ENGLISCH/882: Questions to Mrs Gobbledygook (180) Inappropriate "you" (SB)


180 How to avoid the inappropriate "You"

Dear Mrs Gobbledygook

You probably know the joke about one of the former German chancellors who got on so well with a British prime minister that he said: "Maggie, you can say "you to me!" This is, of course, funny only for people who know about the German "Du" and "Sie". The joke illustrates an issue that many Germans like me find rather difficult. How do you get the right level of formality without the help of "Du" and "Sie?"

Yours sincerely

Hans Sch. (Cologne, Germany)


Dear Mr Sch.

Traditionally, one way of showing the "Sie feeling" and keeping a sort of polite and respectful distance in English has been to use titles and family names rather than first names.

Nowadays, however, most Anglo-Saxons try to get on first-name terms as quickly as possible when they meet new people. This is very American but British people are quite fond of the American style these days. When they introduce themselves they tend to use both names and to stress their first name, like:

I'm Rupert, Rupert Giles -

to show they would like you to call them "Rupert".

Another way of showing formality is to package the message with politeness. In general, the more formal the situation, the more polite you need to be.

Imagine you are in a meeting with British colleagues and you are trying to arrange a date for the next meeting. They suggest one, but you think it is too late. There are various ways you could package your message:

That's too late.

This is a direct, simple message.

That would be too late.

"Would" is a common softener" and makes the message more polite.

That would be a little too late.

Words like "a little", "a bit" or "slightly" make the difference in opinion small and add to the degree of politeness.

Wouldn't that be a little to late?

Putting the message in question form makes the suggestion even more polite.

I'm afraid that would be a little bit too late.

Using "I'm afraid" is more formal and shows that what you are saying is "unavoidably unhelpful".

I was wondering if that wouldn't be a little bit too late.

This conditional sentence creates a less definite feeling and is seen as very polite, very formal and very British.

Even if I cannot help you with the addressing "you", you can see how you can create the appropriate feeling. The more "softeners" you put into a sentence, the stronger the politeness and formality. But be careful. If you are too "polite" in an inappropriate situation, it may sound ironic, like in this sample of sarcasm:

Could I interrupt your dreams for a moment, Brown, and ask you if you could pay just a little bit more attention to what I'm saying - if it's not too much trouble, of course.

So in most business or social situations, one or maybe two softeners are enough in any sentence to create a polite distance. Wondering if that wouldn't be a little help to solve your problems ...


Miranda Gobbledygook

28 December 2009