an order

It is better to… > Wouldn’t it be better to …

Use the passive to depersonalise the issue

He promised us …  > We were promised …

Use the 2nd conditional instead of the 1st

If you can …. I’ll be very grateful > If you could …. I’d be very grateful

Use modals

We can try > We could try …

We will need > We would need / We might need

Polite and diplomatic English

Strategy 2: Use these words and expressions

When information may not be true, or you are unsure if it is accurate you can use:

  • Apparently …
  • It seems that …
  • As far as I know …
  • It would appear that …

Reformulating something that you have said because it was too strong, direct or definitive:

  • Or rather,…
  • I mean, …

Giving bad news or a refusal

  • I’m sorry, but …
  • Unfortunately,…
  • I’m afraid .. (BrE)

Making things less serious

  • A small / a slight > There me be a slight delay
  • A bit / slightly > The price is slightly higher

Use ‘just’ and ‘sorry’

  • Can I ask you something? > Could I just ask you something?
  • I disagree > Sorry, but I don’t really agree

Replace negative sounding adjectives with ‘NOT’ + ‘Opposite Adjective’

  • That’s terrible > That’s not great
  • I think that’s a bad idea > I don’t think that’s a such good idea

Replace: You said with I understood

  • You said you’d give us a 4% discount > I understood we could have a 4% discount

Don’t finger point

  • You don’t understand me > Perhaps I’m not making myself clear.
  • You didn’t explain that properly > Sorry, I’m not following

Use vague language

  • Have you read my email yet? > Did you have a chance to read that email?

Refine your English and learn polite and diplomatic English

Do you want to know which register to use at work?

Do you always want to be sure that your tone is appropriate when you speak in English?

Do you want to be confident using the correct words and expressions when you write emails?

Polite English

Kerin Goodall Founder English Digital Academy

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8 thoughts on “How to speak polite and diplomatic English”

  1. I personally prefer polite language because it is less aggressive and I personally feel more comfortable.
    Mutual respect is always a good thing when meeting somebody.

  2. It was very good, from now on I will use these strategies.
    There is a big difference between the polite language from the direct language. polite language makes you comfortable while speaking.

      1. I wonder if I can be helped about this by you , I am writing my university thesis at the English Philology Department, on the topic “Selected Aspects of English Diplomacy” and I badly need some background and enough reading before writing this, do you think you could provide me with some hints and the literature on this ? I would appreciate any.

        jurekciechanski@gmail.com

        1. So sorry, I missed out one word in the tittle of my thesis, it should be “Selected Linguistic Aspects of English Diplomacy”.

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