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English For The Office: Polite Expressions, Tips & Examples

To be successful in business, it is important to sound polite, helpful and professional with your colleagues and clients at the office. Brits and Americans use specific language and etiquette to achieve this. In this guide, we will show you how to make the right impression so that your English sounds polite at work. Let’s jump in!

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1. Use polite English phrases

When speaking with office colleagues in English, it is important to remember that Brits and Americans often use words like please, thank you, excuse me and sorry. In many languages, words like these are not as important, but in English, they are!

Here are some examples:

  • Good morning, John, how are you today?
  • Please, can I have a glass of water?
  • I’m sorry, but I’ve forgotten my mobile phone. Please, could I use yours to make a quick call?
  • When walking past a colleague (who is very close) say ‘excuse me’ or ‘sorry’.
  • Here’s that report that you asked for…many thanks, Alex.

Body language is also important so remember to smile and make eye contact!

2. Interrupt others politely

It is best to wait until somebody has finished speaking before you start to speak. But sometimes that just isn’t possible or helpful, and you need to interrupt in a polite way.

Interrupting someone at the office can be uncomfortable in any language, and most people don’t like being interrupted, so you should do this as politely as possible.

It may help you to make a small hand signal (e.g. a slightly raised hand) before trying one of the following phrases to give you the chance to speak:

  • Sorry, could I just make a quick point?
  • Excuse me, could I just mention that…?
  • Do you mind if I interrupt? I have a useful point to make here.
  • I’d just like to add that…
  • Sorry, but could I jump in here?

Remember to say thank you and smile after you have made your point.

3. Use modal verbs to soften your speech

Learning to use modal verbs can be difficult, but they do soften your speech and make you sound more polite. Modal verbs are used all the time in speech and usually stop you from sounding rude or aggressive. Consider using the ‘would/should/can/may/could’ group of words in your speech more at work.

Have a look at the following examples, which you will notice are also used above (point 2.):

  • Would you mind opening the window, please? It’s rather hot in here.
    Don’t say: Open the window. It’s hot in here.
  • Could I possibly have tomorrow afternoon off?
    Don’t say: Give me tomorrow afternoon off.
  • May I have the stapler, please?
    Don’t say: Give me the stapler.
  • Can you come over for a minute, please?
    Don’t say: Come over here.
  • This is an interesting article. You should have a look at it.
    Don’t say: This is an interesting article. Read it.

Note the use of ‘would you mind’ and ‘could I possibly’. Once again, these are ways to soften your speech and make it more polite. Again, saying ‘please’ and smiling remains important.

4. Include the continuous ‘ing’ form

Using the ‘ing’ form with verbs such as hoping, thinking and wondering is a way to make your speech polite. With wondering, it’s good to use the past continuous tense.

Take a look at the following examples:

  • I was wondering if I could do this training course next Tuesday.
    Don’t’ say: I want to do this training course.
  • I’m thinking of taking a couple of days off next week. Would that be ok with you?
    Don’t say: I want a couple of days off. Will you give them to me?
  • I’m hoping that XYZ Company are going to make a big order with us next week.
    Don’t say: I hope that XYZ will make a big order with us next week.

Once again you can see that there are modal verbs used in these examples.

5. Try using some casual language

Using more casual words and expressions softens speech in English and native speakers use it all the time, even at the office. The following words all have the effect of making a sentence sound more casual, friendly or ‘everyday’ – just, a bit, pop in, kind of, quite, around and -ish.

Have a look at the following examples:

  • Could I just make a quick point, please?
    Don’t say: I want to make a point.
  • Would you be able to call me back at 2-ish?
    Don’t say: Call me at 2pm.Putting -ish at the end of a number, time, or adjective means ‘about or approximately’ (tallish, blueish, fortyish, 4-ish).
  • It’s kind of chilly in here. Would you mind if I closed the window?
    Don’t say: It’s chilly in here… (then close the window without asking)
  • Could you pop over after lunch, please?
    Don’t say: Please, come here.To pop in, or pop over is a phrasal verb that means ‘to come or go somewhere with the feeling that it’s a short/easy journey or no problem’. 
  • I don’t quite understand what this paragraph in the instructions means.
    Don’t say: I don’t understand what this paragraph means.
  • I thought that customer was a bit rude, didn’t you?
    Don’t say: I thought that customer was rude, didn’t you?

6. Avoid using cannot or can’t (if possible)

Cannot or can’t are perfectly correct in grammar, but they can sometimes give a negative impression and may appear too direct, or even rude. Fortunately, there are some good alternatives below that you can use:

  • I struggle to do complicated tables in Excel. Could you help me, please?
    Don’t say: I can’t do complicated tables in Excel. Help me.
  • I’m not able to get to the meeting on time tomorrow. Will it be ok if I’m a few minutes late?
    Don’t say: I can’t get to the meeting on time tomorrow. Is it OK if I’m late?Note the use of a few in this example. This is another kind of casual or vague phrase (see point 5.).
  • I’m finding it difficult to complete my report by the due date.
    Don’t say: I can’t complete my report on time.Note again the use of the ‘ing’ form in the example, which softens the speech (see point 4.).

We can see here that struggling to, not able to and finding it difficult to are all excellent alternatives to can’t when trying to make your speech a little more polite and less direct.

7. Saying thank you and being thanked

Saying thank you and knowing how to react when being thanked is very important in English. There are a number of ways of doing this to make your English sound both polite and ‘native’.

Firstly, we’ll deal with saying thank you. Thank you and thank you very much are both perfectly acceptable, but here are some good alternatives:

  • Many thanks.
  • Thank you so much.
  • I’m really grateful, thank you.
  • I couldn’t have done it without you, thank you.
  • You’re a life-saver, thank you! (informal)

Secondly, we’ll deal with being thanked. Sometimes it’s difficult to know what to say when somebody thanks you for doing something. Saying nothing would be impolite! Here are some alternatives for responding politely:

  • It’s a pleasure / My pleasure.
  • You’re welcome.
  • Don’t mention it.
  • No problem at all.

Again, remember to make eye contact and smile so that your response appears sincere.

8. Add short explanations

Short and simple statements with no explanations can sometimes sound aggressive and impolite in English. Therefore, it’s a good idea to add explanations to provide context and some softness. Using because or as are easy ways to do this. You can put the explanations either at the start or at end of the sentence.

Have a look at the following examples:

  • I’m not able to make it into work today because I have a heavy cold.
    As I have a heavy cold today, I’m not able to make it into work.
    Don’t say: I can’t make it into work today. 
  • I’m wondering if you could pay £50 of my wages in advance this week because I have had an unexpected repair bill for my laptop.
    As my laptop has broken, I’m wondering if you could please advance me £50 of wages so that I can get it repaired.
    Don’t say: I need a £50 advance from my wages.

9. How to disagree

This is a very important because being in disagreement with somebody can often sound aggressive. Avoid using direct language like: You are wrong or That is incorrect. You can correct someone or disagree politely by using the following phrases:

  • I see what you mean, but I think that…
  • I understand where you’re coming from, but I think…
  • I partly agree, but I think…

These polite expressions are much less aggressive and you can see that each one acknowledges the viewpoint of the other person.

If the situation is very tense or formal and you need a stronger message, then one of these phrases might be appropriate:

  • I’m afraid that I don’t agree with you on that last point.
  • I’m sorry, but I’m not sure your statistics are entirely correct here.

Note that it is probably better NOT to smile when disagreeing with someone. This can appear rude. Try not to look angry, instead remain neutral in your body language. As we say, “calm and collected”.

10. Showing that you agree

A lot easier than disagreement! This time, it is good to smile a little to show you are on the same side. Let’s look at several ways of showing that you agree with someone:

  • I agree.
  • I think you’re right / correct.
  • That’s spot on! (informal)
  • Exactly, yeah.
  • Absolutely!
  • Agreed!
  • I’m in complete agreement with you. (formal)

11. Saying you don’t understand

There are two situations when you might need people to clarify or repeat themselves. These are as follows:

a) When you have heard the words but you don’t understand what somebody means.
b) When you can’t understand the words and you need somebody to repeat what has been said.

Let’s look at the first situation where you don’t understand the words. You can use phrases like:

  • I don’t quite understand. Could you explain that, please?
  • I’m not sure that I follow you. Could you explain again, please?

Don’t say: I don’t understand. What do you mean?

Next, let’s look at the situation where you haven’t heard the words properly and you need the person to say it again. It’s good to use phrases like:

  • Sorry, I didn’t quite catch that. Could you say it a little more slowly, please?
  • I didn’t hear that properly. Could you repeat it for me, and possibly a little slower this time?

Don’t say: Pardon? What? What did you say?

12. How to say no (politely!)

Sometimes you have to say ‘no’ to somebody. Two situations where this might happen are as follows:

a) When somebody asks you to do something and you can’t or don’t want to do it.
b) When you are given the chance to do something (such as going out for drinks), but you don’t want to.

Let’s look at a) first where you have to say that you are not able to help somebody. You could use phrases like:

  • I’m really sorry, but I don’t know how to do that.
  • I’m afraid that I’m really busy with this report at the moment.
  • Could you show me how to do that as I’m not confident I could do it first time.

Don’t say: I can’t do that or That is not possible.

Now let’s look at situation b) where you don’t want to accept an invitation to do something. Try using phrases like:

  • I’m really sorry but I’m tied up tonight.
  • Sorry, but I just don’t fancy doing that this weekend.
  • Can I take a rain check on that? I’d really like to join you next time.

Don’t say: I don’t want to or That doesn’t interest me.

Want to improve your professional English for work? You’re in the right place! Our experienced UK coaches offer bespoke 1-to-1 training via Skype/Zoom to build your confidence and fluency fast. Contact us today for your free consultation and see how we can help you reach your goals.

Test your knowledge: English for the office

Choose the correct answers from the options below:
  1. Which one of these phrases could be viewed as impolite?
    a. I’m really sorry but…
    b. How are you?        
    c. I want that.      
    d. I’d like that one, please.
  2. Which would be the best way to interrupt somebody?
    a. Could I make a point, please?
    b. Stop talking!
    c. I want to speak.
    d. It’s my turn to speak.
  3. Which one of these does NOT use a modal verb to soften speech?
    a. Could I have a coffee?
    b. I want a coffee.
    c. I’d like a coffee?
    d. A coffee would be lovely.
  4. Which of these is not the correct use of the ‘ing’ form?
    a. I was wondering if you could help?
    b. I was hoping that you might help me.
    c. I was thinking of asking for Sarah’s help.
    d. I have been knowing about Excel for over a year.
  5. Which one of these does NOT use vague language to soften speech?
    a. Please, let me have the report at 2’ish.
    b. Please, let me have this at about 2pm.
    c. Please, let me have this at 2pm.
    d. Please, let me have this around 2.
  6. Which of these explanations is NOT correct?
    a. I’m late down to the bus being cancelled.
    b. I’m late because the bus was cancelled.
    c. I’m late due to the bus being cancelled.
    d. I’m late down for the bus being cancelled.
  7. Which is the best way of disagreeing?
    a. I’m really sorry, but I don’t agree.
    b. You are not correct.
    c. You are mistaken.
    d. You are in the wrong.
  8. Which of these is NOT a way of saying that you agree?
    a. Generally!
    b. Exactly!
    c. Spot on!
    d. Absolutely!
  9. Which of these is NOT a polite way of saying that you don’t understand?
    a. I didn’t quite catch that.
    b. Could you just repeat that, please?
    c. What?
    d. I’m not sure that I follow you.
  10. Which of these is the politest way to turn down a request?
    a. No way!
    b. Could I take a rain check, please?
    c. I can’t.
    d. No, I think not.
     
Answers:

1) c
2) a
3) b
4) d
5) c
6) d
7) a
8) a
9) c
10) b

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Download: This blog post is available as a convenient and portable PDF that you can take anywhere. Click here to get a copy. (Download)

Kevin S.
— Financial English Tutor.
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