Are you tactless and insensitive in English?

You need to stop doing THIS.

Whenever you do this, you upset, dare I say anger native English speakers.

What is this thing that I’m talking about?

It’s making blunt and direct comments.

I’m currently doing some research for a phrasebook that I’m creating (Update: The e-guide has been completed and is currently available for sale here). When asked the question “What do non-native English speakers do that make them seem rude?”, the same answers popped up over and over again. Many native speakers expressed concern that non-native speakers are not tactful when giving their opinion or feedback on something. They tend to get straight to the point and say what is on their mind, even if it might potentially be a hurtful comment.

If you’ve spent some time around native English speakers, you’ve surely noticed that we are diplomatic in the way we speak. Some might dare say that English is an overly polite language with lots of ‘sorry, please and thank you’.


Diplomatic English: Native vs Non-native speakers

You’re probably wondering why we native English speakers beat around the bush so much, aren’t you?

We try to be tactful and take into consideration someone’s feelings. We think of how our comments might affect others, whether positively or negatively.

As a result, we often pad our feedback or opinion with extra words so that it sounds softer or “nicer”.

Are you guilty of being too direct and blunt?

The truth is you might not even be aware of it since your culture might be different. Being brutally honest in your country could actually be considered a great thing. Whereas your culture might consider beating around the bush as something dishonest.

Still not sure what I’m talking about?


The story of the hot pink hairstyle

It’s bright and early Monday morning. You’re in your office, busy typing away at your desk when your colleague Jennifer comes walking through the door.

On Friday, when you last saw Jennifer, she had long black hair. Today, she has a short hair cut. As if that isn’t a drastic enough change, she also dyed her hair hot pink.

You gasp in horror. You’re wondering “Why did she do that to her hair?”  You don’t like it at all. Quite frankly, you hate it.

Jennifer smiles and excitedly blurts out “I got a new do over the weekend? Like it?”

How would you respond? 

Let me just say that usually you don’t ask someone what they think about a new look unless the person is a close friend.  Asking a direct question like that puts someone in an awkward, uncomfortable position. You usually wait for people to comment first. But there are people who do like to ask direct questions.

So once again, I pose the question “What would you do?”

Some non-native speakers might be straight to the point and say “No. I don’t like it. I think it looks awful. It really doesn’t suit you”.

Let’s see what happens if you say that. You hurt Jennifer’s feelings. She most likely paid money to get her new hairstyle done. She’s excited about her hairstyle and clearly likes it. Saying that you don’t like it could make her feel as if she’s wasted her money. Like physical stabs of a sword, your tactless words can emotionally ‘stab’ Jennifer.

Let’s be real here. It’s a tricky situation to be in. It makes you feel uncomfortable. You don’t want to say yes since that would be outright lying. On the other hand, you don’t want to reply with a tactless no, as that will hurt her feelings.


How to beat around the bush in English

Let’s look at how you can beat around the bush to give Jennifer an answer. You don’t need to give a yes or no answer. Here’re some examples of what you could say:

  • You look really different!
  • You look like a totally different person with that hairstyle.
  • Oh wow! You dyed it. Bright and bold.

As you would’ve noticed , all of the above answers are true. You didn’t say whether or not you liked it. Instead, you acknowledged the new look without giving a direct answer.

That’s usually a sufficient answer for people to drop the subject. But what if Jennifer is super insistent and still asks, “So do you like it?”.

How can you respond in this case? Here’s what you could say:

“Well, personally I’m not really a huge fan of pink but as long as you like it, that’s all that matters. “

Do you see how that vastly differs from “No I don’t like it. I think it looks awful. It really doesn’t suit you”?

In this instance, you not only state that you don’t like it (in a polite way) but you also show that you respect Jennifer’s freedom of choice regarding her style.

Now that you’ve read this information, what are you going to do? As a non-native speaker, you will make cultural faux pas.  It’s true. You don’t even want to know how many embarrassing mistakes I made when I was living in a French-speaking country.  I’ve lost count! But the important thing is to learn and improve.

So the next time someone asks you for your opinion or feedback, ask yourself “Am I being tactful?”


Want to be even more polite?

This is just ONE of the many examples of politeness in the English language. If you live or work with native English speakers, you want to fit in. You don’t want to stand out as the rude foreigner. In my e-guide The Culture Sensitive Phrasebook, you learn how to be more polite in 6 key areas so that you don’t offend native English speakers.









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