Being polite in English


Thank you very much!

A lot of visitors to Britain are often struck by how polite the English are. If you go into a shop in Britain (particularly in a small town or village) you will often find that the shop assistant is almost excessively polite (or courteous). (It’s also possible, of course, that they will be quite brusque or even rude, especially if you are in a supermarket or large out-of-town retail park, but let’s stay with the cultural stereotype for the time being.) If you visit a small, independent shop (not part of a large chain) you will generally find that the person serving you – particularly if it’s the owner – is extremely courteous.

Making polite noises

When you are ready to pay for the goods you have chosen, the shopkeeper will probably ask you a question such as “Is that everything?” or “Have you got everything you need?” If your answer is in the affirmative (“Yes” or ideally, “Yes, thank you”) they will then tell you the total you have to pay – followed, naturally, by “Please” or “Thank you”:

“That’s £15.28 (“fifteen pounds, twenty-eight”), please / Thanks.”

You will then hand over the money. Let’s say you give the shopkeeper (or sales assistant) a twenty pound note. You could say “There you are” or “There you go” – and here most English people would add a “Thanks” or “Thank you”.

The shopkeeper takes the money: “Thank you. That’s twenty pounds.” They then calculate how much change to give you and count out the coins: “Right, that’s four (pounds) seventy-two change”. You, of course, say “Thank you” and the shopkeeper may say “Thank you” as well. 

The shopkeeper may then ask you; “Would you like a bag?”. If you need one, you can say, “Yes, please”; if not, say “No thank you.” Of course, if you are not offered a bag you can ask, “Can I have a bag, please.” The shopkeeper will reply, “Certainly” or “Yes, of course.” Don’t forget to add another “thank you” when they hand you the bag or put your purchases in the bag and give it to you. They will then reply, “You’re welcome” or perhaps “Thank YOU” stressing the “you”. As you leave the shop (or move away from the counter if you are in a large store) you should say “Bye” and add a “thank you” for good measure.

Does this seem excessively (and even ridiculously) polite to you? If your answer is “Yes” then the chances are that you are not British. Conversely, British people travelling abroad often find foreigners quite rude. Another problem facing native English speakers is that when they use what for them is the “normal” level of politeness the person they are speaking to may actually think they are being (mildly) sarcastic.

Expressions of politeness are undoubtedly influenced by the culture you belong to – but British English in particular seems to be in the “Champions League” of politeness, with only some other languages, such as Japanese, perhaps, demonstrating a higher level of deference. So, if you’re going to visit Britain my advice to you is to mind your “P’s and Q’s” (i.e. (that is) make sure you say “please” and “thank you”) and if you are not sure what to say, say something polite: it will always be appreciated.

Conversation: In a Bookshop

A tourist enters a small bookshop in London, ringing the bell as they open the door. The shopkeeper appears.

Shopkeeper: Hello. How can I help you?

Customer: Oh, hello. I was wondering if you’ve got a guide to places of interest in London (please).

Shopkeeper: Yes, of course. We’ve got a couple of tourist guides in our London section. Come this way, please.

(Customer follows the shopkeeper).

The shopkeeper shows the guides to the customer, who picks one and then they move back to the counter.

Shopkeeper: Right, so that’s “Visting London in A Day” and that’s £12.20 (twelve (pounds) twenty), please OR thank you very much.

Customer: (Giving the shopkeeper a twenty pound note): Thank you.

Shopkeeper: (Taking the banknote). That’s twenty pounds thank you. Would you happen to have the twenty (pence), please?

Customer: Oh, let me see. (Looks in purse). Yes, there you are. (Gives the shopkeeper the coin). Thank you

Shopkeeper: That’s lovely, Thank you. (Gives the customer their change). And that’s four pounds. Thank you.

Customer: Thank you.

Shopkeeper: Would you like a bag?

Customer: Oh, yes, please. (Thank you.)

Shopkeeper: (Puts the book in a bag and hands it to the customer.) There you go. Thank you very much.

Customer: Thank you.

Shopkeeper: Thank YOU. 

Customer: (Leaving the shop) Thanks a lot. Bye.

Shopkeeper. You’re very welcome. See you again soon.

Customer: Bye.


© Robert Dennis, Big Business English, 2018

Note: This article first appeared on the Milan English blog, now the Italy English blog.

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Copyright Big Business English 2018