I'll describe a situation that might sound random and sudden, but I'm sure we keep seeing now and then; I'd like to know if there's any suitable adjective that you can think of. 'Oily' and 'smarmy' were suggested by a friend, but perhaps there is a better word?

Say I donate an expensive machine to a nearby grocery shop, or I perform some huge and helpful favour that really makes them indebted to me. They, out of gratitude, offer to keep giving me free products. I insist otherwise, that they mustn't be so conscious of me, and that I insist on paying each time. One day I buy something and don't have the whole amount. I sweetly request them if it's okay by them if I pay the remainder in the evening. They know I'm good for it, it's obviously okay with them, a ridiculous request perhaps, and even I know that they'll say yes. Nevertheless I have a polite and humble way of asking for the credit. It's not a genuine query, but I still make it sound like I'm earnestly requesting.

Any adjective for the forced humility/politeness in such a situation where one knows one can't be refused? Perhaps similar 'benefit of doubt' is displayed by superstars — say, when Tom Cruise walks up to a hotel rece and says "Excuse me. Hi, my name is Tom Cruise..."

  • I can't figure out the sincerity of the person in the example. Is s/he acting this way because s/he is a well-mannered person in general? I'd go with unassuming, if so. Is s/he being ironic, obnoxious, insincere? In that case, smarmy is accurate, as would be something along the lines of faux humility.
    – user13141
    Commented Dec 15, 2011 at 18:46
  • Your question is really interesting but I can't help but focus on a usage note in your question: Do you really abbreviate in speech things like 'receptionist' to 'rece' (presumably pronounced 'reh-seh')? Or was that a typo? If on purpose, is this a common pattern? Are you an ESL speaker? Fascinating...
    – Mitch
    Commented Dec 15, 2011 at 19:04

4 Answers 4


The two examples you give seem to me quite different. In the first case, you're saying that you've done them a favor and they owe you, and yet you politely word requests in a deferential manner. The famous actor example seems quite different, like they have to give him what he wants because he's rich and famous and powerful, not because he has done anything for them personally.

"Oily" and "smarmy" are definitely NOT appropriate terms for the first case. Both have very negative connotations. These words are normally used to describe a salesman or a politician who pretends to really care about the other person but is in fact being completely selfish and usually deceitful.

Perhaps words that would fit here are "unassuming" or "unpretentious". These mean to not take advantage of one's position or to insist on the respect or deference that one is arguably entitled to.

The case of the actor seems entirely the opposite: he is demanding excessive respect for his social status. I'd call that "pretentious" or "presumptuous".


I'm waffling between civil and courtly.

I lean toward courtly, because it implies politeness with an awareness of expected norms and the posturing they sometimes require. And it brings to mind the kind of obsequious humility courtiers have to show to a ruler.

Hmm, obsequious could also be an option but I think it errs too far on the side of insincerity.

Civil, while it also carries that implication of expected norms (in this case, by way of shared roots with "citizen" and "civilization"), has an implication of the minimum of politeness possible for the situation. It tends to have a pejorative slant.

Thus, I think courtly more exactly conveys the blend of graciousness and duty you are aiming for here.


As Jay notes, the two examples call for different words. For the first case, "forced humility" is a form of hypocrisy or sanctimony, excessive piety affected for public show.

The "sweetness" of the request may be saccharine, cloying, treacly, twee, the latter term meaning "overly quaint, dainty, cute or nice".


Yours is essentially a rhetorical request, in that you ask them for the sake of courtesy rather than to give them an option to accept or deny your request.

Beyond that, it is obviously incorrect to relate the two issues. Here's why, as I see it:
"I insist ... that they mustn't be so conscious of me," so that squares it as far as indebtedness goes. "I still make it sound like I'm earnestly requesting." Why should you not? After all, you wanted them to treat you just as they would any other customer, maybe a only bit more courteously or something, but not more. It does not seem appropriate to relate the two at all.

If the above logic holds, then rhetorical request is what it will be. Any old customer/ known person can make such a rhetorical request, not very different from what Tom Cruise might, as you suggested.

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