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Be polite, please (and why rules are there to be questioned)

We do lots of work with people who write to customers. Especially angry customers who’ve had a lousy ‘customer experience’ and have put pen to paper, or typing finger to Twitter, to rant and rave. (We’ve all been one.)

This week, I was getting a group of customer service people to write back to an imaginary version of one of these grumps. One of them wrote this sentence:

‘Send me your details please and I will try to resolve your issue.’

Now, there’s some obvious stuff to fix in this sentence. Outside of a call centre, no-one wants their ‘issues’ ‘resolved’ – ideally they get their problems sorted out (or something like that). So, we picked that (ahem) low-hanging fruit.

But then I asked her about that ‘please’: ‘Send me your details please’.

'What’s that doing?' I asked. ‘I was trying to make it sound polite’, she said. ‘Does it?’’, I asked. ‘Read it out.’ As she read, her colleagues chuckled. ‘Not really!’, she admitted. Because it doesn’t; in fact it sounds the opposite – impatient, maybe; passive aggressive even.

‘But I was taught that you always put “please” to be polite’.

Of course ‘please’ is sometimes polite. But really quite often it’s the opposite: ‘Please stop going on at me’ isn’t polite, but exasperated. When we really want to be polite, we use a load of other linguistic tactics: ‘Would you mind turning your music down just a touch? is much more polite than ‘Please turn your music down.’ (Apologies to anyone who’s not British and thinking: why don’t they just say what they bloody well mean?)

There are tons of these so-called rules that many of us follow blindly, even though we know – if we stopped and reflected for a second or two ­– that they don’t always hold true. We were taught that anything you write should have a full stop at the end. But that’s not always true on social media, or text messages. If you text your partner and say ‘I’m really tired. Could we postpone date night?’, there’s a big difference between the answers

‘Fine’

and

‘Fine.’

(Have a look at the research on how final full stops can sound insincere.)

This is why in training workshops I’m always getting people to read stuff out. We have a much more reliable sense of what’s formal, or friendly, or rude, or salesy, when we hear it. Read stuff out and you’ll hear that most exclamation marks don’t make you sound fun, they make you sound like a crazy person, for instance.

It turns out that what sounds right is a damned sight better guide than what the ‘rules’ say. So listen to your words, and trust your instincts. Please.