Diplomatic Language in Business English

In the workplace, there is always a need for decorum, or formal politeness. But so often, we face problems at work that make us want to be impolite… computer failures and broken equipment, theft of food from the break room refrigerator, missed deadlines, customers that fail to pay, and so on. The list of upsetting things could go on and on. Work is stressful—that’s why you get paid to do it.

If you’ve been working for at least a few years, you’ve probably learned the art of being diplomatic when you speak. In diplomatic speech, you discuss problems in a polite way that doesn’t cause people to get even more upset than they already are. One tricky thing about diplomatic is that it’s different in different languages. In a sense, you need to re-learn diplomacy when you learn a second language. Let’s look at the key features of diplomatic language in English.


Diplomatic language is more formal

Diplomatic language in the workplace uses words and phrases that are more formal. When practicing workplace diplomacy, avoid slang. Use language that’s closer to written English than normal speech. For example, suppose your office space is very dirty, even though the maintenance crew was supposed to clean it. You could say “This place is a mess,” but that’s pretty informal. “Place” has vague, context-dependent wording that suggests casual conversation.  Similarly, the phrase “is a mess” has a distinctly informal tone. To make your language more formal—and thus more diplomatic—it would be better to say something like “This work area needs some maintenance.”


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Diplomatic language uses polite modal verbs

Modal verbs are words that can be used before the main verb in a sentence. Modals give the verb a different connotation or give the whole sentence a different tone. (A list of the most common modals in English can be found here.) Modal verbs that express possibility can make English sound more polite and diplomatic.

For example, if you haven’t received your paycheck on time, you’ll obviously want to talk to a supervisor. But telling your boss “Check with payroll—they didn’t process my pay” could sound rude or demanding. However, if you say “You may want to check with payroll… they might not have processed my pay,” you sound much more diplomatic, just by adding the modals may and might. Similarly, if you get a paycheck that seems way too small, saying “This pay amount may be a mistake. Could you look into it?” sounds much more polite than saying “This pay amount is a mistake. Look into it.”


Diplomatic language uses more words

When you use more words in your speech, it sounds as if you are being more careful in what you say. In a delicate situation, sounding more careful is diplomatic. It suggests to others that you are being cautious about their feelings, and doing your best to find good solutions without blaming anyone.

With more words, the diplomatic example sentences I showed you earlier can be made even more diplomatic. Let’s look at how more words can add diplomatic value:

  • Somewhat diplomatic: “This work area needs some maintenance.”
  • Even more diplomatic: “It looks like the maintenance crew may have missed this area. Maybe we should ask them to double check it when they return.”
  • Somewhat diplomatic: “You may want to check with payroll… they might not have processed my pay.”
  • Even more diplomatic: “I double checked my payroll records and my bank account, and it looks like my paycheck may not have arrived yet. It may be a good idea to double check this with payroll, just in case they didn’t process my pay for some reason.”
  • Somewhat diplomatic: “This pay amount may be a mistake. Could you look into it?”
  • Even more diplomatic: “From what I can tell, the amount of pay on my paycheck here doesn’t quite line up with my recorded hours… I recall working more hours than the paycheck indicates. Is there any possibility you could help me look into this?”


Of course, if you go overboard and get too wordy, the people listening to you might become impatient or annoyed. Add extra words carefully, especially if you are dealing with someone who’s very busy.

For some extra information on good workplace diplomacy and some of the thinking behind the features of diplomatic English, check out Rima’s diplomatic English tutorial on the Let’s Talk YouTube Channel.


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  • David Recine

    David is a Test Prep Expert for Magoosh TOEFL and IELTS. Additionally, he's helped students with TOEIC, PET, FCE, BULATS, Eiken, SAT, ACT, GRE, and GMAT. David has a BS from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and an MA from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. His work at Magoosh has been cited in many scholarly articles, his Master's Thesis is featured on the Reading with Pictures website, and he's presented at the WITESOL (link to PDF) and NAFSA conferences. David has taught K-12 ESL in South Korea as well as undergraduate English and MBA-level business English at American universities. He has also trained English teachers in America, Italy, and Peru. Come join David and the Magoosh team on Youtube, Facebook, and Instagram, or connect with him via LinkedIn!

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