How to sound polite without ever saying "please"

Feb 14, 2016

If a stranger is blocking your view in a movie theater, how do you respond?

For many folks, the polite response might be, “Would you please move out of the way?” That’s because we use the word please to make requests sound polite, but there are times when a simple please just doesn’t sound gracious enough.  For some people, that sentence might even sound a little aggressive. What’s going with our language?

Fortunately for us, University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan is here to help us better understand the delicate ways of polite speech.

To understand politeness in English, you first need to hear the difference between a direct speech act and an indirect speech act.

For example, in the movie theater scenario, you could tell your obstructer, “Move out of the way.”

“That would be, as linguists would call it, the direct speech act,” says Curzan “where what you say literally is exactly what you mean.”

Adding the please to the sentence makes it sound a little more polite, but the act itself is still clear: You’re telling someone to move so you can watch the movie. That’s still a type of direct speech act.

On the other hand, what if you say, “Do you mind moving out of the way so I can see?” According to Curzan, this is an example of an indirect speech act.

“Indirect speech acts are where what we literally say is not exactly what we mean,” says Curzan. “That there’s an implied meaning there.

“Now, we often read these indirect speech acts as even more polite. That indirectness is associated with politeness in many Western cultures,” says Curzan.

If you answer the question in the sentence “Do you mind moving out of the way so I can see?” you can hear that the question isn’t really asking you to move. Instead, you could answer either “Yes, I do mind,” or “No, I don’t.” That is, after all, what’s literally being asked; it’s our awareness of the context that tells us we’re blocking someone’s view, not the words themselves.

In fact, a snarky person might hear your indirectness and answer it literally: “No, I don’t mind.” Then, of course, you’re forced to come straight out and ask them to move out of your way, and all of that polite phrasing can seem like it’s for naught.

– Sean McHenry