Three Simple Ways to Sound More Polite and Tactful in American English

Have you ever been told that you’re too direct, too demanding, or too aggressive when you’re speaking English, especially at work?

Just like kids, when we first learn a language, we focus on communicating clearly in the most straightforward way possible:

  • I’m hungry. I want some pizza.
  • Where is the train station?
  • I’m looking for the ATM.

This language is simple, precise, direct.

As your language skills continue to evolve, you’re able to add more nuance and subtlety to the way you speak.

Rather than simply stating our desires, we start thinking about how the request sounds to other people. For example:

  • Are you starving too? I’m thinking of getting some pizza.
  • Would you happen to know where the train station is?
  • Could you tell me where the nearest ATM is?

While there are certainly situations where you need to be direct and assertive, you also need to learn how to be more polite and tactful.

In this video, we’re going to talk about three simple ways to sound more polite in American English.


Why Polite Speech Matters

Have you found yourself in a situation where your friend asked for your opinion on their clothes, cooking, or writing, and you wanted to be honest about what you really think?

Or have you had to give disappointing news or updates to a client, customer, colleague, or coworker, but you didn’t want them to be upset about it?

Have you felt that it’s hard to be honest when giving this kind of negative feedback without sounding a little mean?

We’ve all been there – and it’s definitely important to be honest while still being considerate of the other person’s natural reaction to what you have to say.

Polite speech enables you to communicate your meaning clearly while softening demands, presenting opinions as suggestions, and inviting discussion.

As you’ll learn, we often soften our language by choosing different words, shifting stress or emphasis, and using intonation patterns that convey openness, diplomacy, and tact.

Remember, you’ll have to judge for yourself whether you should soften your language or whether it’s best to be more direct.

As you continue to interact in English, pay attention to how your message is received and any feedback you receive on your communication style.

Communication is cultural.

You may be used to sharing exactly what’s on your mind, or you may feel completely uncomfortable directly stating how you feel.

Communication in American English often falls between these two extremes.

We’re going to discuss three strategies for sounding more polite that are pretty simple.

The important thing is to learn how to use these strategies so you’re prepared.

You’ll learn how to shift stress to another word in order to sound more tactful.

You’ll also find out how subtly changing your language can preserve your meaning, while also encouraging your listener to stay open to what you have to say.

Let’s get started!


Sound More Polite Using Modal Verbs (Could, Would, Might)

First, let’s talk about sounding more polite while using modal verbs.

Modal verbs like “could,” “would,” and “might” add a mood or feeling to a verb, just like intonation.

When we add a modal verb to a sentence, we can turn a direct request or suggestion into a more polite one.

This strategy works because adding a modal verb creates a little more distance from your strong opinion so that the other person will be more receptive to what you have to say.

Let’s be real: some people simply don’t like being told what to do!

Even if adding a modal verb seems strange to you, native speakers understand this deeper meaning.

To sound more polite, you’re going to make the modal verb the focus word.

This means you’ll stress or emphasize the modal verb more than every other word, making it the longest, the loudest, and the highest in pitch.

When we stress one word more than the rest, it can actually change the meaning of the sentence.

In this case, stressing the modal emphasizes the feeling of possibility. This comes across as what matters most.

Let’s practice. First, let’s look at a more direct statement:

They must practice more often.

Using the word “must” makes this sound more like a command than a suggestion.

Let’s turn it into a more polite statement:

They COULD practice more often.

By stressing “could,” it feels more like an option than a requirement.

You’re offering a useful suggestion to help solve a problem. If they want to get better, practice is a great option.

Let’s try it a few times:

  • They COULD practice more often.
  • They COULD practice more often.
  • They COULD practice more often.

Here’s another example. This is more direct:

I don’t agree with that.

Depending on the context, such a clearly stated opinion can feel a little harsh.

Let’s make it more polite by adding a modal:

I WOULDn’t agree with that.

By stressing “wouldn’t,” which has a more conditional feeling, you suggest that there’s still room to negotiate and discuss further. Let’s try it:

  • I WOULDn’t agree with that.
  • I WOULDn’t agree with that.
  • I WOULDn’t agree with that.

Let’s try another one. Again, let’s look at the more direct version:

We need more time to decide.

This simply and plainly states your desire and can sound a little abrupt.

As always, it depends on the situation and the relationship you have. Here’s the more polite version:

We MIGHT need more time to decide.

Stressing “might” suggests that there’s the opportunity to work together and decide how much time you have to decide. Let’s try it a few more times:

  • We MIGHT need more time to decide.
  • We MIGHT need more time to decide.
  • We MIGHT need more time to decide.

Sound More Polite Using Negative Contractions with Positive Adjectives

Now let’s talk about using negative contractions with positive adjectives in order to sound more polite.

To soften critical feedback, choose a negative contraction followed by a positive adjective.

In other words, you’re ending with the positive.

When you end with the negative adjective, you highlight the negative feeling.

Changing the structure keeps the meaning, but softens the impact.

By stressing the negative contraction and adding the positive adjective, you help the listener stay open and receptive to what you have to say.

By stressing the contraction rather than the adjective, your meaning is still clear while suggesting what’s possible.

As I mentioned, you’re going to make the negative contraction the focus word.

That means it will be the longest, the loudest and the highest in pitch.

Let’s practice. First, let’s look at the more direct statement:

That’s a horrible idea.

This strong negative adjective leaves no room for discussion. Let’s make it a more polite statement:

That ISn’t a great idea.

Stressing “isn’t” makes your meaning clear, but the positive possibility is what remains in their mind.

Let’s try it a few more times:

  • That ISn’t a great idea.
  • That ISn’t a great idea.
  • That ISn’t a great idea.

Let’s try another one. First, here’s the more direct statement:

That looks ugly.

Such a direct, clearly stated opinion may shut down the conversation.

Let’s turn it into a more polite sentence:

That DOESn’t look attractive.

Even though this is still a hard thing to hear, ending with the positive adjective helps the listener stay open to how to improve.

Try it with me:

  • That DOESn’t look attractive.
  • That DOESn’t look attractive.
  • That DOESn’t look attractive.

Let’s try one more example:

This project will be unsuccessful.

Such a direct statement sounds like a proclamation that can’t be debated, so let’s make it more polite:

This project WON’T be successful.

Because we’re stressing “won’t,” the listener is left thinking of other options that might be more successful. It simply sounds more tactful.

Let’s repeat it a few more times:

  • This project WON’T be successful.
  • This project WON’T be successful.
  • This project WON’T be successful.

By changing your language and how you stress the sentence, you’re showing that you’re considering the other person’s feelings.

By slightly rephrasing the negative statements, you’re able to show more kindness and patience.


Sound More Polite Using Qualifiers

Let’s talk about one more strategy that can help you sound more polite. Let’s look at using qualifiers.

Qualifiers are words like “a little,” “a few,” and “a bit” that change a word by limiting or enhancing it.

When you start with a qualifier, it can make the words that come next sound a little less negative.

When you use qualifiers, the challenge or problem is still clear, but it sounds like the situation can be fixed without extreme effort.

This helps the listener stay open and receptive to what you have to say because the problem can be solved.

Please note, if you do have a serious problem, it’s best to be honest and direct about it rather than softening it with a qualifier.

If you minimize a problem that needs to be taken care of, other people may feel misled or they may not take necessary action.

Once again, you’re going to stress the qualifier. The qualifier will be the focus word, and the stressed syllable will be the longest, the loudest, and the highest in pitch.

Let’s practice. First, let’s look at a more direct sentence:

That looks way too tight on you.

Even if this is how you feel, such strong feedback can be hard to hear. Let’s turn it into a more polite statement:

That looks a BIT too tight on you.

Stressing “bit” makes the other person feel like they can take action to find a simple solution, such as choosing another size. Let’s try it:

  • That looks a BIT too tight on you.
  • That looks a BIT too tight on you.
  • That looks a BIT too tight on you.

Let’s try another one. Again, let’s look at the more direct statement first:

There’s going to be a delay.

Even if this is a fact, most people won’t react positively, so let’s change it:

There’s going to be a SLIGHT delay.

While it’s still unfortunate news for the people who are waiting, they’ll feel like it’s possible that it’ll be resolved soon. Let’s try it together:

  • There’s going to be a SLIGHT delay.
  • There’s going to be a SLIGHT delay.
  • There’s going to be a SLIGHT delay.

One more example. First, the more direct statement:

We have a problem.

Such a direct statement can cause the other person to worry or panic before they find out more.

Let’s try a more polite, softer version:

We have a MInor problem.

Stressing the qualifier suggests that this problem can be fixed and helps the other person stay open to hearing how. Let’s try it:

  • We have a MInor problem.
  • We have a MInor problem.
  • We have a MInor problem.

Here are some other qualifiers that you can use with this strategy:

  • a little
  • a bit
  • slight
  • slightly
  • short
  • minor
  • a few
  • some
  • one or two.

Sound More Polite, Tactful, and Diplomatic

As you can see, stressing the right word can help you soften your language and sound more polite, tactful, and diplomatic.

As I mentioned, these strategies are simple, but changing your communication style takes time and patience.

You’ll need to take extra time to think about how to rephrase your opinion, feeling, or suggestions in order to sound more tactful and diplomatic.

Remember to practice stressing a different focus word so that your meaning is clear.

This is a sample of what you’ll master inside the Intonation Clinic.

The Intonation Clinic will help you learn how to express the right emotions, attitude and meaning through your tone of voice.


Your Turn

Now it’s your turn!

Leave a comment and try using one of these strategies to create a more polite statement.

I’ll let you know how you did.

Need more practice with stressing or emphasizing the right words in your speech? Check out Sentence Stress in American English – you’ll learn how to emphasize content words to make sure your meaning is clear.

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