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In English courses (especially business), we learn to use polite questions. So we know that you shouldn't say "excuse me... where's the nearest supermarket, please?" but rather "excuse me... do you happen to know where the nearest supermarket is?" (or a similar variation).

However, most people I know (non-native speakers) who go to English speaking countries come back saying it's all nonsense. Just ask your questions directly (never forgetting your pleases and thank yous, naturally), and that's all there is to it.

I'm inclined to believe that this idea is influenced by the native speakers excusing the foreigners from proper language use, but is it really?

In short, is it rude to ask direct questions to people you don't know? Are polite questions seen as wordy and unnecessary? Does the idea of rude and polite question change from setting to setting (say, talking to someone on the street or at a café and talking to someone at work or at college)?

I'm particularly interested in both UK and US reactions to the afore-mentioned direct and polite questions, although I won't mind getting insights from other English-speaking countries.


Edit: My doubts relate mostly to whether these structures are in fact used. I've had students tell me they do not need to learn such structures because they never hear them used (UK and USA) and because no one seems to be bothered by them not using them (they believe all they need is to say 'please').

If these structures are in fact used, is the person that doesn't use them seen as being rude? Or are they right, and there's really no point in learning them?

closed as off-topic by FumbleFingers, Drew, NVZ, tchrist, curiousdannii Apr 25 '16 at 1:59

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    in the U.S., I would view both "Tell me where the nearest supermarket is" or "Where is the nearest supermarket?" as impolite. But if you add "excuse me" and "please", as in your first example, it's fine. But indirect questions are also polite, and we use them, too. – Peter Shor Apr 22 '16 at 16:34
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    And in business settings where you're dealing with strangers, it's probably good to be even more polite than when you're talking with strangers on the street. – Peter Shor Apr 22 '16 at 16:39
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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it's about cultural norms, not the English language as such – FumbleFingers Apr 22 '16 at 17:44
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    If I may defend the question: my point is about language. I've got students telling me they do not need to use these linguistic structures because when they go abroad (mostly US and UK), they perceive them as unnecessary since no one uses them (according to their perception). My question hinges on how these structures are used and interpreted in different locations because I want to make sure I'm not inventing when I tell them they should be used. – Sara Costa Apr 22 '16 at 18:22
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    Very interesting question—and good responses from Peter Shor, deadrat, and EKB. To their remarks I would only add the observation that many people seem to use a double standard with regard to politeness, being more inclined to expect it of an outsider than of a fellow local. The unspoken sense that outsiders owe insiders at least a token of deference may be an exclusively American tendency, but I suspect that it is more broadly a human one. – Sven Yargs Apr 23 '16 at 21:31
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There may be some confusion here between language and behavior. Politeness is a combination of the two, and care with the former cannot forgive lapses in the latter. If you were to interrupt two strangers having a semi-private conversation, perhaps by physically inserting yourself between the two so that you address one party while turning your back on the other, you'll be judged rude no matter what you subsequently say.

English doesn't have a separate vocabulary or grammar of politeness that governs conversation between people of different ages, social class, or levels of acquaintance. English does recognize that a direct imperative delivered to a stranger is at least presumptuous if not rude. The language thus provides indirect imperatives disguised as interrogatives. Thus you wouldn't use the imperative mood to demand of a stranger

Tell me the time

probably not even if you were to preface it with a polite word:

Please tell me the time.

Instead you would phrase it as a question, usually with the modal could or would:

Could you tell me the time?

This has the structure of a question and likely the tonal aspect as well (i.e., raised pitch at the end of the sentence). But it's not really a question; it's a polite command (or a request, if you will) for the time of day. You can tell because the response is unlikely to be a direct answer

Yes, I am able to tell you the time.

  • In this question, the behaviour would not be an issue. The question is rather whether "could you tell me", "do you happen to know", "would you mind" and other such structures are used and whether not using them creates a negative impact. I've had a British teacher be very strict on us (students) using them and now I find myself at a loss when my students come back from business trips saying it's useless knowledge because no one uses them. – Sara Costa Apr 22 '16 at 19:02
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In Australia at least, direct questions are polite, provided basic manners ("excuse me", "please", "thank you") are used as well. To reiterate what deadrat said above, as long as this is phrased as a question (usually with "could" or "would") and not as a demand, it would be fine.

Indirect questions are also used. Neither would seem out of place, regardless of the situation.

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