EDUCATION PLUS

Are you polite ?

’Phrase your need not as a statement but as a question’

Over lunch one day, this guy I had just met turned to me and said, “I want water.” I didn’t understand what he was saying, at first, but then I realised he was pointing to the bottle of water I had with me. I kept thinking of different ways in which he could have said that. “Could I have some water, please?” “Could you please pass me the water bottle?” “Is it alright if I drink some water from your bottle?” “I’d like some water if you don’t mind,” etc. “I want water” simply states a need. It is not a request. OK, so this person was thirsty. But was I supposed to do something about it? When you put someone to even a little bit of trouble, when you ask—even temporarily—for something that’s not yours, it needs to be a request. Not a statement like “I want water,” or a command like “give me some water.” Well-meaning people, not meaning to be rude, make these mistakes. We tend to forget that it’s the tone that dictates the meaning. Your words may have the message, but your tone conveys your intention and attitude. If you use the right tone and say “please,” you are a nice person who respects my time and my possessions. If you just ask, you are rude. Here’s another problem phrase: “I don’t want”. This is how it happens: you invite a friend over for dinner, offer some extra helpings, and he blurts out “I don’t want.” Once again, this conveys his opinion, but not his feelings—feelings of affection and gratitude for the dinner. Let’s see how much better it sounds when said right: “No, I’m fine, thanks” “Oh, I’ve had a lot, I’m good for now...” “Yes, I will, in a while” “I’ve had too much...thanks”. These expressions make the same point that ‘you don’t want,” but refusing politely shows the right attitude towards the person offering you food. Perhaps it’s possible somehow in our own language to be rude, casual, endearing all at the same time but it doesn’t work with English. So to sum up: When you want someone to do something for you, don’t assume that they are willing, and have the time to spare. Don’t just tell people if you want something, ask them if you can have it. Phrase your need not as a statement (“I want” or “give me”) but as a question (“could you” or “if you don’t mind”). It’s not just a difference of words. By showing people that you care about their time and their right to refuse, you give them greater incentive to oblige you.

Amongla Imsong

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Archives of the popular column - Know Your English - can now be accessed on The Hindu website.http://www.hindu.com/nic/kye

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