14 Pro Tips: Learn Diplomatic English for Business and Advance Your Career
Post category: Business English, Diplomatic English, Diplomatic Language
Level: High Intermediate–advanced
Brenda de Jong-Pauley MA
Director, The English Center of Amsterdam
September 2020, updated February 2021
Have you ever been told you were too direct? Not polite – or even rude? Then this post is for you.
I am an American, living and working in the Netherlands, and I know that the Dutch are, in general, very direct – and proud of it! They are also skeptical – if not downright bewildered – by Anglo Saxon indirectness. This article is intended as an introductory guide for L2 people interacting with native-English speakers.
This post is, by intent, culturally biased and therefore this advice may not be appropriate for speaking English to other ESL (English as a second language) folks.
1. An introduction to diplomatic English language. What is it and why use it?
Do you know the saying, “Treat others the way you want to be treated?” This simple but eternal wisdom is sometime called the “Golden Rule.” And that’s where diplomacy begins. Being diplomatic, in simple terms, is being nice, kind and polite.
But diplomacy has another driver. Diplomacy gets things done. It “greases the wheels” of human interactions. So if just treating others kindly is not enough for you, that’s OK, because diplomacy is also self-serving.
Yes, diplomatic language gets things done. Offending people, in general, does not.
Diplomacy is not about formality or avoiding casual language. It is about good manners and polite, respectful, effective interactions.
2. In the business world, English diplomacy shows strength.
Despite what you may have heard, real English diplomacy is neither weak nor fake. It is a way to achieve things. Diplomatic English is a way to be strong without making people angry. It is a way to build alliances. And it is a code that is not easily understood.
I hope these tips help you better navigate this very important dimension of business communication.
3. In diplomatic language, we use “helping verbs” (modals) and qualifiers to soften our delivery.
The examples below are diplomatic requests and suggestions that are understood as polite by native-English speakers. Comments like these “grease the wheels of communication” (facilitate communication). “Slijmerig!” say the Dutch. But what is too direct, or too fake and slimy (unctuous), is all “in the ear of the beholder” (A reference to the expression, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”) You can say…
• May I say a word or two about that?
• Would you agree with that statement?
• Do you think we could work with that plan?
• Can I add something to that?
• Shall we agree to disagree?
• Let’s come back to that subject tomorrow.
• Do you want to wrap it up?
• Could we get more information about that?
• Can you provide some more detail?
• Maybe we should…
• Perhaps we can…
• Later we might…
4. Take ownership of your opinion with a limiting “I” statement.
When you signal that an opinion is yours, and therefore perhaps not universal, perhaps not a fact, listeners will feel permitted to disagree, and that can actually help them relax and listen. Keep your tone neutral (not bragging) and say…
• I feel that…
• I find that…
• I think that…
• It seems to me that…
• I’ve always thought that…
5. Business English listeners expect context and sources.
When you are sharing info from another source, reference the source. You gain more credibility that way. And you give your colleagues a starting point. When they know that you were reading an Economist article or watching a Netflix documentary, they have context for your story. You can say…
• A recent article in the Economist says that…
• On Netflix I saw a documentary about…
• I researched this topic in school and….
• Bill Gates believes that…
6. Saying “sorry” in English is important, even in business!
For matters big and small, take responsibility for your part in things that have inconvenienced or hurt others. Saying “sorry” shows that you care if you have caused trouble, done damage or given offense. “Sorry,” when used correctly, expresses empathy and connectedness. It says, “I care.”
Do not use this word unless you mean it! Reserve “sorry” for sincere apologies. And please do not use “sorry” as a passive aggressive way to express irritation or anger.
7. Saying thank you and showing appreciation in English will improve relationships with business colleagues.
Saying thank you and expressing appreciation “go a long way” (=have a lot of value) in building good business relationships.
You can say–
• Thank you, thank you so much, thank you very much
• I appreciate…
• I am grateful for…
• We could not have done this without you.
• Your contribution is very much appreciated.
• You did a great job.
• Well done!
8. Use acknowledgment phrases to preface your statement, even if you plan to disagree.
These phrases show respect and signal that you heard what the other person was saying. You can say…
• I see your point, but…
• I get what you mean, however…
• Yes, it does seem that way, but I think that…
9. English speakers love compliments.
Go on, find something sincerely positive that you can say, even if you are about to disagree or say something negative. Use a compliment before your criticize. For example:
• I like the way you presented that, however…
• That was a very clear description, but…
• Your proposal is very attractive, and while…
• This is an outstanding offer, however
• Your concept is very intriguing, but
10. A diplomatic English way to give bad news can begin with “I’m afraid that…”
You can say “I’m afraid that–” when you need to give bad news. This prepares the listener for a negative message. You can say…
• I’m afraid that I don’t see it that way at all.
• I’m afraid we will have to wrap up this meeting now.
• I am afraid that we will not be able to deliver the product on time.
• I’m afraid there’s just no more budget for your project right now.
• I’m afraid that our meeting has to be postponed.
11. Diplomatic English for business makes use of many conjunctions.
Talking is like driving. You need to signal so that people know when you are going to change directions, especially from a positive to a negative opinion. To ease people into a negative comment, use words like but, but still, and however to show that a contradictory statement is coming.
• We would love to use your services, but…
• This proposal looks good, but still…
• This schedule is acceptable, however…
12. Being diplomatic in business English means being a good listener.
Show that you are listening with attentive body language and facial expression. Put down your phone, turn your body toward the person who is speaking and make eye contact. Ask questions and make comments that connect to their content. Do not plan your next comment while they are speaking. This is a terrible habit and will signal that you do not value what the other person is saying.
13. Diplomatic English for business means being receptive rather than judgmental.
In English we say, “Everyone is entitled to their opinion.” You do not have to crush the other person if you disagree with them! If you allow others space for their opinions, you lower their psychological defenses and they may, therefore, be more receptive to YOUR opinion. After all, your goal is to persuade and win them over, not to send them home angry, right?
14. English diplomatic language should be sincere.
Remember that even the most skillful diplomatic language can seldom hide aggression. Find your authentic inner diplomat and treat others the way you like to be treated, with respect, understanding and diplomacy.
Would you like to be more skillful in the use of diplomatic language for business? Contact The English Center to learn more about private, group and in-company business English communication training / courses, always with a talented native-speaker teacher.
Call 31 20 823 0569
Here are my polite English questions for you, all using the modal verb “would.”
Would you like to take a free level test?
Would you like to take a free business English test?
Would you like to see our in-company English page?
Would you like to request a language proficiency profile for some of your colleagues?
Call us at +31 20 823 0569. We are happy to speak with you in English or Dutch.