March 2012
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Joanna J. Ghosh

Being polite in American professional or academic culture involves much more than “Please,” “Thank you,” “I’m sorry,” and “Excuse me,” but this is often as far as ESL oral communications classes go when venturing into the area of pragmatic competence. Such gambits may indeed be sufficient for beginner- or intermediate-level language learners. However, advanced students who intend to live, study, and work in the United States will benefit from a more in-depth understanding of American English politeness strategies. (Politeness strategies are culturally determined, so it is important to note that certain pragmatic norms of American English will differ from those of British English, Indian English, Hong Kong English, and other English varieties.)

International students with very high levels of English fluency, but without American cultural grounding, are often still lacking discourse appropriateness (Kasper, 1997. Interlocutors of these near-native individuals may give less latitude for appropriateness errors and may easily be offended by minor pragmatic lapses. Consider the example of an international law student who can communicate his ideas quite clearly, but seems utterly insensitive when he uses a word that he perceives as a neutral descriptor, such as “old” or “fat,” in describing a client. Imagine another example of an international dental student who asks her clinic patient questions such as, “Why don’t you brush your teeth more often?” and the patient refuses to continue treatment without explanation.

Often observation and interaction in the culture is not enough for a language learner to attain a clear understanding of expected politeness strategies (Bardovi-Harlig & Dornyei, 1998. Students benefit from pragmatic competence strategies being taught more directly and practiced more substantially in the classroom (House, 1996; Koike & Pearson, 2005). Despite the abundance of research on the need for formal instruction, standard textbooks include surprisingly few practical lessons with direct instruction on pragmatics and, more specifically, politeness.

With an understanding of some of the components of English politeness, such as euphemism, connotation, and indirectness, nonnative speakers can attain greater communicative appropriateness.

Although these concepts can be challenging to comprehend, let alone master, there are effective ways to provide students with the necessary information and give them opportunities to practice, in context, within advanced-level communication courses.


A model for teaching politeness strategies is described below. It would be reasonable to spend an initial 3 to 4 hours of class time on these concepts with follow-up recycling in subsequent lessons. The presentation of each component can follow a scaffolded structure including

  • Introduction to the concept
  • General information and examples
  • Field-specific structured exercises
  • Field-specific open-ended activities

Materials can be presented via PowerPoint slide presentations that students might access through course Web sites so the materials can be accessed before, during, and after class time and students can print the slides if they choose to do so. The field-specific materials in the examples are for dental and legal audiences; however, different fields can be easily accommodated with slight variations.

[Please visit the HEIS Community Library to view this PPT or click here to view or download.]


When presenting euphemism, the instructor can begin with a general introduction to the concept by providing a list of various euphemisms for a common uncomfortable topic such as death. [slide 1 here] This can be followed with a discussion on the range of formality level and appropriate use of euphemisms. [slide 2] It is often helpful to also provide examples of how phrases are euphemized such as how “He is not working to his full potential” may replace the more direct “He is lazy.”

Moving on to some structured field-specific practice, the class can discuss common euphemisms for terms in the field and how they can be beneficial, particularly in challenging communication. For example, dental procedures and tools are often euphemized through the use of less formal words and images, particularly for the benefit of young patients. On the other hand, legal topics that are particularly disturbing are euphemized through the use of more formal vocabulary associated with less graphic images. Students with some background in the field may be able to provide more examples for this type of activity. [slides 3 and 4]

The lesson on euphemisms can be completed with open-ended practice, which could include role plays in which direct language or euphemized language is written on cards. Students select cards and act out scenarios that incorporate the language from the cards. Observers can then respond with comments on the appropriateness of the euphemism use.


The concept of connotation can be presented through contrast with its counterpart, denotation, or the dictionary meaning of a word. [slide 5] It can be quite effective to present example sentences with similar denotation but varying connotation such as these:

  • City Diner is a small restaurant at the edge of town.
  • City Diner is a greasy spoon on the other side of the tracks.
  • City Diner is a delightful eatery on a cozy, tree-lined street.

General sentences such as these can be discussed in terms of their varying connotation and how the words or phrases used in the sentences alter that connotation. More general information on the topic can include a discussion using a list of synonyms that vary in connotation. [slide 6] An instructor can reuse the list of synonyms for death at this point to draw a connection between connotation and euphemism.

The next step in the lesson involves expanding the examples into relevant fields. For example, dental terms that are particularly negative (such as blood, pus, and drill) are used to exemplify the discomfort they may cause to the listener who is likely a patient. It helps to put these words in context by asking the students which question a patient would be more comfortable hearing: “Do you ever spit out blood?” or “What color is your saliva?” [slide 7]

A more open-ended discussion of connotation could involve metacognitive questions regarding the ways students can improve their understanding and appropriate use of positive or negative words. [slide 8]


When presenting the concept of indirectness, it is useful to show the contrast between direct and indirect language and engage students in discussion on the variations in sentence structure and vocabulary such as the use of modals in indirect language. [slide 9] Instruction should include discussion on how euphemism and connotation are components of indirectness. It will then be useful to discuss situations when indirect language would be preferable over direct language in general communication as well as field-specific communication. [slide 10]

An effective follow-up activity would be to have students create direct versions of indirect sentences (or questions) and also to create indirect versions of direct utterances. This activity also allows the instructor to assess (formally or informally) students’ understanding of the concept and their ability to construct accurate indirect language. [slide 11]

Practice can continue with more open-ended creation of dialogs and role plays with a variety of field-specific scenarios and interlocutors. Further understanding can be attained through observation of interactions accompanied by journaling on the language patterns used in common field-specific situations.


In order to combine the use of these politeness strategies, open-ended culmination activities can be used. One way to do this is to provide a general description of a difficult or uncomfortable situation and have the students use the strategies to discuss the scenario. [slide 12]

Another very useful exercise involves showing the class a video of a field-specific interaction and prompting the students to analyze the politeness of the conversation. (Some excellent dental videos can be found at the University of Michigan Dental School’s YouTube channel at The discussion could be prompted by discussion questions. [slide 13]

An excellent follow-up activity would be to re-create the interaction incorporating the politeness strategies studied. This could be assigned as a written conversation to emphasize accuracy or a role play to emphasize fluency.


Politeness is a cultural necessity and is expected in professional and academic interactions. Advanced English learners who intend to study or work in an English-speaking environment will benefit greatly from the direct instruction of politeness strategies. Students who can use euphemism, connotation, and indirectness appropriately will project a more professional image and will find it easier to build relationships and establish trust with colleagues, clients, and other professionals.


Bardovi-Harlig, K., & Dornyei, A. (1998). Do language learners recognize pragmatic violations?: Pragmatic versus grammatical awareness in instructed L2 learning. TESOL Quarterly, 21(2), 233-259.

House, L. (1996). Developing pragmatic fluency in English as a foreign language: Routines and metapragmatic awareness. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 18, 225-252.

Kasper, G. (1997). Can pragmatic competence be taught? (NetWork #6). Honolulu: University of Hawai'i, Second Language Teaching & Curriculum Center. Retrieved from

Koike, D. A., & Pearson, L. (2005). The effect of instruction and feedback in the development of pragmatic competence. System, 33, 481–501.

Joanna Ghosh recently moved to central Connecticut with her family after 8 years in the Philadelphia area working as an ESL instructor and administrator at the University of Pennsylvania. She is currently writing a blog for English learners at

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