Can we keep this civil? Polite ways to ask people to behave better

Boy in trouble for standing on table in class
Peter Cade/Stone/GettyImages

by Liz Walter

A reader of these blogs recently requested a post on phrases for keeping order in the classroom. While thinking about that, it occurred to me that there are several other situations in which people have to impose control on a group, for instance in a work meeting. The difficult part is knowing how to do that without being bossy or aggressive. This post, therefore, offers some polite phrases that both teachers and others could use.

I’ll start with asking people to be quiet. The command ‘Be quiet’ itself sounds very blunt and is certainly not appropriate in a group of adults. You might ask children to pipe down or settle down, but for adults, a phrase like ‘Can we have some/a bit of quiet now, please?’, would sound less bossy. If you are at the beginning of a meeting, something like ‘OK, I think it’s time to get started now’ could work too. If someone is dominating a meeting, you might say, ‘Could we let someone else speak now?’ ‘Can we get someone else’s view?’ or ‘I think x has something they want to say.

Although it’s common to start negative commands with ‘don’t’, this can also sound a little bossy. Here are some examples of more polite but still assertive ways of making negative commands:

Would you mind not looking at your phone while we’re having a discussion?

I’d prefer it if you didn’t bring food into the meeting room.    

There’s no need to use that kind of language.

Of course, commands can be positive too. You can make them gentler by using phrases such as ‘Can/Could we …’, ‘Would you mind …’, ‘I think we need to …’ or ‘I’d like to see …’  at the beginning:

Could we speed things up a bit, please?

Would you mind staying in your seat, please?

I think we need to take a moment to calm down.

I’d like to see everyone putting in a bit more effort.

If people have started to become distracted from what they are doing, you could ask them to focus on the task at handIn UK English, you can also say focus on the task in hand:

We only have five minutes left, so could you focus on the task in hand, please?

If someone is being rude, for example in a discussion, you could say something like, ‘Can we keep this civil, please?’ or ‘Let’s try to keep the discussion respectful.

I hope you find these phrases useful and that they will help you with the old saying ‘It’s not what you say, it’s the way that you say it!’.

17 thoughts on “Can we keep this civil? Polite ways to ask people to behave better

  1. Rafael Morales

    It’s a really important topic! very useful for teachers who give commands in a classroom.
    I’d like to see another topic related to economic vocabulary. for instance a loan and bankrupt and so on.

      1. Pach Alier

        It’s a very useful topic. I’m learning English as a second language and it makes me feel like a native speaker, knowing that I wouldn’t be starting sentences with ‘don’t’

    1. Jane

      Hey, that’s mesmerizing. I’m also interested in topic about replying to offending statements. I don’t want to seem rude but being weak minded is worse🤯. Write an article on it, please

  2. Oluwapelumi Makanjuola

    I’m glad to have come across this. It’s indeed inspiring… good morals impacted. Thank you.

    1. John Heins

      Respect for both sides of a discussion is key. Tolerate dissent with an appreciation that each (or multiple) views on any topic have value. Imposing your own view even through subtle cues is likely to inflame passions and cause people to dig in. Rhetoric will become more important than ideas and the ability to achieve real dialog will be lost. Sensitivity is key. Approach with your big ear open, first and your big mouth shut, second .Listen AND learn, as is said.

      1. Thank you for the comment. No one can know the entire information about a topic anymore. You might not be able to make a good decision if some people feel they have not been listened to.

  3. Nguyễn Ngọc Kim Ngân

    Very useful, although I never think of this topic before, it defnitely help me so much.

  4. Steve

    It would be more difficult to convey In an article but focusing on correct words is futile. Even if u come up with better phrases , each one will be delivered a little differently. So it’s not determining the proper phrase that’s important, it’s the delivery, emotion, maybe just a look. Maybe a joke to bring things to order. I use wit. Humor. Anger. Whatever is appropriate at the time. (My opinion is dealing with adults)

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