What is Politeness and Why Should We Be Polite?

You may use a wide range of grammatical structures.

You may have an impressive vocabulary.

You may have clear pronunciation that everybody understands.

But, for some reason, you don’t seem to get the results you want when you speak in English.

Perhaps you haven’t mastered polite English and people think you are too direct when you speak to them.

Politeness exists in all cultures and languages, but the specific language and communication strategies you use to speak in your first language may not work as well in English.

In this video, you will learn about politeness, why we should be polite, the 3 golden rules of politeness, and why it is important to save face.

You can watch the video and / or read the lesson notes below.

What is politeness?

Politeness is having or showing behaviour that is respectful and considerate of other people. Oxford Dictionary.

So, basically it’s treating people with respect.

Politeness is very important in life.

There are many reasons why politeness is important in life but one of them is that if you’re polite, you are more likely to achieve your objectives and get what you want. Also, people are more likely to take you seriously and deal with you in a good way.

As the 19th century American writer Joss Billings said:

Politeness is better than logic. You can often persuade when you cannot convince.

And I think what he meant by that is that if you’re polite, people will listen and take your arguments, ideas, opinions seriously. They  may even change their own behaviour and do what you’d like them to do!

Now, although politeness is expressed in different ways in different cultures, there is a general theory of politeness which can probably be applied to most – but maybe not all – cultures.

Here are the 3 Golden Rules of Politeness 

Number 1: Don’t Impose

People have their own personal space.They don’t want their personal space invaded.They don’t want to be pressured into doing something they don’t really want to do.They want to be treated as individuals.

f you impose, invade their personal space,  and try to get them to do things they don’t want to do, they might reject you. They might not want to deal with you and won’t  respond to you in a positive way. So, don’t order or command.

Rule Number 2: Give Options.

When you ask someone to do something, give them options which they can refuse or accept.  They have the choice to do what you want or to say ‘I’m sorry, I’d rather not do that.’ If you have a suggestion, give people the option to accept or refuse it, and give them the option to think of a suggestion of their own.

It’s really important to give people options so they don’t feel trapped.

Rule Number 3: Make the other person feel good.

Now, this does not mean that you have to make people feel really happy. It just means that most people want to feel positive and in control of the situation. They want to know that you respect their ideas and opinions and their status as an individual.

What do most people really want in life and how do they want to be treated?

First of all, most people want to be accepted.

They want to be accepted and respected as an intelligent, mature person, successful and professional person.  They also want to be treated fairly and they want to think you are treating them as you would treat other people.

They also want to be independent and free to make them own decisions.

Free will, the ability to do what you want in life and choose what you want to do, is really important for most people.

So, if you treat them politely, that means you’re giving them the option to take their own decisions and to have some control over their own life and their own actions.

The concept of saving face and losing face

Saving face means that everybody has their own positive public image, they want other people to see them as a successful, intelligent and  skilled person.Obviously,they want to keep that positive public image.

We feel better when other people look at us and say ‘I like this person, I respect this person’.

People don’t want to lose this positive public image. They don’t want you to think: ‘This person isn’t very intelligent, they’re not very successful,  they’re not very professional. I’m not sure I like them very much.

If you’re polite, you save their positive public image .

So, when you are in a social situation, it’s a good idea to consider your answers to these questions:

What is your objective in each situation?

If you meet someone in a bar, do you want to build up a good relationship with them? Do you want to interest them in your business proposal? Do you want them to open up and relax with you so you can have a nice conversation?

What is the objective of the other person?

Do they want to do business with you? Do they want to relax with you and enjoy your company?

 Will polite language help you achieve your objective?

This is a very important question. If we’re too polite,  the other person may feel a little uncomfortable. If you’re in a café with a friend, do you really need to use polite language?

Will polite language have a positive effect on the other person?

Again, you have got to think about the situation. Do you need to be polite and formal or should you tell jokes, relax, and possibly make fun of the other person – because you know each other very well and being polite means you do not appreciate the fact that you have a close relationship.

Example of different situations

Let’s look at an example. If you are in a bar with friends, you can probably say more or less what you like. You don’t need to be polite. If you’re having a drink, you don’t need to say:

Would you perhaps be interested in having another beer?

You just need to say: Fancy another beer? How about another beer? Something very relaxed.

However, if you are in a business meeting, especially with people you don’t know very well, polite language here is more suitable.

So, is it OK to move onto point number 2? Would you like to say anything here? Would you like a few minutes to look at my proposal?

Let’s review the 3 Golden Rules of Politeness

  1. Don’t impose
  2. Give options
  3. Make the other person feel good.


  1. People want to save face.
  2. Politeness isn’t suitable for every occasion. When you’re in a social situation with people you know very well and don’t want to put them under pressure, it’s probably a good idea to be relaxed and more informal.

I hope you found this introduction to politeness interesting. My course on Master Polite English has been taken by over 50,000 students and has 1000 five-star reviews:

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