Updated: Sep 21
Ways to be Polite in English: Greetings, Compliments, Apologies & More
By Dr. Linh Phung
My previous post explains some idioms in English with examples from my experience. This week, in my US Culture course, my students and I are learning about “good manners” in the U.S. We discuss politeness, personal space, what titles to use, and other appropriate behaviors in various situations, which constitute the “American etiquette.”
There’s a lot to cover in one post, and usually these can only be learned through participation in various social situations, but I’d like to share a few phrases that may be helpful to those who interact cross-culturally.
Just like me when I first came to the U.S., many of my students are puzzled and pleasantly surprised by the warm hospitality of people they run into on campus and elsewhere. When seeing one another on campus, people may look you in the eye, smile to you, and say “Hi” or “How are you?” Why is it so? How should you respond?
Usually, when you walk on campus or on the street, you share a physical space. When your eyes happen to meet, people acknowledge your existence by saying hi or How are you. All you have to do is to say “Hi” or “I’m good. How are you?” back and walk on. You don’t need to stop and engage in a conversation unless it’s someone you know, and you want to stop for a chat. Other equivalent greetings include: How is it going? How are you doing?
In other conversations when you haven’t seen a friend or colleagues for a while, variations of a greeting include:
How have you been? I haven’t seen you for a while.
How has your semester been?
What’s new with you? I haven’t seen you for a while.
Complimenting others is common even among strangers. Just yesterday, as I got out of the car in front of a grocery store, someone complimented me by saying, “I love your dress.” I said, “Thank you” with a smile and went inside. The compliment made me feel good, and many people do this as a kind gesture. When you want to compliment someone, focus on something that they have that catches your attention. You may say:
I really like/ I love your shirt/ hair/ shoes!
Nice shirt/ scarf/ shoes!
If you visit someone’s house, you may say something nice about their house.
Your house has such a nice view!
I love the view from your house!
I love your decorations!
Usually, people do not compliment others’ physical features such as eyes, skin, or body shape. Some would say it's creepy to receive a compliment on a physical feature.
Apologies and condolences
If you think you cause someone a minor inconvenience, you may say “Excuse me,” for example, if you need to walk near someone to pass them on the street. The most common way to apologize when you make a mistake is to say “I’m sorry” or “Sorry for ...” What kind of information you need to add depends on how serious the “offense” is. For example, if you’re really late for a meeting, you may need to explain the reason.
In situations where someone passes away, what you express is your sympathy or condolences. This is when the expression “I’m so sorry for your loss” is often used. Notice the word “so” here. You may also say: My (deepest/ sincere) condolences.
Congratulations may be the simplest expression that you already use often when someone shares their achievements or milestones in their life. You may notice the preposition on with congratulations.
Congratulations/ Congrats on your award!
Congratulations/ Congrats on our new job!
Congratulations/ Congrats on your retirement!
Congratulations/ Congrats on winning the prize!
I have shared elsewhere that I don’t like the title Mrs next to my name. There may be various reasons for this, but you may keep in mind that Miss (pronounced as with an /s/) is used to address a single woman, Mrs is used with married woman, and Ms (pronounced with a /z/) doesn’t indicate someone’s marital status. Mrs + Last Name traditionally means the wife of Mr + Last Name. Mr has always been used to address a man regardless of his marital status. I’ve recently learned that Mx (pronounced as mix) can be used to refer to someone who doesn’t identify as a man or woman.
In college, it’s safe to address a teacher with their highest academic title (Dr. Linh Phung) or the title Professor. It’s also ok to address them with their first name if they tell you that it’s okay. I always tell my students that addressing me by my first name is fine with me, but I understand the difficulty in changing terms of address when the social norms in your country are different.
Overall, being polite is acting appropriately in different situations. Using these specific expressions may not feel natural to you at first, but you learn by observing and making adjustments as you feel comfortable. When asked to share about politeness in the U.S., most American students mention respect and kindness as a starting point. In cross-cultural communication, having an open mind will also help all parties involved.
What about you? What's your experience communicating with Americans or people from other countries? If you haven't had a chance to travel outside your country, would you like to try to communicate across borders? If yes, try the Eduling Speak app. Although you’re not really walking on the street of a foreign country like I and my students experience here in the U.S., you never know who you may run into on the app. Download it here if you haven’t done so.
About Dr. Linh Phung: Dr. Linh Phung has been teaching international students in the US for almost 15 years. She is also the creator of the Eduling Speak app, which connects English learners and speakers to talk in pairs based on communicative tasks and games. She’s also the author of a children’s book called Tug of Words, which is available on her website or Amazon.
Information about Eduling Speak