8

Update: (Originally this was a comment, but I thought it was worth sharing here at the top.)

In the original question, I asked if there was a polite, socially-acceptable way to ask an Indian co-worker not to use the phrase "do the needful", as I didn't care for it.

In the years since I asked this question I've asked many people about the phrase. To the Indians I've asked in-person, it's not rude in any way. To Americans I've asked it varies anywhere from "I don't like it, but I don't mind it" to "It's very rude and makes me angry when I see it".

Through a long series of edits the question morphed and wasn't allowed to be deleted by the moderators. The question, as it stands now, has no other answer.

I guess, though, if you're non-Indian and you find it rude, or if you're Indian and you've never realized someone might find it rude, this post may still have merit. Hopefully it does. It certainly has gotten a lot of views. Best wishes, folks.

End Update. See below for what's left of the actual question.


"Do the needful."

It's a phrase that I've only seen used in email, and I find it . . . presumptuous (maybe even rude). Regardless of prefacing with "please", one is commanding rather than asking for assistance.

I've only seen it used by those of Indian origin, so I've simply not mentioned it at all rather than worry about any cross-cultural offense that may come of bringing it up.

But still, I don't understand why it's used. Why not request rather than make two statements, one factual, one imperative?

For example, why would one use:

  1. I'm told you have Jane's email address. Please do the needful.

instead of,

  1. Would you send me Jane's email address?
  • 1
    You might mention that you've just found this Wikipedia page: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Do_the_needful. :) Here is our ELL question that introduced me to that page: ell.stackexchange.com/questions/17278/…. – Damkerng T. Feb 17 '14 at 21:15
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    @Gabriel If the question is about how to tell your coworker not to use a particular phrase that you feel is rude, then the question isn't really about the English language itself and would be better asked on The Workplace. – starsplusplus Feb 18 '14 at 11:29
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    I think a person not too versed in idioms could find strong sexual connotations in that phrase. I mean, "do someone" means "have a sexual intercourse with them", and "needful" could be read as... well, the obvious in that context. – SF. May 14 '14 at 13:40
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    @SF. I either disagree, or don't follow. I understand the phrase you refer to, I just don't see the correlation to "do the needful". It would have to be said alongside some highly suggestive body language to have that effect, and at that point, you can say pretty much anything and make it sexual with body language. – inanutshellus May 14 '14 at 15:32
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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because I don't see this as a language question. Is there a way to bring this up that won't itself make my friend feel like he's offended me, or that the phrase itself causes offense? is a question for Workplace.SE, even though the phrase itself is something we've discussed before. It would be on-topic if the question was what is a good alternative, or how the tone of the phrase should be interpreted. – ColleenV May 20 '15 at 21:34
8

Do the needful is Indian English, which has been covered on ELU.

If you're only interacting with other speakers of Indian English then feel free to use it, but avoid it in any other contexts (most Americans and Brits will think it's quaint/uneducated).

In general, the "standard" form is do what[ever] is necessary, but in OP's specific context most likely nothing like that would be used anyway. If you've just asked for an email address, it goes without saying that you want the other person to do whatever is necessary to give you that information.


I may be wrong, but I have the impression that for many Indian English speakers, "Please do the needful" carries a subtext of "This problem is too complex for me to understand or resolve myself, but I have complete faith that you will be able to deal with it, because you are very skilled in such matters"

As I said, Brits and Americans wouldn't normally use any equivalent for such a trivial problem as finding someone's email address. But if the request was for something more challenging (and crucially, if it was from a manager to a more junior worker), "Do what[ever] [you think] is necessary [to solve this problem]" might be perfectly normal. The implication there is that the manager is authorising the junior to do things he might otherwise not be "permitted" to do (in effect, the junior is being temporarily "promoted" for the duration of the problem-solving).

In that context, it should be clear that (to Americans or Brits, at least) any such phrase would probably be considered offensive/cheeky if addressed to an equal in the workplace (if the person asking isn't senior enough to confer temporary authority on you, they shouldn't be speaking to you that way).

  • A well-written explanation. As you inadvertently pointed out, my example was contrived. I've adjusted it, now that I think I understand the motivation for the phrasing... but actually, this begs the question: Among Indian english speakers, would it make sense for me to say "do the needful" to, say, my boss? – inanutshellus Feb 18 '14 at 5:20
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    @Gabriel: If you're not already familiar with Indian English, why on earth would you want to learn when to use such an expression? Anyway, obviously I didn't explain my "impression" about the IE subtext very well. I think it would be an extremely bad idea to say that to your boss - what I meant was the office junior might feel flattered if his boss told/asked him to "do the needful". By association, he might therefore accept it from an "equal". I don't think anyone (IE or not) would be happy to hear it from a junior. Also, I'm sure it's not a "translation" - just a Raj hangover. – FumbleFingers Feb 18 '14 at 12:51
  • Actually, I'm happy to have learned when an Indian english speaker would find it appropriate to use as a mechanism for learning how I'm being thought of. – inanutshellus Feb 18 '14 at 14:06
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    This is probably why when "do the needful" crops up in SE questions, as it does occasionally, users of Standard English might bridle a bit. The question is not merely not addressed to an equal, but addressed by someone who is asking for a solution to someone who is better-equipped to provide it. – Andrew Leach Sep 4 '14 at 21:32
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    @oerkelens: My understanding is that Indian English has relatively low status, even in India. The syntactic differences that commonly occur don't normally present any problem with comprehension for native Anglophones, but they are noticeable. If an Indian (or any other nationality, come to that) doesn't already speak "standard" English, I don't think they'd normally want to deliberately learn IE in contexts where they've no obvious way of knowing which elements are peculiar to that "dialect". – FumbleFingers May 26 '15 at 17:12
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An 'IE' speaker here, and I actually made an account just to share my views about this topic.

Over the 2 past years, I have worked at a multinational audit firm and also a reputed research institution in India where I have seen common use of the phrase "Please do the needful". It is usually a good closing sentence after explanation of the context has been given in the rest of the mail, and is honestly just a polite request. I was genuinely surprised to find that people seemed to have a problem with the phrase and that it is labelled as an 'Indian-English' term. Initially I thought that there might be something wrong with the word 'needful', but when I looked it up, I got the usual meaning 'necessary/requisite'. There are no grammatical errors with the phrase in question, and really, no indication of arrogance at all! I see people suggesting the usage of "Please do what is necessary", and I don't see any difference between the two phrases. So is the problem with the word 'needful'? Is it not used often enough by English language speakers abroad? Also, if the same was used as part of a question like "Could you please do the needful?", would it still seem rude/commanding to you? In business emails, people try to be as concise as possible, no one has time to write elaborately worded emails or read them; succinct responses are appreciated, and this is probably the most succinct way to communicate the thought! So I quote R Clews here, "If it isn't 'broken', why try and 'fix' it?". Different doesn't always mean wrong does it?

To answer your question, if you find the phrase 'rude', then you can be straightforward and tell them that it isn't a phrase you are comfortable/familiar with, and would prefer an alternate phrase (although such a request could possibly make you seem arrogant/rude depending on how you phrase it). There's no real reason for your friend to be offended, it is certainly a commonly used phrase, but not something that an Indian would be offended about if they are requested not to use it because the other person does not appreciate it. But I still do not understand why its usage seems to be such an issue.

  • 2
    First, welcome to StackExchange! There's no difference in rudeness between "necessary" and "needful", it's just a more-natural phrasing for us Yankees. It boils down to this: You're giving a command. "IE" usage of it treats it as though you've simply wrapped up a discussion, but factually you're giving a command. "Go do as I've instructed." In the original example, instead of saying "I need Jane's email address. Do the needful." We would say "Would you send me Jane's email?" One is a command, the other is a request. That's the difference that's lost in translation. – inanutshellus May 20 '15 at 18:14
  • I'm curious. How'd you find the question if you didn't have/run into the issue? – inanutshellus May 20 '15 at 18:16
  • Thanks for the welcome. Haha there was actually a post about 'Indian Terms' that are supposedly grammatically wrong. I saw 'Do the needful' there so I started looking it up because it didn't seem like a grammatically wrong phrase to me at all. But yes, I do understand how you say it seems like a command rather than a request, although that's why I would like to know, what if someone puts it forward like a request, for eg., "Could you please do the needful?", would it still seem absurd to a non-IE speaker? I think the issue with the term is that it is colloquial rather than a translation issue. – Akanksha May 20 '15 at 22:59
  • Also, it's really cool that someone edited my typos! – Akanksha May 20 '15 at 23:01
  • Frankly, although I definitely consider this an Indian English idiom, and would only use it myself ironically, I can't see anything "rude" about it and some of the other answers here are sensational in their hatred for it. – Lightness Races in Orbit Mar 16 '18 at 20:26
4

These are not excerpts but complete examples:

"My webserver is not working customers can not complete tasks. Please do the needful"
"The generated report is incorrect, please do the needful."
"We can not access our email. Some computer tasks work but our other office has not. Please do the needful."

To directly answer the OP's question, it is exceptionally rude. It is presumptuous in telling rather than asking, and carries a condescending tone. "My time is more valuable than yours. I'm so high above this task, I won't bother explaining it. Just do the needful!" Early on I considered it no less abrasive than than seeing "ASAP" in the subject line. Today I just shake my head, roll my eyes, and move to the next email.

Root Problem: What really exasperates this, per the OP's example: usually one is lacking any (coherent) problem description, context, steps to reproduce, solutions already tried, or desired outcome/end-goal. There are never clearly defined action items and no question asked! If I don't know what the needful is, I probably won't do it. This is what I would explain to your friend.

for many Indian English speakers, "Please do the needful" carries a subtext of "This problem is too complex for me to understand or resolve myself, but I have complete faith that you will be able to deal with it, because you are very skilled in such matters"

@FumbleFingers nails it! That's what we presume was intended; actually this is an overly formal conclusion sentence, as written. Unfortunately, without surrounding details this can easily be re-interpreted as "I'm too ignorant to understand, to learn, or to learn to ask in English." In IT, and Professional Services Support, I have often seen this from customers. I've even received it as the answer to my follow-up questions, or in response to support requests I've opened. I apologize to the OP if this response seems harsh but it is a blunt honest answer to the question asked.

  • I think you mean exacerbates. – shmosel Dec 6 '18 at 0:40
0

"Please do the needful" is a request which we use not only with our Indian English speaking clients, but are using more and more with other customers from around the world. The usual context is with regard to submitting some document, paying an outstanding invoice, or completing some task, or completing some other necessary action. Personally, I would use different phrases for each eventuality, but "Please do the needful" works! And if it isn't 'broken', why try and 'fix' it? The English language is incorporating new words and meanings every day. I therefore think that "Please do the needful* is a very polite, 'workable' and generally acceptable way of asking, or requesting, someone to do the task at hand.

  • 4
    It is accepted by everyone I work with as well. We politely react accordingly (paying an invoice, etc) and say nothing, because to do otherwise would be impolite. Ask a non-Indian that you trust in these matters, and ask them which is more polite (using Garrick's example): "The generated report is incorrect, please do the needful." or "The generated report is incorrect, would you look into it?" When they tell you it's the latter, perhaps you'll believe that while it is intended by Indian speakers to be polite (and is to you), it is not to others. – inanutshellus Oct 17 '14 at 15:21
0

It was a common saying in the times of British colonization in India. It has since become antiquated outside of India, but is still in use amongst English speaking Indians. I work for a large worldwide tech company and it is very common with our India counterparts.

  • This has already been stated in the other answers. – Chenmunka Jun 10 '15 at 13:34
  • @Chenmunka: Literally no other answer says this. – Lightness Races in Orbit Mar 16 '18 at 20:27
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Jane's at jjones@xyzmail.com ... that "the needful"? Or is there sumpn else wants "doing"? Us Tennessee country boys ain't too swuft with global idiom.

-Gabriel

Even if it doesn't baffle him completely that should at least get him started thinking.

  • 1
    I think your "subtle or not-so-subtle" ironic response might be somewhat opaque to the average visitor here. I take it you mean to convey something along the lines of BrE "You want jam on it too, do you?" (latterly, "Do you want chips with that?", which still cracks me up in the right context). That's to say, it kinda means "I'm getting fed up with your excessive demands [and while I'm at it, I'll just take a pop at your speech patterns with one of my own]". Is that about right? – FumbleFingers Feb 18 '14 at 16:19
  • @FumbleFingers I don't really understand the link you provided, but I believe he was suggesting I make light of the situation by playing the fool. In effect, using humor as a mechanism for starting the conversation. A good idea, though at best I think he'd detect a ruse. At worst, he'd detect the ruse and the irritation in the wording. – inanutshellus Feb 19 '14 at 16:26
  • @Gabriel: Well, you say the person who asked you to do the needful is a "good friend", so probably she would interpret a response along the lines of StoneyB's or mine as light-hearted. But in other circumstances these responses might be seen as scathingly sarcastic (having approximately the same sense as "Go fuck yourself! I'm not your lackey!"). What I mean is, if the other person was your boss, and wasn't a very good friend, you might well find yourself out of a job using replies like this! – FumbleFingers Feb 19 '14 at 16:43
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    @FumbleFingers Gabriel gets it; but as you say, it does assume a certain collegiality, not to mention the shared experience (familiar to every Southerner over here) of being mocked for one's dialectal peculiarities. – StoneyB Feb 19 '14 at 17:11
-1

I think people accept and understands this phrase world wide although, majority I believe would associate it as being commonly used by Indian speakers.. Specifically Indian speakers IN India or who still have a strong connection to their Indian work ethic or practices. I've never heard this spoken by Indians OUTSIDE India specially the ones who've been working on a multinational or cross country businesses.

Personally though, I often interpret it more as "I'm not really sure what to do or how you plan to do it so I'll sound professional here and use 'do the needful' to pass the ball to you."

  • Updating: For what it's worth, I didn't down-vote you. Your answer was anecdotal just like everyone else's and more polite than many. Please don't be discouraged from using StackOverflow because your first post was not well-received. We don't all bite. :-D – inanutshellus Jan 4 '17 at 14:19
  • And don't get discouraged from using Stack Overflow because your first post on a totally different site was not well-received! – Lightness Races in Orbit Mar 16 '18 at 20:28

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