TEACHING HOW TO BE POLITE IN ENGLISH: POLITE-O-METER

I’d like to see 3 things with my own eyes – the Museum of the Future, the Pirahã people, and the students who have mastered the art of polite conversation by reading long lists of polite phrases or listening to Top 20+ Tips for Polite and Tactful Language.

The problem with teaching (and learning) how to be polite in English (or in any other language) is that it is not an intellectual concept, rather a mix of personal experiences and assumptions and cultural conventions. When someone offends against our sense of politeness (our assumptions and expectations), we see them as rude or aggressive and (quite naturally) find it hard to keep good relations with them. Failure to manage politeness undermines communication far more than 20 Common Grammar Mistakes that (Almost) Anyone Makes. However, it is not extensively covered in most English language course books and is often limited to some general etiquette rules and tips and lists of polite expressions. 

Just as with any other complex skills of the kind, it is important to provide many opportunities for students to consider and challenge their own assumptions of politeness, and to regularly discuss and learn and practise polite English.

Polite-O-Meter

What’s your current level of politeness? Try our POLITE-O-METER to check your level of politeness and learn a few tips on how to be polite in English.

I have created the Polite-O-Meter as an introductry micro course/warm-up activity for students to ‘check their level of politeness’ with immediate feedback on the correctness of answers. It can be used individually, in small teams (2-3 people) or as a whole group activity. 

In the first part of the Polite-O-Meter, students are asked whether the statements/responses in particular situations are polite or impolite. 

politeometer

This part may be used to discuss with students whether people are likely to come across as impolite in similar situations in their culture and force them to ask themselves if they come across as rude when they speak English:

‘Am I being rude when I try to be polite?’  

*See more in the How to Supercharge the Tool section below

Once the answer has been selected, the Polite-O-Meter will provide feedback with the explanation and some suggested responses.

This part covers the use of negative words and softeners; positive words in negative forms; modal verbs like ‘would’ , ‘could’, ‘may’ and ‘might’; ‘finger pointing’; making requests; being too direct; using ‘sorry’; passive voice; etc.

In the second part of the Polite-O-Meter, students need to choose a more polite response, i.e. they explore some nuances of polite conversation. 

politeometer

After they have completed all the tasks, the Polite-O-Meter will show their current level of politeness.

How to Supercharge the Tool 

Use extension activities to

Challenge and uncover hidden assumptions of politeness; consider ways in which your behavior could be seen as impolite

Use the tool twice:

First, ask your students to use the Polite-O-Meter to assess their level of politeness. 

Second, ask your students to do the test again and pick the ‘impolite’ statements and responses that would be considered ‘OK’ in their culture or, vice versa, ‘polite’ statements and responses that might come across as too vague, unfriendly, etc., in their culture.

Have your students ponder on the following questions:

What behaviour do you consider polite?

What behaviour do you consider rude?

Is politeness different in different places?

Can your behaviour come across as impolite for speakers of English?

Case studies:

Study particular examples of politeness failures (relevant to your students’ culture)

Share anecdotes and your personal experience

Get students to create an infographic with tips on how to show politeness

Think about your tone and whether your message comes across exactly as intended

Ask students to reply to an email and use Grammarly’s tone detector to check the tone of their message. Does it come across as intended?

To use Grammarly’s tone detector:

  • Install the Grammarly browser extension;
  • Open any website where you can write text, such as Gmail.com
  • Write a few sentences – the tone detector needs at least 150 characters to activate.
  • Click the emoji that appears in the bottom-right corner of your screen to check your tone.

Practise more

Focus on some areas that may be relevant to your students, e.g., avoiding direct language to sound more polite:

Click on the image below to open the Polite-O-Meter

Other activities and games:

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