How to Be Polite in English

“Politeness is the art of choosing among your thoughts.”

Have you ever ordered at a restaurant in a foreign country only to get an ugly look from the waiter?

Have you ever asked somebody to do you a favor, only then to have them refuse with an upset tone in their voice? Well, maybe your problem when speaking English comes down to a lack of politeness.

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The English language is full of these little formalities which can definitely determine whether you’re going to make a good first impression on someone or not. We have this unspoken etiquette when asking for information, or even when we’re offering something and we have to take into consideration how we are offering it.

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Using please and thank you is necessary in most situations. In a lot of situations, people expect a sort of indirect way of speaking to each other, which in my opinion is a little silly. But hey, when in Rome do as the Romans do (follow the cultural rules wherever you are).

Making Requests/Asking For Something

One of the first things I noticed when I came to brazil was the way people order things here. Not long after my arrival in Brazil I discovered the most amazing savory treat I had ever tasted… The COXINHA!!  So, very eager to test my Portuguese, I went down to the local snack bar to order one. Using my Portuguese dictionary, I said to the man,“Com licenca, eu poderia ter uma coxinha por favor?” Although he understood, he handed me the coxinha with a very peculiar look on his face. I realized this must have been a strange way to order something when I heard the guy next to me say, “Ei, me dá uma coxinha ai broder.”

When ordering in English, we have a standard of politeness. The most common way to order in English would be using:

Can I/Could I – Could I have a coxina please? Can I have a coke please?  Could I order please? Can you lend me ten dollars?

May I (used in more formal situations) – May I attend the meeting next week? May I join you for lunch?

Asking for Permission

A good tip when travelling to another country is to always ask if you’re unsure about the politeness of something. Sometimes what may be normal in your culture might be considered a little rude in someone else’s culture. A good example would be how if here in Brazil I love to listen to Baile Funk music on my cell phone when taking the bus (without earphones obviously). So, if I was to do that in Australia, I would ask permission of the people around me first by using:

Do you mind if I listen to my funk music really loudly / Would it be a problem if I listened to my funk music really loudly / I was wondering if I could listen to my funk music.

These three expressions can be used in any situation when asking for permission. When asking this way we also have to use a softer tone of voice. The reason we do this is because we want the person to know that if it’s going to irritate them, they have the option of saying no without feeling uncomfortable. Sounds crazy right? We’re so worried about offending the other person. That’s English for you.

Not Understanding

In English, when we don’t understand what someone says, the first reaction would be to say “sorry?” (in a soft tone of voice). Not “sorry” like “desculpa” but sorry like “oi?” This is the most common way, and it is considered to be polite. In Portuguese, you guys use a different method: “UHHHHH?” Now that I have been living here for a while, I know that you are not being rude when you say this, but from a foreign perspective, especially when you’re not familiar with the language, this can be kind of troubling. My first impression when someone said this to me was “Damn, I’ve just offended this person in some way” or “My Portuguese is so bad that he or she is getting angry.” So try avoiding this one in English.

Instead, always use:

Sorry? – It’s polite and they will repeat, maybe even simplify what they just said.

Pardon (me)?
– A more polite way of saying sorry. This is sometimes used in a a more formal situation.

Excuse me?
– This is asking the person to repeat. Depending on the tone of your voice, it could express shock at what the person said, or maybe that you didn’t like the context of what they said.

Turning Down an Invitation/ Disagreeing

Last but not least, the awkwardness of having to say no to people. When travelling, or spending time in an English speaking country, we are always going to come across these situations.

Ladies (Or guy for that matter), have you ever had to turn a guy down but didn’t want to offend him? Or maybe you have had to disagree with someone, but you didn’t want to be sound defensive. In English, we use these softening tools to make what we say not so so direct.

Turning Down an Invitation

  • I’m afraid I can’t…
  • I’d love to but…
  • That sounds great but…


  • I see what you’re saying, but I think…
  • You could be right, but don’t forget that…
  • Yes that’s true, but I’m not sure that…

“Hey dude, do you want to come to my sisters spelling bee?”  “Hey, I’d love to, but Josh is making spaghetti tonight.”

“Hey sexy! I would love to buy you a drink.” “Oh, I’m afraid I can’t, I have boyfriend.”

“Donkey Kong is the best game ever!” “I see what you’re saying, but I think Mortal Kombat is the best game ever.”

Sounding polite is obviously a personal choice everyone has to make on their own. There are some situations where we have to put our foot down, be demanding, and even rudeness could sometimes necessary from time to time.  So, my advice to you all would be to always try to use these polite expressions when in a foreign country, as you can never be too sure what is considered rude or polite in their culture.

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If you really want to communicate well in English, remember to check out this article. 

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  • Marcus says:

    Very good. I am learning English and this site has been very helpful. About listening to Funk in the bus, the brazilians could act the same way that australians 🙂 .

  • Alexandra says:

    I must admit It is a very useful and clear website for those who want to learn or improve their English. Thank you for contributing in that Chad. I like the quotation at the top by the way. 🙂

  • I need a polite words for my future as a homework….

  • Yuan Jen Lu says:

    I'll try to be more polite in the future.Good and useful article!

  • Elisa I. Cermeño says:

    Useful article…thank you so much!

  • Attractive article for students! I´ll take advantage of it- Thanks

  • […] this quote can be a nice touch. Even though it’s straight to the point [direct] it can make the uncomfortable situation of asking for your money more […]

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  • I think these examples are very helpful. I love teaching my students the intercultural differences between the German and the English language, because I believe you cannot learn a language properly without understanding how native speakers are.