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Recently, I talked to a native speaker about the proper usage of the word “kindly”. I frequently use phrases like “kindly let us know whether you agree with the suggested approach” in business letters to clients.

However, my American friend now pointed out to me that he felt “offended” by this sentence since he found it rather patronizing. I was quite baffled – of course, my intentions in using that wording are entirely different, and I always thought I was humbling myself when using this phrase…

But he also thought it was quite impertinent to actively demand a reply by using this phrase.

I am rather confused now. Is this an assessment shared by other native speakers?

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In some circles it's simply super-formal. In others there's the implication that you wouldn't have let us know had we not demanded it in this fashion. It's more a "tone of voice" thing than strictly meaning one or the other. –  Hot Licks Jun 5 at 16:55
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I would guess at some cultural differences at play. I remember a piece in The Economist a few years ago sniffing about the use of You're welcome — only "if American standards of gratitude are required". Americans, meanwhile, can be very discomfited by Asian levels of politeness, which can seem obsequious. It is not necessarily the word, but simply the degree of investment in politeness that is embarrassing (not really "offensive")— when used sincerely. If used by another American, I would assume it was not being used sincerely at all. –  choster Jun 5 at 19:36

6 Answers 6

'Kindly' = 'please' in this usage; it's a hedging pragmatic marker.

However,

'Please/kindly let us know whether you agree with the suggested approach'

comes across as an instruction or even an order.

'Would you kindly let us know whether [or not] you agree with the suggested approach'

(still not needing a question mark) contains sufficient hedging for all but the most cantankerous.

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Yes, this was my thought. It's not the kindly so much as the use of the imperative. –  KitFox Jun 5 at 13:34
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I think it depends a bit on the context of the letter. Sometimes, the more formal-and serious-sounding imperative could be appropriate. But I agree absolutely that that's the key to this.. The word "kindly" carries no different connotations to "please" apart from sounding a tad more formal. –  Rupe Jun 5 at 13:38
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Thanks for your answers. I can see the impertinent bit in this sentence now. (And of course it is intended as a sort of "disguised" order ;-) Anyway, could I avoid this Problem by saying e.g. "We would very much appreciate receiving your comments on our suggestions."? –  S.L. Jun 5 at 13:56
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@Nicholas, native speakers (US) of my age group have been taught to use kindly, and other formalities in written correspondence. This is the first I'm hearing that it's now perceived as a red flag for a non-native speaker. I'll have to rethink using "kindly" in the future, I guess! –  Kristina Lopez Jun 5 at 15:25
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"Kindly remit the indicated balance on your account (or we'll send Vinnie over to break your kneecaps)." Here, remit is an order (imperative). Kindly itself isn't an imperative, but is a "please" in front of the actual order. Generally, please or kindly is considered quite formal, and often is used to soften the impact of the following order. –  Phil Perry Jun 5 at 18:29

No, it's a form of politeness, however it's a form of politeness that often gets added to speech when a person is not actually being polite, i.e. when a person is being frankly demanding in tone, but phrases everything in an ironically formal manner. So possibly through this kind of usage the meaning has been inverted for your friend.

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As you say, and also without the irony. It's often used with no intentional irony when the action in question is flat required. "Kindly respond within 3 working days", sort of thing. The ironic version might be, "kindly unhand me, sir, or I won't be responsible for my actions" ;-) –  Steve Jessop Jun 5 at 16:26

Your American friend is right in his perception that kindly may sound patronizing or forceful when used to request something from someone, as long as it states how the action has to be performed, i.e. in a kind manner.

MW's Dictionary of English Usage, Ed. 1989, states:

The "please" sense of kindly is standard, but a few commentators regard it with varying degrees of disapproval. Flesch 1964 states flatly that it "shouldn't be used." Evans 1957 finds that it "has a touch of unctuousness about it that may defeat its intention of being elegant or ingratiating" when used in such a phrase as kindly remit. Our evidence suggests, however, that its use in such a phrase is not meant to be ingratiating, but forceful. As Bremner 1980 puts it, "kindly is stronger and more formal than please and tends to connote the idea of 'Do this -- or else.'"

A related use of kindly cited by Fowler 1926 is in such a sentence as "You are kindly requested to return the enclosed form within 30 days." This is a fairly common way of making a formal request, but Fowler dislikes it because it seems to imply that the requester is giving himself credit for being kind.

And so, a simple and better alternative is please.

Please let me/us know is in no way condescending, and I see nothing impolite about it.

Please let me/us know whether you agree with the suggested approach.

Please let me/us know your impressions on this project.

To support my assertion, here is what C. Douglas Billet in Better Business Writing Skills, Ed. 1997, states:

Many people do not realize that Please + infinitive is very polite. They think that because it is so short and simple, it sounds harsh. This is no true.

In addition, such construction as Would you kindly let me/us know might still sound patronizing -- or even sarcastic -- to some ears and, for that reason, would be best substituted with Would you please let me/us know.

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+1. I imagine this is a dialect difference, because "kindly" sounds patronizing to me, too. (I'm from the American Midwest, if that helps.) –  ruakh Jun 5 at 15:02
    
It also sounds patronizing to me, and I'm from England. It gives the impression that what is being asked for is something that anyone else would not need to be asked to do, and the asker is expecting you to be obstructive. Like talking to a petulant child. –  Benubird Jun 5 at 15:48
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Where is kindly patronizing? I understand that any word can be patronizing but where have you heard that it is common for kindly to be a negative thing? I have heard the word kindly often (US) and have never heard it in a negative way. Can you give context to where/when you have heard it used this way? –  RyeɃreḁd Jun 5 at 16:09
    
Maybe a bit archaic but not patronizing (I'm also from the US Midwest), with the possible exception if it's spoken in a sarcastic tone-of-voice which is not the example given by the OP. –  Kristina Lopez Jun 5 at 16:22
    
"They think that because it is so short and simple, it sounds harsh. This is no true." reads to me as "your opinion is wrong". If any person thinks that please + infinitive sounds harsh, then it sounds harsh to that person. If many people think it sounds harsh, then it sounds harsh to many people. Asserting that the facts are otherwise doesn't change or invalidate other opinions. –  user69710 Jun 6 at 1:14

Yes, the imperative is certainly an issue - but I see another problem:

Kindly let me know...

Is not only ordering me to do something, but strictly speaking, it is telling me that I should do that in a kind way!

If it is unclear why kindly refers to my letting you know, rather than to your asking, replace it with quickly:

Quickly let me know...

It is very obvious now that you are ordering me around, and telling me on top of that I should be quick about it.

And yes, kindly has been used in this fashion often enough that many people tend to read it as please, but that is not what is says, and especially if someone gets rubbed the wrong way by the imperative, they are more likely to overlook the idiomatic use and read it literally instead.

Now, if you want to kindly ask something, you should make clear that the kindness is yours:

I would kindly ask you to let me know...

Or, with the localised love of flowery expressions:

I would like to kindly request your response.

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I'm pretty sure that "kindly let me know", in the sense of doing it in a kind way, means, "it would be a kindness, were you to let me know", or "if you would be so kind". So it's not "let me know, and be sure you do it in a kindly fashion and not your usual unkindness". It's that any form of letting me know cannot help but be inherently kind, such is the relief it would provide me from my terrible state of not knowing. Of course that doesn't prevent it being interpreted otherwise by someone who resents the request or who dislikes polite fictions. –  Steve Jessop Jun 5 at 16:32
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And also, if I resent the imperative then I'm certainly going to resent someone claiming that they're being kind to me by issuing it with "I would kindly ask". Kind compared to what, hacking my computer for clues what I think? Grabbing me off the street and torturing the information out of me? Just what are you saying you've considered as an alternative to asking, should that prove ineffective? :-) –  Steve Jessop Jun 5 at 16:35
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This is not so. Two incarnations of 'kindly' exist: the politeness (/ironical) pragmatic marker, = 'please' [see Fraser, 1997], and the adverb (done in a kind way / out of kindness / ...). You can even have them both in the same sentence: 'Kindly speak more kindly to your mother!' They have different distributions: the adverb modifies the associated verb. A similar construction is: 'Frankly, I'd speak frankly with him'. Here, the first 'frankly' is another type of pragmatic marker (speech act marker). –  Edwin Ashworth Jun 5 at 22:41

When we want to be polite in English we usually try to be understated and vague. In general the more remote and vague the language used, the more polite and we are being, and also the less likely it is that we will cause offence. Remote language will, for example, use hedging as well as modal devices such as if that's at all possible, by any chance, if you wouldn't mind, as well as the actual use of the remote modal verbs would, could and might.

One of the problems with kindly is that, far from being vague, not only is the speaker asking us to do something, but they are very specifically telling us how to do it. The use of the word kindly presupposes that we need to be told this, in other words it implies that if they didn't say it they feel that we would be inconsiderate or uncooperative.

One last issue here is the placement of the word kindly, which has some similarities with the item please. The least direct place to put please is at the end of the sentence, where it would fall outside of the head of the intonational phrase, instead appearing in the tail, where it is out of focus. Nice and subdued then.

Slightly more entreating and direct, but still fine, is at the beginning of the sentence, where it will be the first stress in the sentence and thereby form part of the head of the intonational phrase.

However, when we put it in the post-auxiliary position it makes the utterance less of a request and more of an order. It has the effect of making the 'request' much more direct. I suspect the reason for this is there is a huge contrast in pitch between the pre-head (the first few unstressed words in the utterance) and please, making the latter very prominent. Please here will still be the onset of the head, but more marked in this position. The preceding material is likely to be said quietly and at a lower pitch. Please on the other hand will be the first high pitch, loud syllable and will contrast markedly with what came before. (The reason for this, is that we like to put old information at the beginning of the sentence, and so, being old, this will be de-accented.)

Compare the following:

  • Could you give me a hand, please?
  • Please could you give me a hand?
  • Could you please give me a hand!

One of the problems with kindly then, when used like this, is that it usually appears in the post-auxiliary position and cannot appear at the end. This gives it a too prominent position in the sentence, doubling its perceived crimes.

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Kindly itself isn't an order, it just softens up the reader for the order that follows. If the sentence read, "Kindly enjoy your new product", it would be a little odd, but no one would think you're ordering them to enjoy something! Please would more often be used here. –  Phil Perry Jun 5 at 18:32
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@PhilPerry I don't mean it's literally an order, but it's pragmatically somewhere nearer don't you think? Do you really think 'kindly' softens us up? A lot of the other people answering feel that it can be a bit bossy. It is, though in the ear of the beholder, I suppose... –  Araucaria Jun 5 at 18:39
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+1 for noting the importance of word order, but I would put kindly on the border between conventional please and phrases of ostentatious politeness like if you would be so kind, it would be greatly appreciated if, or if you can spare a precious moment. The latter is hard to use in [American] business writing without sounding dismissive, insincere, or impatient. In my humble opinion, that is. –  choster Jun 5 at 19:18
    
+1 for a clear and concise explanation and set of comparisons. :) –  Erik Kowal Jun 6 at 6:54

In British usage, it's almost always a third level of request.

For example, on a train where someone has a bag on the only free seat in the carriage, you might ask

'Do you mind if I sit down?'

If no response is received

'Could you to move your bag please?'

Then if no response is received

'Would you kindly allow me to sit in the seat I have paid for?'

I don't know of any modern use which is not a passive-aggressive request after previous requests have been ignored.

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