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For best results in the UK, begin and end your requests with a polite word, even when it doesn’t quite make sense. A ‘please’ here and ‘thank you’ there will make your interactions much smoother. Writer Amar Mistry asks his fellow Brits for their thoughts—politely.
Text: Amar Mistry
Country: United Kingdom

n Britain, a strange conversational phenomenon quickly becomes apparent. Across the country, a wave of unusual phrases crop up in everyday interactions between strangers. For example, I’m walking down the street and accidentally bump into somebody. “Sorry”, I say immediately, acknowledging my mistake. This is met almost instantly by a response from the person whom I bumped: “sorry”. Or I buy some groceries and thank the cashier for her good work; instantly she responds with “thank you”.

This conversational etiquette, to top and tail a sentence with words that increase politeness, is quintessentially British. Words and phrases like “excuse me”, “pardon me”, “please” and “thank you” are rife. But “sorry” is the most common, to the point where it almost seems to have lost its meaning. In restaurants it’s common to hear, “sorry, but can we get the bill”? Sorry?! To offer payment?

When I delve deeper into this phenomenon, it seems to me that the “sorry” is to show awareness that a stranger’s activity has been inconvenienced, and the “thank you” is to show appreciation from either side for their service. But do all British people feel this way?

I was brought up in a town in the middle of England by Indian parents, and growing up, I remember a particular clash of cultures. As a bratty youngster, I always demanded that my parents thank me for small errands that were expected of me. I would often pull a face or feign deafness unless “please” was uttered at the end of each request. My mother, Kaushalya, remembers this episode:

“You always knew when to say please and thank you, but one day you came back from school and began demanding it for every small thing. Passing the sauce on the table almost became World War 3 for you. If I didn’t say please, you would be so stubborn. I wondered where you picked this habit up; it must have been school. In the end, we conceded and eventually you matured. Do you remember I thanked you for hoovering last year, and you replied, ‘you don’t need to thank me, mum’. You’ve changed a lot”.

“I’ve literally never thought about politeness in Wales at all. People do tend to be a little more chatty there, but that’s not unusual. I’m from Swansea, and most places I’ve been across the UK are just as polite as at home. I don’t think it’s so different to be honest.”

Patrick, 24, from Belfast said:

“In general, people in Northern Ireland are more sociable than in England. There is a great Irish saying: if you fall over in Belfast, people help you up. If you fall over in London, people walk over you. When it comes to politeness, ‘sorry’ would be used a fair bit, but then when people say goodbye, they say ‘good luck’. Not sure why, but that’s always been the case.’

Finally, I asked Callum, 31, Aberdeen born and bred, about the differences between England and Scotland.

Aye, of course, people are certainly a bit shorter in places like Glasgow, but I reckon it’s more to do with class and upbringing than specifically regional. I just reckon Glaswegians are more direct and tell you what they think. But it also depends on what sort of environment you work in, too; offices are generally more polite than the building yard.”

This perspective suggests that it isn’t location that determines excessive politeness but rather background. To explore this further, I looked into another big component of the UK’s population: immigrants. With an eclectic mix of people from across the world, the UK is a hugely diverse country, integrating people from a multitude of backgrounds and communities all in one place.

I talked to Shafiq, who originally came from Burundi but who moved to Coventry, a city in the heart of England, when he was 8. We discussed his experience of growing up in a culture so vastly different from his own. Now aged 29 and working in customer service, politeness and courtesy is very important to his day-to-day role. Has he seen this use of excessive politeness, and how does it impact him?

“East Africans are a lot more direct. There is a lot less ‘please’, ‘thank you’, ‘sorry’. It is always a more fast-paced conversation, back and forth when I am with my other African friends or family. It took me some time to adapt to life here. My first job was in a restaurant, so I had to be aware of what people expected. I brought my passion for the language and started to top and tail requests with the right phrases. At first, it took a little time to get used to, but now it is natural. I’ve even gone over and above: I add on words like ‘darling’, ‘love’, ‘sir’, madam’, just to address people. It goes down well. This extra layer of politeness is a big hit with my customers and helps me build a rapport with them; it also makes the day more fun. I’m not sure about people from different ‘classes’ being more or less polite. I see people from all walks of life coming in to my store, and their politeness and friendliness varies massively.”

Shafiq offers a different perspective on the use of these polite words: they are used to build a rapport, benefit his professional relationships and have nothing to do with class. I asked Spanish-born student Silvia, 32, about her experience here:

“What a nightmare. At the beginning it was horrible. I had just come from Spain, [and] my English wasn’t great, but I couldn’t understand why people were so ‘off ’ with me. I would ask, I assumed, very politely. I would speak slowly, with a soft tone, but I still got bad reactions. This was similar to other exchange -student experiences. Then I saw a picture that poked fun at British people needing to have lots of flowery, unnecessary words. It sounded silly, but I tried it and it worked. Starting sentences with ‘sorry’ and ending them with ‘sorry’ again or ‘please’ got much better reactions. I found it so strange. I was made to feel indebted just for asking for small things. In the end, I thought less of the real meaning of sorry, and concentrated on just using it as a word, and I felt more comfortable, but yes, very strange.”

This view confirms our thoughts that all British people feel more comfortable being excessively polite, but visitors to the country who aren’t used to having these words in their vocabulary should be aware. It could actually have an impact on the reaction you get with some Brits. It is quite interesting to hear some of my fellow citizens’ attitude compared to somebody new to the country, but perhaps Silvia is right and her picture has some real truths to it.

I’ve learned a lot from speaking to people from across the country about their views on politeness, and whilst the UK is a very small country, it has over 65 million people and many are from different walks of life across the world. It is inevitable that there will be small differences in the nuances of the language, which can lead to negative effects. But we’re also able to see how these nuances can be tweaked to improve somebody’s experience of the language as well. We’ve seen a range of views from across the country and the world. There doesn’t seem to be a consensus on politeness being a factor of the regions or even the classes.

In my opinion, it is hard to find a trend; when somebody is integrated into the country, they will use these words, or they won’t. It all depends on their mood, the context and their personality. I, for one, would like to thank you for your time, please ask you to be aware of this phenomenon and apologise for any inconvenience caused.

Information box

Commonly overused ‘polite’ words: please, thank you, sorry, excuse me

Population of the UK: 65.64m

Number of people that have English as a second language in the UK: 4m (main first languages are Polish, Punjab and Urdu)

Number of people that can speak English in the world: 1.5bn (360m native speakers)




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Sorry, could you please read this article?


In Britain people are incredibly polite. It is quintessentially British to top and tail sentences with words that increase politeness. The phrases that are most commonly used are "excuse me", "pardon me", "please", and "thank you". But the most common word is "sorry".

I grew up in the middle of England and my parents are Indian. There was often a clash of cultures at home. My mother says I was very stubborn and always wanted her to say please and thank you, even for things she thought were not necessary.

The United Kingdom is extremely diverse, but politeness seems to be common all over. My friend Monika from Wales has been to many places in the UK and she says it is not so different from home.

Immigrants have to adapt their language when they move to the UK if they want to fit in. Shafiq from Burundi says East-Africans are naturally more direct and their conversations are more fast-paced. He uses polite words often and thinks this helps him to have a better relationship with his customers. All types of people from different backgrounds go into his store and their politeness and friendliness varies massively.

After interviewing many people I think it is hard to find a trend. Politeness does not seem to depend on class or region, but rather on a person's mood, context, and personality.

 

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