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Writing Polite Emails: How to be Indirect and Polite

In this lesson, students practice being indirect and polite in emails. Go over the chart with your students and then have them do the practice activities.

Writing Polite Emails

Sometimes we want to be direct and brief in our emails (giving status updates, summarizing meeting minutes, describing technical issues, etc.). Other times, we want to be polite and indirect. The chart below provides examples of situations in which we normally write in an indirect, polite way.

Situations Language Notes
Simple Requests
(the reader has an obligation to comply with your request)
-Asking an employee or coworker to do something that he/she normally handles Could/can you…please?
Would you mind…?
For simple requests, we can be fairly direct. Keep in mind that Would you mind is a bit more polite than Can/could you…? Also, could is a little more polite than can. Remember that mind is followed by the gerund (ing). For example, Would you mind taking to take a look at this.
Favors and Big Requests
(the reader does not have an obligation to comply with your request)
-Getting help with something that you normally handle yourself
-Special requests
I was hoping you could…
I was wondering if you could…
Do you think you might be able to…?
Favors and big requests require “softer” language. One way to make language softer is by using past tenses (I was hopingI was wondering, I wanted to, etc.) Another way we make language softer is by using modals (mightcould, etc.).
Permission -Vacation requests
-Time off requests
-Borrowing something
I was hoping I could…
I was wondering if I could…
Would it be okay if I…?
Do you think I might be able to…?
Just like with favors and big requests, we use softer language to ask for permission (past tenses, modals, etc.).
Suggestions  -Offering your point of view
-Suggesting a better way of doing something
What about if…?
Maybe we could…?
I thought it might be a good idea to…
Using these expressions sounds more polite than Well, I think we need to…
Rejecting/Refusing/Declining -Rejecting offers, suggestions,
I’m not sure that…
I don’t know if…
Expressions like I’m not sure that…, and I don’t know if… are more polite than That won’t work.
Pointing out a Mistake -Billing mistakes It looks like…
It seems…
These introductory statements help to make the message softer.
Checking on the Status of Something -Finding out if something is finished
-Gently reminding someone that you need something he/she is working on
Have you had a chance to finish/work on…? Have you had a chance to finish/work on… is much more polite than Are you finished yet? or Is it ready yet?

Language we use to sound more polite

might, can, could, would
Distancing phrases (not using the present tense)
I was hoping…, I was wondering…, I wanted to…
Tentative language
Maybe…, Perhaps…, I’m not sure if…, I don’t know if…, might
Introductory phrases
It looks like…, It seems like…, Actually…,To be honest…Well…, I see what you’re saying (but…),
Positive language (avoiding negative expressions like “bad,” “won’t work,” “ineffective,” etc.)
It might not be the best approach.

Practice Exercises

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