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Speaking Diplomatically about Sensitive Topics (for learners)

Updated: Oct 14, 2020

This year has seen a number of cases which caused a mixture of reactions, and which are very difficult to deal with. In this post, written for learners of English, I am going to talk about how students can discuss and express their opinion in connection with sensitive issues without accidentally offending anybody.

Speaking diplomatically politely sensitive topics Jo Szoke Short and Simple English

2020 has been an extremely tough year so far. Let's see, we've had the COVID-19 pandemic with thousands dead and millions afraid all over the world, George Floyd's death and the resulting protests in the US, various immigration and refugee crises in many countries, the climate crisis that is coming closer and closer, and the list could go on.

These are definitely things that shouldn't be swept under the rug but should be discussed. The question is "HOW?" All these tragedies are really tragedies even if you personally haven't been affected by them, so talking about them openly might make certain people feel upset, hurt, frustrated, uneasy, sad, depressed, miserable, or all of these together.

Everybody's struggling

Even native speakers are finding it hard to address these issues without unintentionally hurting anybody, as, for example, we can read about how emails should be written during the pandemic (BBC or WSJ). So just imagine how difficult this could be for language learners who might want to discuss these problems with their foreign friends, they might want to offer their support, or even start an intelligent debate but don't have the right words to express themselves? How can a language learner express their opinion without offending others or without starting a fight they didn’t mean to?


This question can also be true for cases when you need to discuss certain delicate and sensitive topics during a language exam. There is a general consensus called PARSNIP, which means that English textbooks and materials shouldn't include topics about (not that general anymore actually, many sources think these topics should be discussed, see this or this):

  • Politics

  • Alcohol

  • Religion

  • Sex

  • Narcotics

  • Isms (e.g. communism, nihilism)

  • Pork

However, some exam questions do lead to one or two of these topics. So how can you deal with them without saying something too extreme or offensive?

A disclaimer is necessary at this point

My aim with this post is not to teach you how to be wishy-washy about what you think, how to lie about or hide your opinion, or how to be mainstream and follow what the majority thinks and says. My aim is to show you expressions that you can use if you feel that your language knowledge is not enough to handle the situation when you think that you're actually going to end up in a worse situation than if you had stayed silent. But staying silent cannot always be the solution. Sometimes you have to say something, and these are the times when these phrases can be useful.

So, let's see some examples:

Refusing to answer

  • I'm afraid I don't have all the information to speak competently about this.

  • I'm really not the best person to ask.

  • It's hard to say.

  • I can't really comment on this.

  • This is a bit delicate. I’d rather not talk about it.

Reformulating or clarifying what you mean

  • To put it another way ...

  • What I'm saying is that ...

  • To clarify, I'm (not) saying that ...

  • What I mean is ...

  • The point I'm trying to make is ...

  • Sorry if I didn't make that clear. Can I put this straight?

  • I might have said the wrong thing. Let me rephrase that…

  • How shall I put it?

Expressing what you think

  • To be honest with you ...

  • Personally speaking ...

  • To be perfectly honest ...

  • Please don't take this the wrong way but ...

  • I'm not quite sure how to put this but …

  • As far as I know …

  • I’m definitely not an expert but I think that …

Disagreeing politely

  • That may be well so but I wonder if …

  • Might it not be the case that …?

  • I’m not entirely convinced …

  • It’s difficult to give a yes or no answer but …

(based on Business Result Advanced 2nd ed and CAE Gold)

You can download the poster version here:

how to talk diplomatically
Download PDF • 103KB

How to practice?

If you want to actually put yourself on the spot, and practice using these expressions in connection with real news stories or situations, check out the following materials. There aren't so many resources dealing with taboo or PARSNIP topics, but more and more appear, which I think is a good thing, because as I wrote earlier, hiding our heads in the sand is not going to help us become better communicators.

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