9 “Innocent” Expressions That May Offend Your Listener

Direct translations will get you in trouble.

You can take a perfectly innocent expression in your native language, translate it to English, and wind up saying something rude.

Here are nine seemingly innocent expressions that could be considered offensive.

For more on politeness, see How to be Polite in English.

1. For your information…

For your information sounds offensive because we normally use the expression to correct someone or give information during an argument.

Here is an example from the movie Groundhog Day, starring Bill Murray. Murray’s character, a disgruntled reporter named Phil, is on his way to Punxsutawney to cover the Groundhog Day festivities. His co-worker sarcastically tells him to enjoy his trip. Phil responds with “For your information…” (I’ve embedded the whole opening scene. Skip to 1:46 to hear “For your information…”)

It’s obvious that Phil and his co-worker don’t like each other, and that neither comment was meant to be polite.

Better ways to say it:

Just so you know…
Just as a heads up…
By the way...

2. Do I know you?

We often use Do I know you? to communicate “Why are you talking to me because I have no idea who you are?” It’s not a very polite expression.

Better ways to say it:

Have we met?
Have we met before?
(If you don’t recognize the person)

Haven’t we met before?
Don’t I know you from somewhere?
(If you recognize the person but don’t know where you’ve met)

3. Do you understand?

Here’s Chris Tucker talking to Jackie Chan in Rush Hour:

Not the politest way to ask if someone understands, is it? The problem with Do you understand? is that it suggests that any miscommunication is the listener’s fault, not the speaker’s.

Better ways to say it:

Does that make sense?
Did that make sense?
Did my explanation make sense?
Am I making sense?
Was that clear?

4. Who are you?/Who is this?

If we are on the phone and want to know the caller’s name, we don’t normally say “Who are you?” or “Who is this?” These expressions are too direct.

Better ways to say it:

May I ask who’s calling?
Who am I speaking with?

5. What do you want?

This is an expression we often use when we are annoyed. It’s not an expression we use to politely ask if someone needs assistance.

Better ways to say it:

How can I help you?
Can I help you with something?
(If you’re offering assistance)

What would you like?
(If you’re offering food or drink. Example: “What would you like to drink?”)

6. Are you done/finished?

Depending on the context, a direct expression like Are you done? or Are you finished? could sound rude. We often use a less direct expression to politely check on the status of something.

Better ways to say it:

Have you had a chance to work on…?
Have you made any progress on…?
I wanted to know where we are on…
I wanted to know if you’re finished with…
I was wondering if… is ready yet.

7. What?

Simply saying “What?” when we want someone to repeat themselves could be perceived as rude. We normally use a different expression.

Better ways to say it:

I’m sorry?
Excuse me?
I’m sorry, I didn’t catch that.
I’m sorry, I didn’t get that.
What was that?

This excellent video delves into the topic a bit further:

8. Wait

Just saying “Wait” could be perceived as rude. It sounds too much like an order. We normally opt for a more indirect expression instead.

Better ways to say it:

Hold on just a second/minute.
Hang on just a second/minute.
Give me just a second/minute.
(Asking someone to wait for a very short time)

Bear with me for just a second/minute.
(Asking someone to wait while you finish something)

Could you wait for me, please?
(Asking someone to stop and wait for you)

9. Can/Could you…? (for special requests)

When we make “special” requests (the person we’re asking doesn’t have an obligation to say yes), we don’t normally use direct questions with could or can.

Better ways to say it:

I was wondering if I/you could…?
I was hoping I/you could…?
Do you think I/you could…?
• Do you think it would be possible to…?

Would it be okay if I…?


It takes a lot of practice to learn the polite, tactful expressions we use in English.

Some advice:

• Don’t rely on literal translations from your native language. These translations often lead to miscommunication.

• Don’t try to expand your vocabulary by only learning  words. Make a conscious effort to learn complete expressions for dealing with specific situations.

• Pay attention to your intonation and body language. Often the way you say something is more important than your actual words. Pay attention to how an expression is said, and then do your best to imitate it.

By Bradford Jones

Hi, I'm Brad. I've spent the last seven years teaching English and creating websites for English learners and teachers. I recently moved from Costa Rica to Orlando, Florida, where I teach intensive English classes at a state college. If you'd like to contact me, I can be reached via email at bradfordcjones@gmail.com.