Communicate Courteously

The first “C” of professionalism is courtesy. Courtesy refers to your ability to adhere to standards of etiquette, to behave civilly, and to demonstrate tact and emotional control. Courtesy can be one of the most difficult aspects of professionalism to master—even for people who are generally very polite. This is because sometimes even a tiny detail can cause receiver to interpret messages as rude or discourteous.

Courtesy involves two broad principles that help you craft your messages: following general principles of business etiquette and defusing defensiveness.

Follow General Principles of Business Etiquette

At the most basic level, there is an expectation that business communication should follow basic business etiquette. This does not mean that messages must be formal and stuffy, but they do need to be polite. Basic business etiquette is more than simply good manners. It sets the professional tone that creates a positive relationship and allows your receiver to see the true intent of your message.

By this point in your life, you probably have a strong sense of what constitutes politeness. Here are a few tips that may be a little more business-specific.

Address People Properly

One of the ways you can demonstrate courtesy is by how you address your receiver. Proper attention to addressing people sets them at ease and helps them feel respected. Improper addresses may create tension, annoyance, or even anger. While some people may never think twice about how they are addressed, others may be offended (and then think that you are unprofessional) if you address them in ways they think are improper.

Ideally, you should address people the way they have asked you to address them. But often in business you may not know this information, as you may be contacting someone for the first time. For instance, if you are writing an email to James Mackey, you may be unaware that different people refer to him in a variety of ways: Mr. Mackey, James, and Jimmy, depending on how well they know him.

Proper business etiquette dictates that as a rule, you should address someone formally at first. So when you first meet, you would call him Mr. Mackey and address any emails accordingly. If he gives you explicit permission to call him by his first name, James, then you should. But even if you hear others in the office call him Jimmy, you should wait until he signals his permission or explicitly ask him his preference of how he’d like to be addressed before you take that liberty. For women, proper forms of address are even more complicated, as explained in the Communication Tips box.


Communication Tip: Miss, Mrs., or Ms.?

One unique challenge of business etiquette is how to address women. While the honorific title for men is simply “Mr.”, there are several nuanced options for women, each of which carries important connotations. Of course, you should use the honorific that your receiver prefers. But if you do not know which one that is, then follow this advice:

Miss is a term that traditionally refers to young, unmarried women or girls. It is most appropriate when addressing receivers under the age of 18. While some adult women prefer this term, many women may be insulted because it can imply that they are not being acknowledged as serious adults. In other cases, it may be incorrect, such as when a woman is married.

Mrs. is a term that refers to a woman who is married. Again, some women prefer this term—with it being more popular among older generations. But this honorific is particularly challenging because it requires you to know a few things: first, that the woman is married (or possibly widowed); second, that she uses her spouse’s surname; and third, that she wants her marital status explicitly acknowledged. If either of the first two conditions is not true, then Mrs. is factually incorrect. If the third condition is not true, then even when Mrs. may technically be correct, it could be potentially offensive.

Ms. is a more generic honorific and one that applies to most women in business because it does not connote marital status. It applies equally to married and unmarried women. So even if a woman is married and prefers Mrs., Ms. still is accurate. Therefore, Ms. should be your default honorific for women, unless you have specific knowledge of a different preference.

And one last thing to keep in mind. If a person—regardless of gender—has earned a special status or credential, then that honorific should take place of Ms. or Mr. This goes for anyone who has earned a military rank (e.g., Maj. or MSgt.), a clergy title (Rev.), or an occupational or educational credential (e.g., Dr. or Prof.).

Make Requests Politely

In business, you may find that you spend a lot of time making requests of people. Whether you are delegating a task to an employee, asking a customer for a payment, or seeking approval for vacation time, you are making a request.

Politeness is a communication strategy that is used to ensure that everyone involved in a communication exchange feels affirmed or at least not threatened. In the case of making requests, there is a range of specific tactics for softening the threat of imposition.[1]

One of the simplest ways you can make requests politely is by saying “please,” “thank you,” and “you’re welcome.” These expressions, which you were taught to say as a child, can be just as important in business as they were in elementary school. Even the simplest polite words can soften your request to your receiver.

Impolite: Submit your expense report by Friday.

Polite: Please submit your expense report by Friday.

Even if you have the authority to tell people to do something, it is more affirming for them to be asked. Therefore, another approach to polite requests is to frame the request as a question. Often the question is one that, in practice, is more of a statement than a question. But the less demanding way of expressing it will come across more politely, especially when you are communicating with someone who is expected to comply with your request (like the office intern).

Impolite: Make these copies for me.

Polite: Will you make these copies for me?

Finally, you may also indicate the request is voluntary and not required. This approach typically includes an “if” statement accompanied by an expression of appreciation. More often, this approach is used when making a request of someone higher-powered than you or someone who does not have to fulfill your request.

Impolite: I need you to fill out this survey.

Polite: If you are willing and able to fill out this survey, I would greatly appreciate it.

Refrain from Profanity

Four-letter words are tricky in professional communication. While some organizations have cultures where swearing and profanity are acceptable, it can get you into trouble. In fact, a research study indicated that people who swear may be perceived by coworkers and bosses as socially inept, incompetent, and untrustworthy.[2] Even if you do work in an organization where swearing is acceptable in casual conversation, it is a good idea to avoid swearing in written messages. Doing so creates a permanent record of less than professional language. And those messages can be read with more insidious intent or anger than was intended.

Detect and Defuse Defensiveness

When it comes to delivering bad news or a challenging message, being courteous becomes even more important—and often more difficult. That is because when people receive bad news, they often become more sensitive to messages. They may become more emotional and respond with irritation, anger, or sadness. If their own identity is threatened in some way, they may become defensive. That means that they may become more critical of the words that you use and judge you more harshly.

For example, research shows that receivers tend to read messages in less positive ways than they were intended.[3] Perhaps you may have already experienced this personally if you ever thought you sent a text message to a friend or family member who accused you of being rude.

If your receivers are defensive, achieving your goals is going to be difficult, if not impossible. Chances are if a receiver is defensive, you may have already betrayed your explicit or implicit relational goals. The defensiveness and the bad relationship then snowball to create a poor identity meaning (the receiver may think you are inconsiderate, condescending, or just rude), which will make it hard to achieve your instrumental goals.

Anticipate Receiver Dissatisfaction

One of the first things to do to deflect defensiveness is to be attuned to when you are communicating a message that your receiver may not want to hear. In particular, you should be assessing your message for whether your receiver will be satisfied, neutral, or dissatisfied with your message.

Some of the things that can generate dissatisfaction are loss of time or money (e.g., a fee increase), loss of opportunity (e.g., a candidate was not hired for a job), increase of effort or work (e.g., an additional work task), personal judgement (e.g., a less-than-perfect job evaluation), or any response which includes the answer “no.”

When you anticipate receiver dissatisfaction, then you need to put yourself on high-attention mode as you craft your message. Below we provide several strategies for writing more sensitive messages.

Replace Negative Language with Positive Language

When people hear negative words, it can trigger a negative response—even if the intent of the message is positive. When the message you are sending is a disappointing one, negative language only adds to the risk of generating defensiveness.

A good strategy to defuse defensiveness is to use as much positive language as possible—or at least neutral language. This doesn’t mean that you are changing bad news to good news. Instead, it means that you are delivering the intended message with the most positive tone possible.

To change negative language, you can do the following. First, search for any “no,” “not,” “un-,” and “in-” words. When you spot a sentence with a negative word, rework the sentence to convey the same meaning with positive words.

Negative Statement: We will not review your budget request because it is incomplete.

Negative Words Identification: We will not review your budget request because it is incomplete.

Positive Statement: Once you submit your completed budget request, we will review it.

Note that in the example, you did not change your position from the negative statement to the positive statement. You still are requiring your receiver to submit a complete budget request before you review it. But the reworked example is more positively expressed, and therefore more likely to be received well.

Eliminate “You” Language

When you express or even imply judgments about your receiver, you are likely to generate defensiveness. Just read the comments section of any online news article and you will quickly see a litany of ways that people pass judgment on others. They hurl insults, call names, and make blanket categorizations. You do not even have to be so blatant for your receivers to perceive you have judged them.

In business, you must be particularly careful about passing judgment on people in ways that call into question their intelligence, competence, work ethic, moral judgment, and maturity. Even if you are not trying to pass judgment, sometimes it can come across that way. Receivers can feel as though you are pointing a finger at them.

In your messages, look for sentences containing the word “you.” If that statement could possibly be considered to be judgmental, attempt to rewrite it. One approach for rewriting is to use “I” or “we” statements instead of “you” statements.

Even though the differences may be subtle, there can be a big difference in how the message is received.

You Statement: You misunderstood the terms of service.

We Statement: We should have communicated our terms of service more clearly.

In this example, the “you” statement makes the claim that the receiver did something wrong, which could induce defensiveness. The receiver may possibly even think that you are claiming he or she is unable to understand the terms of service, which could be perceived as an attack on their intelligence. In the “we” statement, you are deflecting the blame for the misunderstanding away from the receiver and back to you.

If using “I” or “we” statements doesn’t work well, you also can divert attention away from the receiver by focusing attention on other things. For example, consider the following two examples.

You Statement: You made several errors in the code.

Diverted Attention Statement: There were several errors in the code.

You Statement: You were not selected for the position.

Diverted Attention Statement: We filled the position.

In the diverted attention statements, the focus shifts off the receiver. While the receivers may know that they were responsible for the errors in the code and will know that they were not selected for the position, the reworked messages are less judgmental because there is no direct finger pointing with the word “you.”


Communication Tip: Keep Calm and Email On

Sometimes in business, you might get frustrated or outright angry at a person with whom you are communicating. Perhaps you are frustrated with one of your employees for coming in late or you are angry with a supplier who has made a mistake in your order. As upset as you may be, proper etiquette dictates that you remain calm in your interactions.

You don’t need to be standing in the same room with angry people to know that they are angry. It can even come across in written messages. Some of the telltale signs are calling names, hurtling insults, and using profanity. Even things such as text emphasis (CAPS, underlining, bold, bigger font sizes) and exclamation points can signal anger.

Sometimes it can be difficult to resist writing an email response when you’re upset. Therefore, we recommend three specific approaches you can use to retain your professional reputation.

Write-and-Delete. Go ahead and write a full-blown nasty message. Then promptly delete it. The process might help you blow off steam so you can then write a professional message that achieves your goals.

Write-and-Wait. If you are angry and attempting to write a professional message, you still might not be as calm and professional as you need to be. So compose the message, but don’t click send. Come back and read it later (a couple hours if you are a little angry; 24 hours if you’re really angry). Then make the changes necessary when you’re in a calmer state of mind.

Write-and-Get-Help. Just like the old-time bosses who would get help from their administrative assistants to avoid courtesy pitfalls, you can do something similar. Find a trusted colleague who will give you honest feedback and ask that person to read and edit your message to take out anything that is potentially discourteous.

With all three of these approaches, we recommend that you don’t type any names in the “To” line. If you accidentally click send instead of save, the message can go out with detrimental consequences.


Authentically Acknowledge Your Receivers Feelings

Human beings all have feelings and emotional reactions. Disregarding, invalidating, or displaying neutrality towards those feelings can actually increase the negative reaction to a situation. Think about some of your own business interactions that have raised strong feelings. Perhaps you’ve been stranded in an airport before an important business meeting. Perhaps you’ve been frustrated by dealing with the fallout from identity theft. Perhaps you’ve lost your job because of downsizing.

When communicating with receivers who may be having an emotional reaction to a situation, it is important to acknowledge their feelings—especially negative feelings such as anger, sadness, or frustration. The first step for acknowledging your receiver’s feelings is first to do a quick emotional scan of the situation. Is your receiver showing any indication of having an emotional reaction? This could include explicit declarations of his or her emotional state (“I’m really upset!”), subtle or not-so-subtle implicit signals (typing in all CAPS), or acknowledgement of some event that can be safely assumed to cause emotional distress

The next step is to make a brief and authentic expression of empathy. Of course, it is important to keep your own goals in mind and not to go too overboard in your expression of empathy.

For instance, assume that your employee Marcus has written an emotionally-charged email complaining about his recent performance review. You have concluded the review is accurate so it won’t be changed. How you acknowledge (or invalidate) his feelings could lead to much different results.

If you do not acknowledge Marcus’ feelings anywhere in the message and just stick to the facts, he may remain frustrated and judge you to be cold and harsh. If you go overboard in acknowledging his feelings (“I can tell you’re upset. I would be upset, too, if I were you.”), Marcus may end up feeling even worse, or perhaps he might have some sort of grounds for escalating his case to a higher authority. If you invalidate his feelings (“I don’t understand why you’re upset. This isn’t a big deal.”), it could lead to the worst effect of all. With Marcus now being upset both about the original review and because of the insult, you could be viewed as a total jerk.

Consider instead, a more appropriate response. You authentically and briefly acknowledge his feelings by saying, “I understand that you were hoping for a better performance review and are upset by some of the scores.” You have then set the stage for calmly and professionally explaining your answer.

Talk With or Talk Up To, but Don’t Talk Down To Your Receiver

Perhaps you are “above” your receiver in some way. You may have a higher position of authority in the company. You may have more experience or knowledge of a certain topic. You may have more status and influence. You may have the power to fix the receiver’s problem. But implicitly or explicitly pointing out your superiority will only raise defensiveness.

If your interaction with your receivers includes condescension, rudeness, or anything they can interpret as an attitude of superiority, you are likely to raise their hackles. Even if that is not your intent, it can be a serious problem for generating defensiveness. Some of the ways this occurs are when you talk down to receivers, use a condescending tone, or draw attention to their lower position.

Talking Down: Maybe someday when you have as much experience as I do, you will understand why that idea won’t work.

Talking With: Let me explain why that won’t work.

In the “talking with” example, you have minimized your status difference and positioned yourself as a peer, or perhaps an approachable mentor or supervisor who is committed to their professional development.

It also is important to note that if you are “below” your receiver in some way, “talking with” can be just as problematic. When you position yourself as equal to someone above you in the organization, it can generate as much defensiveness as talking down to a peer or subordinate because you have effectively “lowered them” to your level.

“Talking with” might occur if you communicate with superiors in too friendly of a tone or call them by their first names before you’ve received implicit permission to be on a first-name basis.

And “talking down” to a superior can be downright detrimental. For example, you may write to your manager saying, “Please approve my vacation request by Friday.” Even with the politeness of the word “please,” your manager may still think that you overstepped your bounds by telling him or her what to do.

Change the Channel

Another valuable strategy for defusing defensiveness is to change the communication channel. What is meant by communication channel is the method by which you communicate. This includes things like email, phone, online meetings, and face-to-face communication.

Channels vary in the amount of “richness” they contain. Richer channels, like online and face-to-face meetings contain words, tone of voice, facial expressions, and body language. Thin channels like text messages and email carry only words. Not surprisingly, thinner channels can be easier to misinterpret as cold and uncaring.

Therefore, if you have a difficult message to deliver or if it appears tensions might be escalating with every back-and-forth email reply, you might consider changing channels. Instead of putting the negative information into a thin and cold email, pick a richer and warmer channel.

You might be surprised that with the additional cues of tone of voice or facial expressions that you just might be able to solve a problem much faster and eliminate defensiveness altogether.

Your Turn: Detecting and Defusing Defensiveness

Read the statements below. What is it about each one that might provoke dissatisfaction? Try to rewrite the sentence to defuse defensiveness.


You were not as qualified as the other applicants.

I won’t stay late to do that assignment.

Parking fees have increased this year.

We will not be authorizing any more vacation requests for the month of July.

Employees are not allowed to telework on Mondays and Fridays.

You are dressed inappropriately for the office.

Questions to Ponder
1.  How would you react if you were the receiver of these original messages?

2. How would you react if you received one of your revised messages?

3. How do you think people would react to you if you used more positively-worded messages?


  1. Brown and Levison developed “politeness theory” to explain various strategies for reducing threat to people’s esteem in various communication situations. You can read their Penelope Brown and Stephen C. Levinson, Politeness: Some Universals in Language Usage (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1987).
  2. Danette Ifert Johnson and Nicole Lewis, “Perceptions of Swearing in the Work Setting: An Expectancy Violations Theory Perspective,” Communication Reports 23, no. 2 (2010),
  3. Kristin Byron, “Carrying Too Heavy a Load? The Communication and Miscommunication of Emotion by Email,” Academy of Management Review 33, no. 2 (2008),


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

Business Communication: Five Core Competencies Copyright © 2023 by Kristen Lucas, Jacob D. Rawlins, and Jenna Haugen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book