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I'm not a native English speaker. My understanding of the meaning of 'OK" is to acknowledge what has been said. In other words, I think it means "I get it" or "I agree" when you say "OK" as a response to others. I never thought "OK" could be a word making others feel disrespectful. Recently, the thing happened to me make me wonder whether "OK" sometimes make others feel impolite and disrespectful.

In my reply email to one of my teachers, a professor in our department who is also not native English speaker, my sentence of "OK, I understand." made him fell very disrespected and unhappy. I feel very sorry for this. I'd like to know whether it is an appropriate way of using "OK" in my reply. The context is as below:

My first email to my teacher: I introduced myself and explained that I'd like to ask his help for my problem. Then I explained the problem I met. Finally, I said I felt very sorry to trouble him because of my own careless. I expressed my sorry again and my thanks.

The reply from my teacher: He told me my problem would be solved.

My reply to my teacher: "OK, I understand. I'm very thankful for your help. Thanks again for your kind help."

Then my teacher thought "OK" was not appropriate herein and it made him feel disrespected.

I'm wondering whether "OK" is a suitable expression herein?

I found some explanations of "OK" in he community. For example, "OK" is used when you are trying to convey that you have received and understand the information. It can just indicate acknowledgement of what's been said, and it doesn't always mean anything more.

In addition, is it position-dependent when using "OK"? When it comes to the students, is it appropriate to use "OK" in the reply email to his/her teacher?

Any suggestion would be very much appreciated.

  • It sounds a little bit informal, I guess. Not sure how that's "disrespectful" enough to warrant a comment. Unless there's room for misinterpretation? Maybe including the professor's last response would help us. – the-baby-is-you Mar 13 at 7:59
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    I would have expected "OK, I understand" to be a response to the teacher giving a good reason why they couldn't help you. If they said they could solve the problem, a word of thanks would have been sufficient. But I don't know what's wrong with 'OK' except that, as the previous comment says, it's rather informal. – Kate Bunting Mar 13 at 8:44
  • You could consider you teacher as your boss. That would help you understand this situation. – WXJ96163 Mar 13 at 14:41
  • @the-baby-is-you Thanks. I'm not sure whether there's misinterpretation. The last response from my teacher was not sent to me, but to my superadvisor. My superadvisor told me about my teacher's unhappy to my reply, especially, the word of "OK". That's why I thought the problem was serious. – Daisy Mar 14 at 5:42
  • @Kate Bunting You're right. "I understand" following "OK" seems strange. Thanks. – Daisy Mar 14 at 5:47
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The word "OK" itself is not inherently disrespectful really at all. There are some cases where it might be construed as "not as respectful as the situation requires", though, for a couple of reasons:

  • "OK" is a fairly casual expression, so in situations where formality is expected, it's not necessarily always appropriate. In more formal situations, something like "all right" is often a better substitute (but on the contrary, in a casual conversation, "all right" might sound more formal than desired).
  • "OK" can lead to very short responses (particularly if just used by itself), and short statements can often be construed as harsh, or dismissive. For this reason, if you're not pretty sure about how the person will take it, it's generally best to err on the side of more words rather than less, and avoid things like just saying "OK" by itself.

That having been said, your response of "OK, I understand" does not sound at all disrespectful to me. Particularly since you also followed it up with a fair amount of respectful thanks (more than necessary, actually, in my opinion), I think your teacher is arguably completely wrong to interpret it that way (and any hurt feelings are probably more their fault than your fault).

Also, there isn't really any position dependence with using "OK". It is just fine to use it with a superior or a subordinate. The only real issue is the level of formality or politeness of the discussion. (Even then, "OK" is usually fairly acceptable in spoken conversations even when things are reasonably formal. It's often not used as much in formal written conversation, though.)

If anything, as Kate noted, the "I understand" part of your response was the most strange part, because that implies that they had to explain something or give you some knowledge that you have received and understood, instead of just telling you that they would do something for you. In a situation where somebody is just saying they will do something or something will happen, I would expect a response more along the lines of:

OK, thanks. (casual)

or

OK, thanks a lot for your help. (professional)

or perhaps in a few situations

OK, thank you very much for your help in this matter. (formal)

(But be careful, because really formal speech can sound condescending if the situation doesn't really demand that level of formality)

Note that in all of these cases, the "OK" part is fairly acceptable, in my opinion. You also don't generally need to repeat the same thanks multiple times ("I'm very thankful for your help. Thanks again for your kind help."), as that can sound a bit strange. Once should be enough.

As a side-note, a couple of times you used phrases like:

making others feel disrespectful

I believe the word you wanted there was actually "disrespected" (that is, they felt that you were not respecting them). "disrespectful" means that they are not respecting someone else.

In the situation you're discussing, your teacher felt that you were disrespectful, which means they felt that they were disrespected.

Likewise saying somebody "feels impolite" implies that they are feeling like they are not being polite (to other people).

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  • Thanks a lot for your detailed explanation. That is very helpful to me. For the use of casual phrases, I need to be careful of the situation. I agree with what you and Kate said, the words of "I understand" in my response seems unnecessary and strange. As for 'disrespectful" and "disrespected", I get your point and thanks. – Daisy Mar 14 at 5:33

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