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Speak for success - English for work

Updated: Dec 6, 2021

( play on words of a famous phrase "Dress for success")

Whilst I cannot speak for the more direct American counterparts, I can certainly comment that the English are particularly obsessed when it comes to politeness and in business this plays an even important role as communication is the foundation of relationships, which in turn can either make or break your career.

Those who come from more direct cultures (a lot of them are so compared to the English one) may be surprised to learn they are seen as rude and unprofessional and I'm sure do their best to achieve just the opposite, so let me help you turn your work image around simply by transforming your language.

Most of you will know that formal language requires use of a more formal vocabulary but it's not enough and there are a number of ways to speak for success.

Below are some of the ways you can achieve successful business communication:

1. Use of modals

A seemingly aggressive question can be easily transformed into a polite request by using modals such as : would, could (slightly less polite "can"), might and may. Using "please" is better than nothing but use of modals will soften your questions and requests will ensure you don't come across as aggressive.

Not too polite

More polite

Print this, please.

Would you print this, please?

Send me those documents asap, please.

Could you send me those documents by the end of the day?

Whilst using please somewhat softens your request, the rude version is still a no-go. The more polite version can be used with colleagues you have a good relationship with and for everyone else you want to be extra polite. Remember that with politeness it's better to overdo it.

When knowing your grammar means career improvement, hopefully this means you will make the effort to learn and apply it appropriately.

2. Indirect questions

Yet another piece of grammar which pays to learn for successfully communicating professionally in a business environment and takes your politeness to the next level – very useful for talking to your bosses and showing them respect with your language – it will likely take your career to the next level too, provided you 're actually good at your job, of course. .

Why would we actually want to be indirect, doesn't that just complicate and hinder communication and increase misunderstanding? Because it softens otherwise aggressive sounding requests and questions and if you sound polite, people are more likely to be helpful which in turn will aid the success of your career. As they say, it's not about what you know but who you know.


You might be asking if saying "please" will suffice. It will certainly not, as lack of "please" will make you sound horrendously rude. However, sticking it at the end of any request and expecting that you sound polite is a mistake and even a faux-pas in the cultural landscape of work.

​Not too polite

Slightly more polite

Very polite

Help me , please!*

Could you help me?

I'd be really grateful if you could help me with this.

Let's discuss tomorrow's meeting.

Could we discuss tomorrow's meeting?

I was wondering if it would be possible to discuss tomorrow's meeting?

Can we finish this by Friday?

I'd like to get this finished by Friday

I was hoping that we could finish this by Friday, if that's ok?

Arrange that phone call, please

I wanted to arrange that phone call.

Would it be ok to talk about arranging that phone call?

Here’s how you can do this: Change the present tense to the past tense or a progressive (-ing) tense. Your meaning is still in the present, but you change the verb to add softness, to be less direct.

* Use inactive words, that express your feelings and thoughts: hope, feel, think, want ( would like is better), wonder etc.

3. Provide explanations

Providing details of why you need documents sent by the end of the day or why you need to take the phone call instead of continuing the meeting will make a world of difference to whether you sound rude and disrespectful versus someone who values others opinion and time.

So rather than saying : I really need this by the end of day, give an explanation – I really need this by the end of the day to give myself time to review before the project goes out to the client by the promised deadline.

Not only will sharing details of why will make you sound more respectful towards the person you're making the request to, but will also ensure commitment as they will feel they are working hard towards contributing to a big and/or important cause and not just because you told them to do so.

4. Precision sounds demanding and rude; vagueness softens requests and feedback

As you probably have gathered by now, being direct is actually rude so further to indirect questions, using a vague language will soften your requests as well as critical feedback. This includes expressions such as: a bit, around, kind/sort of, -ish, a few, (not) quite, slightly, a little, somewhat, to an extent etc.

Precise = rude

Vague = more polite

That's not finished, you need to do more work.

That's not quite finished, there are a few areas that need to be reviewed....

​ This needs to be done by 2pm.

It would be great if you could finish this project by 2-ish ( around 2).

That's impossible

That doesn't sound quite feasible, could we review....

This task will take you 1 hour, please finish it by.....

It should take you around 1 hour or so to complete this task – if you struggle with it, let me know and I'll help you.

That font is too small, we need to change it.

Perhaps that font is a little small, we might want to make it somewhat bigger.

5. Negative Questions are actually polite

Counterintuitive as it may sound, for formal business environment conversations, using negative questions softens the language and will aid you to sound more diplomatic when giving advice or a recommendation or even in a trickier situation of disagreeing with someone . Again, this will make your language less direct and as you have probably learnt by now, being direct is the opposite of being formal and professional

Direct = rude

Negative questions = polite

Let's try this option instead, it's a better one.

Why don't we consider this option too, perhaps it may be more suitable...

We need to discuss this e-mail again.

Don't you think it might be a good idea to just go over this e-mail again as there are some parts that are not too clear.

You might want to consider impact on the bottom line.

Shouldn't we consider the impact on the bottom line.

Question form in itself requires an answer and putting it indirectly obliges the other person to respond in a positive way or explain or at least consider your idea even if they completely disagree.

Of course, you need not only to be able to use these phrases but also to understand them when they are being said to you and read between the lines when someone communicates in such a manner with you. Being aware of the use of such language will make you more perceptive and aid communication and hopefully improve you working relationships and in turn your career.

5. Use suggestive language

We all have suggestions to make and alternatives to what our colleagues have suggested and in order to avoid sounding like an arrogant disrespectful worker, use suggestive rather than direct phrases such as :



This is how we should do it.

Why don't we try something like this?

We need to do this.

How about this option?

We must take another look at this project

Why don't we take another look at this project?

Negative but polite

In business giving criticism or declining a request of a suggestion is inevitable, as everyone has their own take on things and conflicting deadlines and priorities are the norm of the business world. The following expressions will soften the inevitable negativity and again make you come across as considerate and respectful.

Negative and rude

Negative but polite

I won't be able to come to your leaving drinks.

I would love to come to your leaving drinks, but I have a prior commitment I cannot cancel.

There are no job opportunities in that region at the moment.

Unfortunately, there are no job opportunities in that region at the moment.

I won't complete this project on time.

I'm afraid, I won't be able to deliver this project on time due to....

Your idea has been rejected.

I'm sorry/ I regret ( more formal) to say that your idea has been rejected this time.

6. Use of intonation and body language

With all of the above focusing on the content of what is being said and is certainly the only medium transmitted in writing, when speaking over the phone or face to face, non-verbal communication becomes of key importance and as it's been argued that "55% of communication is body language, 38% is the tone of voice, and ONLY 7% is the actual words spoken" - whilst the relative %s real values are arguable, this demonstrates an important point: when choosing the appropriate language for speaking, do not disregard your body language and your tone of voice.

It takes practise to get this right and perhaps you could choose someone professional you admire whose body language you could imitate. And finally, don't forget that a swarm smile goes a long way.


Perhaps you have tips of your own or I missed some important phrase in the article? Feel free to share these in the comments.

The original article that inspired me and credit for the many ideas presented here goes to:

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