ESL Conversation worksheet: Imperatives vs Polite Requests in the Workplace

Workplace Communication Tip 3: Politely Make Suggestions

Style matters – especially when we talk with our co-workers, consumers, patients, and supervisors. English language learners, immigrants, and far too many English speaking workers sometimes forget this basic principle of workplace communication.

Consider the difference in how these requests sound.

Shut off the TV!

Please turn off the TV?

Could you turn off the TV?

Would you please turn off the TV?

Close the door!

Shut the damn door!

Close the door; I need some privacy.

Would you please close the door; we can’t hear ourselves talk.

Could you get the door?

Can you close the door?

Sometimes, especially in an emergency, it is appropriate to warn other people with a short command.

Call the police!

Help!

Shut the door!

Volume, tone, and context help us recognize an emergency. Imperatives, or short command sentences, are powerful communication tools in these situations. The speaker gives an order; we listen.

I. When would it be appropriate to give a warning on your job? Please give 3 examples.

1.

2.

3.

But, usually, we also make our requests that are not emergencies. We can – and should- give suggestions in a kinder, gentler way. Unfortunately, too many people pretend that everything that annoys them is an emergency and speak in a rude, impolite way to co-workers. This sort of harsh speech can even be abusive.

We can, however, use many words to make quick requests and polite suggestions:

May Can Could Would Should Might

II. Please write a request that you might give or hear at work with these words.

  1. Can ______________________________________________?
  2. May ______________________________________________?
  3. Could _____________________________________________?
  4. Would_____________________________________________?
  5. Should_____________________________________________?
  6. Might _____________________________________________?

Adding the word “please” makes your requests and suggestions sound nicer too!

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4 comments

  1. Thanks. We seem to share an educational philosophy of putting students first, and trying to tailor the assignments to meet their interests and needs.

  2. Thank you for your kind remarks. Many English language learners often seem unaware of how strong their requests seem, and providing tips for making polite requests is often very helpful and can avoid workplace problems.

  3. Dear Eric,
    Loved your post. You focus on a very important subject!
    Unfortunately, there are people around who sometimes forget to use those kind of polite requests with the result to experience bitter or nasty moments for both sides.

    But the funny thing is that whenever I use polite requets with my new students they don’t think it is the polite way I ask them to do something and they reject. i.e “Would you like to tell us what you think about the story we have read?” (= Tell us what you think …..) The answer is, “No, I don’t want!” etc. They realize it as a question, as they have a choice to decide and not as an imperative.

    If I had time I could give you many funny examples especially related to my daughter’s, Christina’s answers to my polite request when she was younger!

    Keep up your wonderful work and the inspiration you spread, Eric. 🙂

    Evridiki

  4. Dear Evridiki – Thank you!

    Of course, you’re absolutely correct. Many times young children, in their youth and vitality, will reject our polite requests with their willful, honest answers. This exercise works much better with adults and university students.

    Yet we can’t be too tough on our children. We were once young too – and sometimes I was a bit hard to handle. Here’s a favorite story that my mother loves to tell about me as a six year old. She sent me to bed early because I didn’t listen, and soon came in to say goodnight.

    Eric: Mom, do you love me when I act bad?
    Mom: Of course. I always love you even when you act bad.
    Eric: Really?
    Mom: Yes.
    Eric: Okay, I’ll act bad tomorrow!

    Sometimes that unconditional love can have unexpected side effects. Perhaps your daughter Christina’s answers also possessed surplus candor.

    Let’s keep sharing and comparing teaching notes … in and out of our classrooms.

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