I'd rather you did!

We'd rather you express yourself politely at all times! Here are some questions to check you are fully capable of this, and nothing should catch you by surprise!

  1. You are trying to dissuade an English friend from doing something that you feel they may regret (e.g. sampling some of your own 'ethnic' food ~ out of a sense of goodwill, no doubt, but which you believe may upset them ~ or perhaps a well-meant social gesture that you realise will cause unintended offence among your own people).
    What form of words can you use that would clearly but politely prevent such embarrassment?
    Answers 1 & 2 are polite, but don't quite strike the necessary tone; a rhetorical question (Answer 3) is sensible but might be taken as sarcastic or provocative. Answer 4 catches the urgency clearly but without being rude.
  2. Your plans for the day would be a great deal easier to manage, and more flexible, if you could borrow a bicycle from an English friend instead of relying on public transport. If this is a good enough friend, they may be willing to let you borrow the machine (which is of some value to them) if they aren't using it anyway, and if they are happy about you being able to ride it safely on 'the other side of the road'. All these factors considered, how do you set about asking to borrow the bike?
    Answer 1 is seeing matters more from your own point of view than the friend's, which may be frank but isn't very tactful; Answer 2 is certainly making assumptions; Answer 4 is over-exaggerated.
    Answer 3 strikes it about right, and volunteers some safeguards to suggest you have given the idea responsible thought before mentioning it.
  3. A friendly English family has invited you to supper one Friday evening, but you are unable to accept this invitation since you have a serious prior commitment to a family occasion of your own (perhaps also with overtones of religious obligation). You need to decline their invitation without hurting their feelings; what do you say?
    Answer 1 suggests a reasonably specific alternative timeframe; none of the others does this at all, or not so clearly.
    Answer 2 starts well but then becomes rather dismissive (as though these friendly people would not make the effort to appreciate other commitments within your life).
    Answer 3 is very rude and offhanded, and as such would be unlikely to encourage the people to bother with inviting you again; and Answer 4 does not 'leave the door open' from your side to another future suggestion.
  4. While settling in for your stay in Britain, you need to make a couple of photocopies of a personal document in connection with some application you are making, e.g. to study part-time at a college. It would be very convenient if a trusted English friend could make these copies quietly for you one day during her work, instead of you needing to go specially all the way to a public copying machine at the Library or wherever. How might you best ask this favour of her?
    Answer 2 is the best example of effective English understatement ... particularly if you also offered to pay for the copies, or maybe bought her a small treat to thank her for bothering with it.
    Answer 1 seems rather 'high-handed' and old-fashioned in tone, so feels wrong coming from someone in these circumstances; Answer 3 is making persuasive assumptions. Answer 4 somehow seems unbalanced (however sincerely!) with your need for the copies sounding very urgent, but her option to help sounding very minor.
  5. Even English-speaking shopkeepers may be open to some discussion on the price of goods (what people abroad are often used to as 'haggling'). But some ways are more subtle than others for this. Which of these approaches would you judge to be subtle enough, but still with a chance of keeping a price down?
    Answer 1 leads into the possibility of further discussion without mentioning any specific figures (that's why Answer 2, however convenient, may not be the subtlest approach). Answers 3 and 4 are confrontational and even somewhat offensive ~ unlikely to move any discussion forward 'on the right footing' unless you are very sure of yourself.
  6. You are travelling by public transport with quite a lot of other unfamiliar people, one of whom is playing loud aggressive music at a volume level that's clearly selfish and disturbing other passengers. Traditionally many English people would be reluctant to 'make a fuss' in such circumstances, perhaps nowadays for fear of being attacked; but you believe it's appropriate to say something. What do you say?
    Answer 1 is polite, and the 'just a little' allows some space for further discussion; even a slight reduction in the noise would probably be welcome. Answer 2 places quite a lot of blame on the man (not unjustifiably perhaps, but they may choose to take it as hostile personal criticism); Answer 3 makes assumptions that he may well not choose to share; Answer 4 contains a potential threat which he might also respond to in an unhelpfully defensive way.
  7. You are invited, by well-meaning English friends, on an outing that you really do not fancy at all. How might you most tactfully respond to their offer?
    'I'd really rather ... '
    At least with Answer 4 you are postponing the decision (or you hope you are); the others are either blunt or rude or both, especially No.2. If the event is a 'one-off' (such as Bonfire Night) you still risk missing out on a 'slice of British culture'.
    Note the several uses of the word 'rather' in these examples!
  8. You have had poor service from someone in a small shop, such as a bicycle repair shop, and you need to make it politely clear that you are not happy with their work. What do you say?
    It may seem very odd to you that 'you' should apologise at the outset of the conversation, when the fault is with the other people; but that is 'the English way' ~ possibly rather like people in the Far East not wanting the other person to be embarrassed or 'lose face'.
    Answers 1, 3 & 4 may well be 'true' expressions of the situation and your feelings, but they're each rather too confrontational in their various ways. If you are polite, the other person is more likely to be relaxed (rather than defensive) and continue to try and find some scope for agreement to the satisfaction of both of you.
  9. Any good friend should be willing to spare a few moments to do an occasional errand for you. You are temporarily sharing a flat with a few other expatriates of various nationalities, and need to ask a small favour. Which of these is the most natural, and probably most effective way of seeking such help?
    Answer 1 is quite a good alternative, but No.2 sounds almost like an accusation, and as such is unlikely to encourage anyone else to help you. Answer 4 also sounds too vague, more as though you were 'talking to yourself'.
    Answer 3 is a classic case of English being politely indirect without really disguising what you want. The offer of providing the money (rather than paying back afterwards) is a practical, considerate and trusting idea.
  10. You are trying to make friendly suggestions to someone about how you could spend a section of the day. You have a couple of options potentially arranged, but you don't want it to seem that you are controlling their choice too tightly. How do you introduce your suggestions?
    Answer 4 is a bit too blatant about the park being your own choice; Answer 2 presents it as a question for your friend to answer. Answer 1 has rather a pre-planned, assumptive feel about it; Answer 3 seems to be forcing rather too many questions. The best thing is to keep it simple!

Author: Ian Miles

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