The language of diplomacy is a cultural construct that tells us what to say and how to say it in social and professional situations. Diplomacy tells us how to be polite and show respect while still communicating in a clear manner. While most children learn diplomatic language from their parents, and later in school, ideas of what is and is not polite vary widely between languages and their associated cultures.
Does your team need to speak more diplomatically? Read more about our customized in-company training.
Because English has become the preferred language of international business, we find ourselves at a moment in history where international workers are using English without the attendant knowledge of good manners and diplomacy. And for those working in HORECA (hotel, restaurant and cafe) and other intensely customer facing businesses, diplomatic English is a necessity.
Knowing a set of diplomatic phrases is not enough, however. L2 speakers must understand the context and underlying intent, which is often to show empathy – and try to access these feelings within themselves. Without that grounding, diplomatic language can sound fake and forced, which is almost worse than no diplomacy at all.
Many cultures are much more direct than English-speaking cultures. Directness, for example, in Dutch culture is seen as a strength, a sign of openness and honesty. However, if you translate the phrase that you are likely to say in Dutch in a difficult situation word-for-word into English, it usually sounds blunt and rude, far too direct for most English-speaking cultures. When speaking in English, especially in customer service situations, respect is shown differently. While the need to be honest is still present, there must also be consideration taken towards cultural differences and the ways in which respect is given and received.
While diplomatic language begins with “please and thank you” plus the occasional apology, these words are just the beginning.
Would you like to practice your business etiquette in an online or in-person business English intensive? Contact The English Center about a free appointment or ask us about our custom course offerings. Call +31 20 823 0569
From the time we first make requests, we receive lessons in diplomacy. Please and thank you are the first lessons most of us receive. But diplomacy at this level is just the bare minimum of human respect. By kindergarten age, most children have mastered these phrases.
And while we learn many important life skills in kindergarten, there are many more techniques, tools, and tips that you need to use when working in client-facing sectors, such as HORECA (hotels, restaurants, and cafes). In the tourism industry, dealing with complaints, making apologies, and delivering bad news are common communication skills necessary for success. After all, it’s not just when things run smoothly that you have to impress the client with your diplomacy. It’s when things go wrong that diplomacy is really a life saver.
That’s why The English Center has created a guide outlining diplomatic business English phrases that you can pull from for problem solving when things, in fact, do go wrong. For 10 difficult situations, we provide an omnibus of go-to sentence starters for you to put in your bag of customer service magic tricks to smooth over and calm even the most hard-to-please client.
In every category, we’ll provide example sets of too direct vs. diplomatic phrases in English.
Instructions: Read the phrases below and note the contrast. Let’s dive in!
Sometimes we don’t fully understand what a client is asking for, or we need more information in order to give them what they want. Let’s take a look at five “too direct” phrases for asking for clarification and replace those phrases with more diplomatic ones.
Too direct: You did not give me enough information. Tell me more.
Diplomatic: Please provide me with more details so that I can resolve this issue.
Too direct: You asked for a reservation for the first week of December, but now you are talking about different dates.
Diplomatic: There seems to be some conflicting information re: your reservation dates. Please clarify your arrival and departure dates so that we can complete your reservation. Thank you!
Too direct: I can’t look up your information without your name. Give it to me.
Diplomatic: I’m happy to assist you today. In order to look up your account, may I ask your name?
Too direct: If you want room service, you have to pay for it. Give me your credit card number.
Diplomatic: I’m happy to help you place your room service order. We just need to put a credit card on file for billing purposes. May I have your card number, please?
Too direct: You can’t file a complaint against an employee without their name. Do you know their name?
Diplomatic: I’m sorry you’ve had a poor experience with our staff, and I’m happy to help rectify the situation however I can. Do you know the employee’s name, or can you remember what they look like?
Sometimes the client gives the information you need, but you aren’t sure you understand what they are saying because they spoke too fast or have a difficult-to-understand accent or gave you too much information at once. There are several ways to check for understanding to ensure you can solve their problem quickly and efficiently.
Too direct: You’re speaking too fast. Slow down.
Diplomatic: I apologize, I didn’t quite catch that. Could you repeat that a bit more slowly for me?
Too direct: Your accent is so thick, I can’t understand you. Did you say your room number is 121?
Diplomatic: I’m sorry, did you say Room 121, as in one-two-one?
Too direct: We don’t have a Room 121. You’re confused.
Diplomatic: I’m sorry. I think I must have misunderstood. We don’t have a Room 121. Perhaps I can check your room number with your name?
Too direct: How do you want your chicken, fried or grilled?
Diplomatic: Chicken, an excellent choice. Do you prefer fried or grilled this evening?
Too direct: I don’t understand you. What do you mean, someone else has your room?
Diplomatic: I understand that you walked into your room and someone else was inside. I’m sorry you experienced this situation. Can you provide me with some more details? Was the person another guest or an employee of the hotel?
Does your team need to speak more diplomatically? Read more about our customized in-company training.
Unfortunately, sometimes delivering bad news is inevitable. We can’t make available some service or product a client would like due to conditions that we personally have no control over. We may be able to pass a complaint up the chain of command and hope for a different result for the next customer, but it doesn’t change the fact that whatever your customer needs, you cannot provide. When it’s time to deliver bad news, do so with grace and diplomatic style, and even though you can’t fix everything, your empathy and kindness will go a long way to smoothing ruffled feathers.
Too direct: Read the sign. No vacancies.
Diplomatic: Unfortunately, we don’t have any available rooms this weekend, due to the festival taking place nearby. We recommend our sister hotel across the city if you would like to stay at one of our hotels, or if you prefer something close by, I have a list of hotels within a kilometer.
Too direct: We are out of lobster. You need to pick something else.
Diplomatic: I’m afraid that we’re out of the lobster. Might I recommend the diablo shrimp? They are quite flavorful.
Too direct: You clean your own laundry here. What do I look like, your maid?
Diplomatic: While we do not have a laundry service, we do have available a self-service laundromat behind the gym facilities. Would you like me to show you where it is and how to find everything?
Too direct: Bad news. We won’t have this item in stock again until next week.
Diplomatic: Good news! This popular item will be in stock again next week. Would you like me to reserve yours now?
Too direct: You can’t bring your pet in here! Get that dog outside!
Diplomatic: I’m sorry, but unless your adorable friend is a service animal, we don’t offer facilities for pets. We do, however, have a recommendation for a wonderful doggy hotel half a kilometer away where he can stay. Would you like their number?
Sometimes things go wrong, and when they do, customers complain. While rarely does a client who has had a good experience leave a rave review online, you can be sure that when mistakes are made, customers will rant and rave a lot. Before it gets to that point, nip it in the bud with some carefully chosen diplomatic phrases for handling customer complaints.
Too direct: I can’t do anything to fix this.
Diplomatic: I understand how frustrating this must be. I’m sorry that I am unable to help further with this issue. Perhaps I can assist you with something else?
Too direct: It’s going to take a lot of time.
Diplomatic: We will try to have this resolved as quickly as possible. However, I do want to let you know that the timeframe may take longer than we were expecting.
Too direct: Did you leave the “do not disturb” sign on your door? Well, that’s why your room isn’t cleaned. Next time, don’t do that.
Diplomatic: Unfortunately, our housekeeping staff noted that the “do not disturb” sign was hanging on the door, so they left your room untouched. Would you like me to see if someone is available to clean it now?
Too direct: Your toilet is broken now too? Didn’t I just talk to you about a broken AC, and it turned out you just hadn’t turned it on? Do I need to show you how to use the toilet too?
Diplomatic: I’m happy to send someone up to take a look at the toilet. Can you tell me a little more about what is happening with it? Hopefully, it’ll be a simple fix like the AC, and we can have you back to enjoying your stay with us in no time!
Too direct: According to our records, the extra charges on your bill are from room service and all those lunchtime liquor bottles from the mini fridge, remember?
Diplomatic: According to our records, we note room service and mini fridge items totaling $500. This accounts for the extra charges on your bill. Would you like a detailed receipt? We’re happy to separate the charges out if multiple people in your suite were using these services.
We negotiate for a lot of things in life, from deciding which movie we want to see with our friends, to buying a car or house, to hammering out a vendor contract, to asking for a raise. When we negotiate diplomatically, we are looking for win-win situations, ones where all parties benefit. Let’s discuss a few specific scenarios and how to handle them diplomatically.
Too direct: You need to lower your prices.
Diplomatic: I understand that you need to make a profit, but I also need to stay within my budget. What can we do to meet in the middle?
Too direct: I deserve a raise, so give me one!
Diplomatic: I believe the value add I bring to the company has been quite high, and I would like to see the results of the company’s success caused by my actions reflected in my next salary increase.
Too direct: I’m not interested in Option A. I only want Option B, or I’m not doing it.
Diplomatic: I prefer Option B because of these reasons, so I would like to continue with this option.
Too direct: You need to compromise!
Diplomatic: Let’s look for a compromise together. What do you think about…?
Too direct: You’re not flexible enough on the payment options.
Diplomatic: Let’s talk about the flexibility of the payment options. I am happy to…., but I need…
Whether we’re arranging a meeting or letting someone know we can’t make it, when we do so with diplomacy in mind, we’re more likely to get the result we want; a successful meeting or event.
Too direct: I need you to meet me tomorrow at 2 pm to discuss something important.
Diplomatic: Could you meet me tomorrow at 2 pm? I have something important to discuss.
Too direct: I’m busy then. Suggest another time.
Diplomatic: Unfortunately, 2 pm doesn’t work for me. Can we meet at 5 pm?
Too direct: Okay, 5 pm tomorrow. Don’t be late!
Diplomatic: Five works for me as well. I’ve added it to my calendar and sent you a confirmation. If anything changes between now and then, please let me know.
Too direct: I’m stuck in traffic. I’m going to be late.
Diplomatic: I’m afraid I’m running late due to traffic. Can we meet at 5:30 PM?
Too direct: I’m not waiting that long! Forget it!
Diplomatic: I’m afraid I can’t wait any longer. Let’s reschedule for another day. When are you free?
Sometimes people ask for our advice outright. Sometimes we take it upon ourselves to offer unsolicited advice. Whichever the situation, if we deliver that advice or suggestion in a positive, uplifting, and friendly way, whether it’s when dealing with a customer, a boss, a colleague, or a loved one, they’re more likely to follow it.
Too direct: You need to quit your job.
Diplomatic: Does this career path have what you’re looking for in the work environment you like? If not, maybe it’s time to consider a change.
Too direct: Don’t stay on the third floor. There’s a bachelorette party going on, and it is so loud!
Diplomatic: Might I suggest the fifth floor? Our third floor is occupied with a pre-wedding celebration, and the fifth floor will offer you a quieter stay.
Too direct: That hat looks ridiculous. Take it off.
Diplomatic: What a sharp suit! I love it! I’m not sure it goes well with the hat though. Have you thought about not wearing it? Your hair looks great!
Too direct: You need to learn to work with him, even if you don’t like him.
Diplomatic: It’s always frustrating to work with a coworker that you wouldn’t normally like to interact with outside of work. Can you put aside your differences and focus on the job? You both enjoy this work. Maybe you can find common ground on that.
Too direct: You can’t just quit! You need to keep your commitments!
Diplomatic: I know things are very stressful for you right now. Is it possible for you to move to part time or cancel some other commitments? The company has done a lot for you. They paid for your education, which means they believe in you. What responsibility do you have to honor your commitment in return?
Sometimes others need help. Sometimes we need help. When it’s time to ask or be asked, do you know what diplomatic phrases to use? Keep reading to find out!
Too direct: You are carrying too much! I’ll get the door!
Diplomatic: Oh, wow, that looks heavy! Please, allow me to open the door for you.
Too direct: It took you long enough! Why didn’t you offer to help sooner?
Diplomatic: Why, thank you so much for your help! You are too kind!
Too direct: Help me with this door!
Diplomatic: Please, could you assist me with this door? I appreciate it very much.
Too direct: I can help, if you’d just let me!
Diplomatic: May I help you? If you wish, I’d be happy to…
Too direct: No one asked you to help, but thanks, I guess.
Diplomatic: Thank you for your help. It really wasn’t necessary, but I appreciate the gesture.
Sometimes we are asked to help someone and don’t want to or don’t have the time, resources, or energy to. Sometimes people offer to help us, and we don’t want or need it. We can learn to decline help and decline to help with some very simple diplomatic phrases.
Too direct: Stop! I don’t need your help! I can do it myself.
Diplomatic: It’s very kind of you to help, but it’s not necessary. I’ve got it, thanks!
Too direct: I don’t have time.
Diplomatic: I’d love to help, but unfortunately, I am swamped right now. Have you asked…?
Too direct: I don’t want to.
Diplomatic: It sounds like you’re very excited about it, but it just doesn’t sound like something I’m interested in. Maybe someone else would like to help?
Too direct: I don’t want you on this project.
Diplomatic: Thank you for volunteering for this, but I really need your skillsets elsewhere.
Too direct: That’s a stupid idea, and I’m not helping with stupid ideas.
Diplomatic: I appreciate your enthusiasm for this idea, but I don’t think it’s going to work for me.
Not everything involved with diplomacy is dealing with a downer situation. Sometimes you can use diplomacy to heighten the delivery of good news or celebrate a momentous occasion. Use the following phrases to add even more fun and flair to any positive situation.
Too direct: We met our KPIs this week. Good job, team. Do even better next week.
Diplomatic: Wow, look at those numbers, people! You have earned a pat on the back this week! Let’s knock it out of the park again next week!
Too direct: We have upgraded you to a luxury suite. You’re really lucky, you know?
Diplomatic: Good news! We were just able to upgrade you to a luxury suite. Please enjoy your stay!
Too direct: You are finally getting married, huh? Well, it’s about time!
Diplomatic: Congratulations on your upcoming wedding! I know you’ve been looking forward to this for a long time, and it’s worth the wait when you finally find the right person. I hope you two are very happy together!
Too direct: You’ve just won a free spa day. You can book your spa services online.
Diplomatic: Wow, this is exciting! It says here that you’ve won a free day at the spa! Would you like the website to book your day, or would you like me to assist you with this?
Too direct: You just got a promotion? I want a promotion! That’s not fair!
Diplomatic: Congrats on the promotion! I know you’re going to do well in your new position. It’s the perfect fit for you! I’m going to talk with management about my chances for promotion next week. Wish me luck!
Beyond diplomatic phrases – a few words about the 7-38-55 rule
While the words we say are important, just as important — if not more so — is our tone of voice and nonverbal communication – gestures, posture, facial expressions, etc. Some communication experts call this the 7-38-55 rule, meaning that only 7% of your communication is through words, while 38% is tone of voice, and 55% is completely nonverbal. While the science behind this is shaky on the exact numbers, the majority of experts agree that how you say something is as important as what you say. When you are delivering diplomatic dialogue, remember to control your tone and your nonverbal communication as well as you control your verbal communication.
Would you like to practice your business etiquette in an online or in-person business English intensive course? Contact us for a free appointment and to hear about all of our course offerings, or we can custom create your private one-on-one course today!
Call +31 20 823 0569
Read more about diplomacy with The English Center’s article, “Diplomatic English for Business.”
Author: Krys Copeland
Editor: Brenda de Jong-Pauley