Polite Terminology

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Steve and Jill talk about some very common words and phrases that are used when trying to be polite.

Steve: Hi Jill.

Jill: Hi Steve.

Steve: How are you today?

Jill: I’m great thanks, how are you?

Steve: I’m fine, thanks.

You know what I would like to talk about today?

Do you know what I would like to talk about today?

Jill: Well, I’m sure you’re going to tell me.

Steve: Yes, but you should express some interest like gee, please tell me!

Jill: Oh, are you giving me some sort of hint here?

Steve: Yeah, you know.

Jill: What we’re going to talk about?

Steve: Well, that’s right.

You know, I was thinking about politeness and, you know, different languages have different levels of politeness.

In Japanese, for example, or Korean there are great differences in terms of the words you use, depending on whether you’re with your friend or you’re with someone that’s older than you or someone that you’re supposed to show respect to and all this kind of stuff; we don’t do that so much in English.

But, but, if you go into a store Jill, first of all, before you even get to the store you have to find your way to the store.

So, let’s imagine you’re in the mall and you’re in a hurry and you’re looking for this place where you saw that there was a very nice jacket on sale, just the kind of thing that Chris likes.

They’re closing in five minutes; you’ve got to get there because your boss wouldn’t let you off work early and so, first of all, you ask someone in the mall for Snazzy Dan’s Clothing Store, so how do you ask?

Jill: I would just say, “Excuse me”, probably first.

“Excuse me, could you please tell me where Snazzy Dan’s store is?”

Steve: So it’s, first of all, excuse me.

You wouldn’t say “hello”, necessarily.

In some countries, in some languages, you would begin by saying “hello” or “good afternoon” or “good morning”.

Jill: Yeah and I mean I might do that too, say “Hello there, could you please tell me” or “Would you mind telling me where I could find this store.” But I think, in general, I personally would say excuse me.

Steve: I think most people would say excuse me.

It’s not a bad thing to say “Hello there”, actually; that’s kind of a nice thing to say, but we tend not to do that we say excuse me.

Then you said “Could you please tell me” and the other one that you used was?

Jill: “Could you please tell me….”

Steve: “Would you mind”, you said.

Jill: “Would you mind”, yes.

Steve: Right.

It’s interesting that when we try to be more polite, words like “would” and “could” seem to appear more often.

Jill: Because you could say “Can you please tell me”.

You know, that’s still correct; that still makes sense, but I think, more often than not, I would probably use “would”.

Steve: I think there’s something about “would” and “could” that is a little more indirect than “can”.

Would implies, you know, “Would you be kind enough”, you know, “Are you willing to”, whereas “can you”, I might say if I were in a mean mood.

“Yes I can, but I won’t.”

Jill: “But I’m not going to.”

Steve: “But I’m not going to”, so really “can you” is not the right thing to say.

“Would you please?”; “Could you please?”

Jill: But people do say it.

People do say can, I hear people say that all the time, but I think for sure, if you’re trying to be polite the politer thing to say is “would” or “could”.

Steve: And there’s nothing wrong with being polite.

I think in our society now everybody, you know, wants to be so efficient and so politeness is out the door.

The other evening I was at a restaurant, maybe a few weeks ago, with my wife and the waitress came up and, you know, it’s a fairly expensive restaurant, not very, but not McDonald’s and the waitress said “What do you guys want?” “What can I serve you guys?” “What can I serve you guys?” That’s pretty bad.

Jill: You would expect I think in sort of more casual restaurants where the waiters and waitresses are fairly young, you do hear that sort of thing more often.

But in a little more formal setting or a more expensive restaurant you don’t expect to hear that I don’t think.

Steve: Yeah and it doesn’t really matter if the waitress or waiter is young, it matters that she doesn’t know who we are.

We are a little bit older, we’re not her age group and so she really should begin by saying “Good evening”, not “Hi there you guys”, but “Good evening, what would you like to have?” Again, “would”, “What would you like to have?”

Jill: Some of them will say “What can I get for you?”

Steve: Right.

“What can I get for you?” “Would you like to start with a drink?” “Would you like …?”, so the “would” and the “could”.

“Could I get you something?” Yeah, so the “could”.

It’s the same when your looking for the store.

“Could you please tell me”, “Would you please tell me”, “Would you do me the favor”, that’s a little bit strong, but sometimes we might if we’re asking for some exceptional assistance.

We might say, I’m new to this town, would you please tell me, you know, how I find the bus station?

Would you please tell me?

Jill: Yeah, I don’t think you can really go wrong by being polite.

I mean, I think that Canadians in general are fairly polite, but I do run across people… I worked in the service industry for years too and there are often people who are middle aged and older people who are not necessarily what I consider polite as well.

Steve: Oh yeah and the young people are very polite. I don’t want to…I’m not an ageist here.

Jill: But it does bother me.

Even if I’m in a lineup somewhere and the person in front of me doesn’t say please or doesn’t say thank you or just doesn’t show common courtesy to the person who’s helping them, that bothers me because I don’t understand why you wouldn’t do that.

Steve: No. We’ve got to get back to the clothing store because it closes in five minutes and I’m the salesman and you come in and so I say “What can I do for you?”

Jill: I actually did this very thing last week.

I didn’t realize it was about five or ten minutes before the store was closing, so I noticed once I was in there and I said “Oh, I’m sorry, I’ll be very quick.”

Steve: Okay, well that’s nice.

Jill: I was apologetic because I realized that they were closing and I did not want to keep them past their closing time.

Steve: Okay, so let’s say I say “Yes, what can I do for you?” And I say this while looking at my watch.

Jill: You mean if you’re the one that works there?

Steve: I am the man that works there. You’ve come to buy; it’s three minutes before closing.

I see you coming in just as I’m about to, you know, go and grab my bag and go home.

I see this lady coming in and I say “Yes”, I’m looking at my watch and I say “Yes, what can I do for you?” That’s not very polite.

Jill: No.

Steve: “Yes, can I help you?” would be the right thing. “Yes, can I help you?”

Jill: Exactly.

Steve: And you’d say?

Jill: I’d say either “No thank you. I’m fine; I’m just looking” or “Yes, you can.

I’m looking for a pair of black pants.”

Steve: “Is there any particular style that you’re looking for?”

Jill: “Preferably something with a wide leg.”

Steve: “Okay. Well, I’m here to help you if you need help, but remember we’re closing in two minutes.”

Jill: Yeah.

Steve: Okay. Yeah, I mean, what other situations are there?

When you call someone on the telephone, so you’re calling me now and you’re looking for Betsy.

Jill: You would answer.

Steve: I would say “Hello, Steve speaking.”

Jill: I might just say “Hi” or “Hello” or “Hi Steve.”

Steve: Well you don’t know me though.

Jill: I don’t know you, so I would probably say “Hi, is Betsy there please?” or “May I speak with Betsy?”

Steve: Yeah, that’s nicer, “May I speak with Betsy?” But “Is Betsy there please” is fine.

I know if you’re in a foreign language sometimes if you’ve got a simple formula on the phone that’s what you’re going to use.

Jill: Right.

Steve: You’re not going to go overly polite. The phone is more enervating than face-to-face.

I might say “May I tell her who’s calling?” “May I tell her who’s calling?”

Jill: Then I might say “Yes, it’s Jill.”

Steve: “She’s busy right now. Can she call you back?” or “Can I take a message?”

Jill: And then I might say “Yes, could you please tell her to phone Jill.

My number is blah, blah, blah.”

Steve: Okay. Yeah, I mean, I think in English there’s no excessive politeness.

As we said, the words “would” and “could” are used a lot.

Some people might even say “might”, “Might I please”, but not very often; “would” and “could”.

Maybe we might finish off here.

I know we did this a long, long, time ago.

What is the difference between “would” and “could”, in your opinion, because they tend to be used often interchangeably?

Jill: “Would” is basically saying will you tell me and “could” is saying can you, are you able to, so maybe you don’t actually know.

Maybe you can’t help me because you’re not able to.

You don’t know the answer.

Steve: Right.

Jill: But they are used very interchangeably.

Steve: The net result in usage is that they are used interchangeably, but you’re absolutely right.

It’s easy to remember the “w”, “would” from “will” and “could” from “can”.

They are both somewhat indirect and, therefore, softer and, therefore, politer ways of saying those things.

They are also used in other ways like would is often used in sort of a continuous past situation like “When I was a kid I would always go to the park and play football” – I would always.

Jill: Yeah. I mean that means something different than “I could always go to the park and play football.”

Steve: Right. If I said “I could always go to the park”,

Jill: …it means you were physically able to, but not necessarily that you can.

Steve: Well, that’s right. The park was close to my house, so I could always go there in the evening after dinner and play.

Jill: Right, but you didn’t necessarily.

Steve: I didn’t necessarily.

Jill: But if you use “would”, you are saying that you did do that.

Steve: Exactly, so I think that would and could are quite confusing to people because in those kinds of applications it’s not a matter of being polite or being indirect, it’s a matter of a sort of a past tense of, you know, well in the one case “I would”, is what I used to do.

Jill: Exactly, that you did repeatedly in the past.

They are very, very, useful words to know, both of them.

Steve: Very useful. What confuses it more is “might” and “ought to” and “should”.

Now should implies an obligation.

Jill: “Should I do this?” “Ought to”, I would say I never use.

Steve: Right, but again, it’s an obligation. It’s like must. I ought to.

I really should.

I really should floss my teeth every evening.

So there is an obligation, whereas “might”, “I might”, is maybe.

“I might.”

Jill: “I might not.”

Steve: “I might not.” I think all of those are given the general term of modals.

I think one just has to get used to them.

There are some rules, as we said if you’re being polite you want to use “would” or “could”.

“Could you please tell me…?” “Would you mind telling me…?” “Would you mind passing me…?” “Would you please pass the butter at the table…?” “Could I ask you to pass the butter?” This kind of thing.

Jill: Right.

Steve: And, of course, it does have in the case of “would”, something that I used to do.

“I would always have dinner with my family when I was little.” “Could”, you know, as we say, “I could have gone to this school, but I decided not to.”

There again, we do recommend at LingQ that you save words that you know, just in order to see the different examples of how they’re used and don’t be afraid in LingQ to go in and edit the phrase that is captured in the LingQ box, so that you get some really good phrases and then you can work on those phrases.

Okay, I think that’s enough.

We’ve sort of covered that a little bit, anything else Jill?

Jill: No, I think that’s it.

There is a nothing new on the forum to discuss, so we’ll be back on Friday.

Steve: The forum looks a little different today.

Something has changed in the forum, I’m not sure what.

The font looks different on my screen.

I know Mike is working on getting the forum improved and we really appreciate the people who come on the forum and make comments, whether it be about content or about how LingQ is working or things they would like to see, we’re very, very, appreciative of anyone who goes to the forum and comments.

We welcome you there. Okay Jill.

Jill: Alright.

Steve: Thank you.

Jill: Talk to you soon.

Steve: Bye, bye.

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