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012 How to sound less direct and more diplomatic


Hi, everyone and welcome back to the Art of Business English. In today’s episode I wanted to take a look at direct vs diplomatic language. One of the biggest problems we can face when we are using our business English is sounding too direct, and in turn rude. It is true that sometimes we say things and we think they are OK, but to a native speaker of English it sounds wrong and even aggressive.

We don’t want to offend anyone, especially by accident. The second problem is language and cultural differences. I have found that Spanish is a more direct language and that is OK when we are speaking Spanish. The problem arises when we start speaking English and simply translate, this can then sound too direct in English.

Let me give you a simple example. In Spanish we can walk into a bar and say, “Hola, quiero un café por favour”. That sounds fine doesn’t it? However, in English if we say “Hello, I want a coffee please”, it sounds too direct and a bit rude, even though you are saying please. What we would in fact say is, “Could I have a coffee please”. See the difference? Using the conditional could softens the sentence.

So, why is this important for my business English? Well, if you are negotiating or working with native English speakers, you don’t want to sound rude, as it may mean you lose the sale. Therefore, we need to learn some basic skills on how to sound less direct and more diplomatic.

Right then, by the end of today’s episode you will understand the following:

  1. The difference between direct and diplomatic language
  2. Tips for sounding more diplomatic
  3. The role that conditionals play in sounding polite

Let’s get started!!

The difference between direct and diplomatic language

Direct language is simple and straight tot the point. There are usually no problems with understanding the message. However, it can rude and even aggressive. Some cultures appreciate direct language over others. Getting straight to the point with clarity is appreciated.

Diplomatic language is softer and less direct. We try and show the other person that we are listening to them and understand their opinion.

Some examples below.

I disagree
I’m not sure I agree
You’re wrong
I see what you mean, but…
I want you to do this
I was wondering if you could…
Your idea is unhelpful
Your idea is interesting, but have you considered


Tips for sounding more diplomatic

Show that you are listening

There are several things we can do to sound more diplomatic and less direct. The first one is to show that you are listening and understand the other persons point of view. Some expressions we can use to show this are:

I see what you mean, but…

You have raised a good point, but…

I can see where you are coming from…

For example:

I think we should cancel the contract.

I see what you mean, but don’t you think that is a bit drastic?

I am in favour of aggressively reducing our prices to compete.

You have raised a good point, but this may lead to a price war.

I want to fire him.

I can see where you are coming from, but shouldn’t we try and train him first.

Use positive words

The second thing we can do is use the negative form of positive words instead of using negative words. Here is what I mean.

Negative word: I think that is a terrible idea.

Positive word: I think that is not the best idea.

People will react better to positive words used in the negative form than very negative words.

Use softeners

Thirdly, we can use some qualifiers to soften the message of negative sentences. Qualifiers are used to modify other words to increase or decrease the quality. Some examples of quantifiers are, a little and a bit.

Some other words we can use to soften the message are, just and quite.

So, let’s take a look at them in use.

I’m sorry, but that is a little problem for us.

That is a bit confusing.

Can I just interrupt you for a second?

I’m afraid I didn’t quite catch that.

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Negative question forms

We can ask questions in the negative form to sound more polite. If we do this instead of using a direct statement in the affirmative, we are in fact making the statement more suggestive and less direct.

So, some examples.

We need to make some changes to your marketing plan!

If we say this, it sounds direct and the other person may get offended as it sounds very imperative.

To make this softer we could say.

Don’t you think we should make some changes to this marketing plan?

What you will also notice here is that I have avoided using your and changed to this. This marketing plan sounds less personal. If we use the words you or your then it sounds like we are attacking the person directly.


The role of conditionals


Finally, we need to consider the role of conditionals when using diplomatic language. Conditionals always sound less direct. We should avoid using the imperative and try and soften our statements using conditionals such as could, would and should/ought to.

Let’s see how this works in practice.

Direct form
Conditional form
Let’s invest all our money in bitcoins
We could invest some of our money in bitcoins
Tell John I don’t like his proposal
Would you mind telling John I have some questions regarding his proposal?
We need to increase spending on R&D
I think we should increase spending on R&D
We have to cut costs!
I think we ought to cut costs.


We can also use the past continuous/progressive form to make our sentences more polite. This combined with conditionals sounds much better.

For example, instead of saying I hope you will help me with this project. You could say, I was hoping you could help me with this project.


Final thoughts

That covers direct vs diplomatic language. Remember, many languages have a direct way of speaking and when this is translated into English it can sound rude or aggressive. If we want to be good negotiators and good hosts when we have international guests coming to our company, then we need to understand how to sound diplomatic and polite.

If you say something that sounds too direct, then don’t be afraid of saying sorry and correcting yourself. Most native English speakers will understand that you didn’t mean to sound rude, it just came out that way.

As always, thank you for joining us, if you have any questions then please do not hesitate to comment, or post to our Facebook group. If you liked this post, then share it with your friends and subscribe to our podcast on iTunes.

Till next time, take care and keep having fun putting your business English into practice.

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Andrew is the CEO and founder of the Art of Business English. Besides teaching and coaching native Spanish speakers in Business English, he is also passionate about mountain biking, sailing and healthy living. When He is not working, Andrew loves to spend time with his family and friends.

Andrew Ambrosius

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