Making a fluent fool of yourself.
There are, of course, considerable differences between the communication styles of English and Dutch speakers and writers. Most noticeably, English speakers are much more indirect communicators than the Dutch and being polite is a fundamental part of an English speaker’s culture.
There are, of course, national differences on the spectrum of English speakers e.g. Americans are more direct than their British counterparts. Nevertheless, even Americans can find the Dutch a little too direct and often misinterpret this directness and label it as ‘being rude’.
Consequently, if you really wish to become a successful communicator of English (in speaking and in writing), you have to adopt some of the techniques we use to sound more polite. After all, as one famous anthropologist once said, “to know another’s language and not his culture is one way of making a fluent fool of yourself”.
1. Avoid ‘must’ and have to’
These are only used to express strong obligations and order. Instead, use “should”:
- (not) You must reconsider their proposal
(but) You should reconsider their proposal
2. Turn affirmative sentences into questions and requests
You should also avoid ‘want’ when making requests – use ‘would like’ instead. (or: ‘would you be so kind as to…’, or ‘We were hoping to…’):
- (not) I want to meet tomorrow
(but) I would like to meet tomorrow
3. Express opinions mildly
Use phrases such as ‘I would say that…’, ‘I feel …’:
- (not) In my opinion, we need to give a negative advice on this one
(but) I feel we need to give a negative advice on this one
4. Prepare the reader for bad news
Precede negative comments with softeners like ‘I am afraid…’, ‘Unfortunately…’:
- (not) Your request for further financing has been rejected by our client
(but) Unfortunately, I have to tell you that your request for further financing has been….
5. Soften with ‘would’, ‘could’ or ‘might’
Avoid overusing ‘will’ and the imperative
- (not) Will you inform us of your decision as soon as possible?
(but) Would/Could you inform us of your decision as soon as possible?
6. Avoid direct statements
Avoid direct statements such as ‘you said…’. Instead, use phrases such as: ‘I understood…’, ‘It would appear that…’, ‘It seems that…’.
- (not) You said the contract would be signed today
(but) I understood the contract would be signed today.
7. Use ‘please’ whenever possible
English speakers nearly always use ‘please’ with requests. This is most probably the most basic form of showing respect.
- (not) Hold the line
(but) Please hold the line