I moved to the UK (Scotland), as non native English speaker. Since then I discovered, for example, that when somebody offers you something, and you don’t want it, you can’t just simply say “No” (as in my native language). To not sound rude/passive aggressive you need to say “No, thank you”.

Similar problem, I was asked in free time by person in charge of me (manager) and who is two times older “Can I have a lighter, please”. If I translate this question to my native language, “please” in this case seems very submissive and is a big no-no in this exact question.

Same thing with ability to being able to speak “per you”/without adding title/small talk with older people or saying hi/hello, instead of more formal forms while greeting strangers.

Asking this kind of question in real world make me look like some ghetto man/barbarian, natives at first often don’t realize that some things are just different in different cultures.

The question is, can I learn about English language related manners not the hard way? How to not sound rude/passive aggressive without being too official?

  • 2
    I think that being polite without being too formal will come with practice. It's better to seem a little too uptown than too ghetto when trying to overcome a culture difference. I don't have a real answer, but this might help michellehenry.fr/polite.htm
    – ColleenV
    Jan 25, 2015 at 13:35
  • 2
    I am voting to leave this open because I think limiting it to the UK narrows the scope just enough for someone to provide a sensible answer.
    – ColleenV
    Jan 25, 2015 at 15:18
  • I praise you for wanting to deal with this issue: people speaking the same language, yet with different cultural backgrounds, what causes misunderstanding. Indeed, multiple time I have felt pushed around by people asking things very bluntly — but, I guess, without genuinely wanting to be disrespectful. Just because that's how one asks in their native language. A part of the burden falls to us: not judging the person as voluntarily impolite. However, you are true that adopting the standard local etiquette would reduce the risk to accidentally hurt people.
    – ebosi
    Nov 18, 2018 at 11:26

5 Answers 5


General simple guide, featuring persons 'A' and 'B'.

A: Can I have a lighter, please? B: Yes.

A: Would you like a lighter? B: Yes, please.

A: Would you like a burger? B: No, thank you.

Asking for something is accompanied by a 'please' to make the sentence more polite. It doesn't 'water down' the message - you're still asking for a lighter with the intention of getting one.

Responding positively to a question is accompanied by a 'please', while responding negatively is accompanied by a 'thank you'.

There are no formal pronouns in English. We're all impolite buggers. You'd use a 'hello' instead of a 'hi' in formal situations but English speakers never look for formal or polite constructs from their younglings.


While I agree with all the other answers, I think the problem is somewhat bigger than just "say 'please' and 'thank you'". English, like any other language, is full of nuances, idioms and subtexts - some phrases you'd say in one context, but not in the other, and things that can be perfectly innocent when taken literally might upset the person you're talking to because of the cultural context.

So, seeing how you'd be hard-pressed to find a comprehensive guide to being polite in English, there are two big tips:

  1. Talk to people. If they realize you're a foreigner, they probably won't be too hard on you when you accidentally say something harsh, especially if your body language signals you didn't mean to do that. In case somebody actually does point it out, just apologize, say that you're from X and explain the cultural difference. I don't think most people would mind it then.

  2. Listen to people. Your coworkers, managers, friends, characters in TV shows. How do they speak among they peers? How do they speak when facing their superiors? What kind of personality are they trying to communicate? Do they avoid certain phrases in some contexts, but not the others? All that makes for not only the knowledge of the language, but the feel for it - and with time, you should start getting that feel too.

  • If the original poster does not understand "please" and "thank you" -- which are "magic words" taught to native English speakers when they are four years old -- it is likely that the original poster's body language is also wrong (for an English speaking country).
    – Jasper
    Jan 25, 2015 at 22:45
  • @Jasper I doubt the OP doesn't understand the words themselves. After all they're one of the first words you learn on any English course. Knowing when to use them and in what measure is a completely different thing - in Polish, for example, saying things like "Could you give me a lighter, please" too often would make you sound stiff. As for the body language (and intonation, context, etc.), I'm not aware of any culture that would have such a radically different one that they'd fail to communicate politeness when speaking English. Jan 25, 2015 at 23:14

From having my British friend visit... The UK is a bit more polite than in the US, so going over-polite is likely to have a better outcome, even if it's a little over-formal, than being too curt. I don't know how other languages indicate "respect for you as a person" -- I'm a terribly monoglot -- but the UK (and the US) does so with the "please" and "thank you" stuff. To do otherwise would tend to be perceived as curt and like you think the other person is not worth being polite to. Giving people orders, unless you're a superior officer in the military, is usually rude (even for bosses to their employees!) -- and it will seem like an order unless you soften your requests to people.

As a rule of thumb, say "please" when you are asking someone to do something for you (even if they are your employee!), or phrase the request as a question, or both. E.g., "Hand me that pencil, would you?" or "Please pass me the pen over there," or "Could you hold the door for me(,please)?" (optional please on the last one). And then say "Thanks" or "Thank you" if someone complies. The question gives a chance of refusal (which a polite person won't do without a good reason), while using "please" is the politeness word that softens an order into a request. (Which, again, a polite person will not refuse without a good reason.)

(If you are trying to catch an elevator or otherwise in a time-critical situation, "Hold the elevator!" or "Grab the door!" is fine -- but follow it with a "Thanks!" when you can.)

When someone asks if they can do something for you, then as above, "Yes, please," "Yes, thank you," or "No, thanks." (The "thank you" in "no, thank you" is pretty much short for "thank you for considering my wishes here, even though I am declining this." You acknowledge that they were trying to be considerate.)

In longer sentences, body language and tone of voice count for more, and you can get away with forgetting a "please" if you have the right intonation -- but "yes" and "no" are very short, so it's easy for them to seem curt and hostile. Neglecting "please" and "can you?" elements in requests is a frequent indication of anger in English.


As someone who has had 5 years of experience living in Scotland (Glasgow), I can assure you that there is not a major gap between manners in the UK and other English speaking countries like the US or Canada. Therefore I think your issue is not cultural conduct in the UK but simply cultural norms in the English language.

The only comprehensive way to master these cultural norms is to give it time and practice and (as ColleenV implied in the comments) it is always better to be too polite rather than too impolite.

The very basic foundations of English manners is to use please before requests and thank you after someone assists you, or offers to assist you (whether you accept it or not) .

Also, as I have learned it is somewhat rude or awkward to smile to random people in some countries, in the UK it is quite the opposite. It is customary to smile after you have made eye contact with someone even if it's a stranger.

  • As you mention, all these rules apply in the U.S. as well. Jan 26, 2015 at 1:33

One of the things you are noticing is that English thinks about status differently than your language. You mention "speaking 'per you'" with someone, and I think you are talking about using the familiar second person pronoun, but that isn't really a concept that exists in English. One part of courtesy in English is (sometimes) pretending that there is not a difference in status even if there is.

Of course, it is more complicated than that, and you have to learn the local rules. It sounds like you are already doing that, and there is really no substitute for paying attention. But some observations:

  • In tech corporations, pretty much everyone is referred to by their first names.
  • In most US universities, undergraduates call their professors "Professor So-and-so", and grad students call their professors by their first names. I wouldn't be surprised if Scotland is the same.
  • The medical world is more protocol-driven. Physicians are referred to as "Dr. So-and-so," usually.
  • In general, you talk to older people pretty much the same as you talk to people your own age. They like to think of themselves as still being young.
  • Children call their teachers "Mr." or "Ms.", and usually their friends' parents, as well. But often even children will use first names for their parents' friends.

This tendency to avoid displays of status is why your superior at work said "please." It would be very rude for him to act like he deserved special treatment.

It would be wrong to think that everything comes out of this difference in attitudes about status. Your other observation, that you have to say "No, thanks" rather than just "No", is unrelated, I think. The rationale of course is that you must acknowledge the other person's kindness, but how and when that is necessary is something you just have to learn from experience.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .