Teaching Polite Requests : Part One

The first part of this article on teaching polite requests will look at why students often have difficulty with the area and the elements we need to be focusing on. In the second part, we'll look at a sample lesson plan for the area.

A : David, I’m really sorry to have to bother you, but my car’s broken down. Would it be awfully inconvenient for you to give me a lift home this evening?

B : Oh Helen – I’m really sorry. I would, but my mother’s in hospital and I have to go straight there after work. Why don’t you ask Jean. She goes your way.

A request – and a refusal. Now imagine giving that situation to your learners as a roleplay : Your car has broken down so you need to ask a colleague for a lift home. Your colleague refuses. What do you both say? The resulting conversation will probably go something like : S1 : Can you give me a lift home this evening? S2: No I can’t.

What problems do students have when faced with a functional area like making and responding to polite requests? Why is it that even when what they say is grammatically correct,as here, it often still sounds at best stilted and inauthentic, and at worse rude or aggressive?

One problem students have is simply the grammatical complexity of many of the exponents. Here’s a list of a few possibilities :

- Sign here (please).
- Open the window, can/could/will/would you (please)?
- Can/Could/Will/Would you open the window (please)?
- Could you just/ possibly open the window (please)?
- Do you think you could (possibly/just) open the window (please)?
- Is there any chance of you giving me a lift home tonight?
- Would you mind (awfully) opening the window (please)?
- If you will/would/can/could (just) sign here (please)
- I wonder if you could (just/possibly) open the window (please)
- I wonder if you’d mind (awfully) opening the window (please).
- Would it be very inconvenient for you if I asked you to give me a lift?
- I should/would be grateful if you could/would reply before March 10th.
- I should/would appreciate it if you could/would reply before March 10th.

Notice that most of these exponents use modal verbs, and the more indirect (or tentative) the request is, the longer it becomes and the more likely it is that the request is expressed hypothetically : Would you mind … I wonder if you could … I would be grateful if … and so on. Modality is, in my experience, one of the areas that students find most difficult to use spontaneously in English, and it is therefore not surprising that they frequently fall back to the simplest forms Can /Could you ….

However, by avoiding the grammatical complexity of the exponents, the students are also abandoning any attempt to match what they say to the situation. The choice of an appropriate exponent will depend on three factors :
  • Participant relationships (who says it and who they say it to ). If I want my husband to open the window, I may well use an imperative form. If I’m in a client’s office and feel desperately hot, I’m more likely to use a longer exponent. And it is not only the exponents which may need to change, but also the formulation of the request itself. In the client’s office I might also avoid making a direct request for him or her to act – ie Do you think you could possibly open the window? - by saying something like Do you think we could possibly have the window open?
  • The level of “threat” posed by the request (Am I asking for a service - Could you check the oil please? - where I have a socially acknowledged right to make the request, or a favour. If so, do I want you to lend me your bike or your Ferrari?)
  • The context of the request (is it the first time I ask you not to play music after 11pm or the tenth?)
The forms may also take on a different level of directness dependent on the intonation used. For example, the imperative I use with my husband may function as an order or a request. If I’ve burnt the toast again and the kitchen is full of smoke I may say /open the WINdow/ using a final falling tone. The situation is urgent and I am giving a command. But if it’s a hot day, I’m reading on the sofa and am just too lazy to get up myself, /Open the WINdow/ said with a lengthened first syllable in open and a final fall-rise tone will move my utterance much closer to a request. The same can happen with any of the exponents Would you mind opening the window? said by a Managing Director to the office cleaner is functionally an order, and liable to finish with a falling tone, even though it has the structure of a request.

The effect of intonation is something we clearly have to focus on in the classroom, but it is also an area that we know many students are going to find difficult. A native speaker can automatically increase or decrease the level of indirectness of an exponent by adding the appropriate intonation, but students don’t always get it right. As Hendriks, referring to Brown and Levinson, points out : the non-communication of the polite attitude will be read not merely as the absence of that attitude, but as the inverse, the holding of an aggressive attitude.
If students have chosen a fairly direct exponent and have also mistakenly used direct intonation, their listeners may not give them the benefit of the doubt.

Within the exponents, the use of politeness markers such as please can also cause problems. Learners tend to see please as “the” marker of politeness, overestimating its importance and also sometimes its function. They therefore feel that if they have included please in the sentence, they have automatically been polite. Yet the meaning of please will again depend on intonation, and also on its sentence position. For example, talking to my son, I might say /can you put your TRAINers away, please/ with please in final position. Five minutes later, when I see the trainers are still in the same position as before, the request becomes /can you PLEASE put your trainers away/. The shift in position of please and the added stress mark my request as considerably less “polite” than before. If another five minutes pass without action, I may well yell /
PLEASE / can you put your TRAINers away/ - which I would argue is neither polite, nor a request. The situation is complicated though by the interaction of the two factors : stress and position. Even if please remains in final position the request again becomes more insistent if please is stressed /Can you put your trainers away, PLEASE/ while it is sometimes included in initial or mid-position but with weaker stress to emphasise that the request is important, but not necessarily to express displeasure. Oh, that reminds me – next week, please can you remember to bring all the tests we’ve done this term. In writing, please is often used in this way.

Related to this is the use of modifying adverbs – possibly, awfully, just etc. They often have a much more important role in enhancing politeness than does please – compare for example Would you just take a seat and Would you take a seat, please – but are often avoided by students.

And finally, but perhaps most importantly, there is the difference in discourse structure of the request sequence which is often apparent when comparing native speaker and learner English. As always, this will depend on the three factors mentioned above, but compare the sequence which started this article with the learners’ version :

David, I’m really sorry to have to bother you, but my car’s broken down. The sequence starts with a pre-request. Brown and Levinson (again quoted in Hendriks) suggest that utterances such as these are motivated by the need to maintain “face” – here, to retain the other person’s approval. The speaker therefore starts with an apology. Before making the request she wishes to assume a “humble” attitude, and to show that she appreciates that she is asking for something that might irritate or “bother” the listener. Her use of “have to” suggests that it is not her fault, she is obliged to do so, and she backs this up by giving the reason for the request. The request itself Would it be awfully inconvenient for you to give me a lift home this evening? repeats her acknowledgement that she might be causing problems for the other person, while the interrogative structure gives him a “way out” – the possibility of refusing.

For it is not only the requester who risks losing face, in Brown and Levinson’s terms. In a request sequence there are two possible replies : acceptance or refusal. But for the language (not necessarily for the speaker) it is acceptance which is the “preferred” choice. If you agree to a request, there’s no need to be subtle about it. Yes, of course will do. But a refusal is far trickier in terms of retaining “face” (ie approval) and also allowing the requester to retain face. I risk offending or embarrassing the other person. So, in our example we have first an apology Oh Helen – I’m really sorry. and then an assurance that the speaker would really like to agree but is prevented by a situation outside his control - I would, but my mother’s in hospital and I have to go straight there after work. He then does what he can to make up for the refusal by making a helpful suggestion that can resolve the problem : Why don’t you ask Jean. She goes your way.
Compare this with the straight request-refusal pattern of the learners’ discourse. Scarcella and Brunak, quoted by McCarthy (2) noticed the same difference between the two groups in the context of giving invitations :

The native speakers prefaced their invitations (e.g. I was wondering, uh, we’re having a party…), while the non-natives were sometimes too formal or too blunt (e.g. I would like to invite you to a party ….)

This leaves us with a dilemma. Request exponents are often complex grammatically, lexically and from the point of view of intonation, and learners may need to focus on them in isolation in order to understand and assimilate them. But if we are to promote their ability to use appropriate discourse patterns, these exponents cannot be taught in isolation, but must be presented and practised in the context of an authentic request sequence. In the next article we’ll look at how we might go about doing this.

1. H.Hendricks, Indirect speech acts, Politeness and the Civilising Process
2. M. McCarthy, Discourse Analysis for Language Teachers, CUP 1991

Photo provided under Creative Commons Licence by Matthew Weston via flickr