Updated July 18, 2009


Politeness in the Speaking Test and Your Attitudes Towards the Test

Many candidates worry too much about being polite towards the examiner. My advice is, don't worry too much about this! Just be yourself! If you just 'be yourself', the result will be that you are polite enough. On top of that, you'll be less nervous and your attitude will be better suited to speaking freely.

Basically, it all boils down to your overall attitude towards the Speaking test, or, more specifically, your attitude towards your relationship with the examiner.  ("It all boils down to" = "it's based on".) Therefore, before looking more closely at the question of politeness, it is important to first look at these attitudes. 

Firstly, you'll speak better, and therefore get a better score, if you think of the examiner as equal to you in status. Even if the examiner is a white-haired, 70-year-old man who seems very educated and even rather formal, try to imagine that you are speaking as equals. This attitude is important because the Speaking test is assessing whether you have the ability to converse, as an equal, with other students and with your university lecturers overseas. In the West, you speak as an equal in both of these situations because in the West, university lecturers are not given especially great respect simply because they are teachers, as is the case in China and furthermore, university lecturers in the West don't want to be treated with excessive reverence. As well as that, lecturers in the West treat students more as adults than lecturers at university in China treat their students. 

This sense of equality is most important in Part 3 where you should try to speak in a 'discussion mode'. But even in Parts 1 & 2, a sense of equality will allow you to speak more freely.

In other words, don't think of the examiner as an 'examining god' who has 'the power of life and death over you', or as an 'examining machine' that is not human, nor should you think that the examiner is the same as a teacher in school who is asking you questions that only have a 'right' or 'wrong' answer. (In Part 3 of the test, for example, questions are used as a basis for, or a beginning of a discussion and sometimes there is no simple answer to the question.) 

If possible, imagine that the examiner is a 'new friend' who has just arrived from overseas and who is very curious about you personally and about China (the reason for all of his/her questions). In a real situation like that, you would answer a new friend's questions but you'd also be willing to, and you would tend to give this person detailed information connected to their questions – you would freely give information even when the other person did not ask, because you would feel that this person wanted to hear this information. In other words, you would talk freely, including sometimes adding your feelings and your opinions about things even when these were not asked for in a question. 'Talking freely' is important for your fluency score, especially in Parts 2 & 3 where there is more time for your answers. Of course, keep in mind that it is a test and show the examiner, as much as possible, your best English at the same time as you speak freely.

From the above, it's obvious that the test is not as formal as some people think it is: any interaction between equals and especially between friends or people who are talking like friends, is not formal; any interaction where you are expected to explain your personal feelings about things, for example, your likes and dislikes, is not formal; any interview where the interviewer introduces himself or herself by their first name only is not formal; and any interview where the interviewer (the examiner) knows that your Part 2 might be more 'fiction' than fact is not very formal. If you consider the purpose of the test, i.e., to give a number, a score, to your level of communicative spoken English, it is obvious that the test is not as formal as an interview for a job, an interview at a foreign embassy for a visa, an interview for a bank loan or a police interview. The IELTS Speaking test is similar to going to the hospital for a checkup of your blood pressure – the final result is just a number that represents a level at the time of testing. That's all it is, a number representing your English level after you just had a 'checkup' of your English. Of course, the test has a formal (or set) structure and the first four questions are a little formal since these questions are used to check your ID but overall, don't think that it is a very formal situation.

Another attitude that can affect your performance is the degree of seriousness that you attach to the test. I think you will get a better score if you allow a small amount of light-heartedness (light-hearted: adj. 无忧无虑 ,轻松愉快的) to enter into your attitudes in order to 'take the edge off' (减少) the sense of seriousness that you feel. In other words, if you are ever-ready to smile or even laugh at something funny, you'll communicate better. Of course, you don't have to wear a permanent smile on your face and you definitely should not make a joke out of every question. However, to do the opposite, i.e., to have a 'life and death' attitude towards the importance of the test, with no allowance for humour or light-heartedness, will restrict your ability to communicate. Even if your personality is such that you rarely smile or laugh, at least try not to treat the situation as if your whole life depends on it. By relaxing a little, you will, surprisingly, do better. 

To repeat: The IELTS Speaking test is an attempt to create a situation that is similar to two students speaking together or a student speaking to a member of the university teaching staff. In these situations, people speak as equals. The test is definitely not similar to a formal interview between two people of unequal status. In situations where equals are talking to each other, people sometimes make a joke or speak in similar light-hearted ways as a way of acknowledging that the interaction is between equals, as a way of showing that you are speaking like friends. In fact, in the West, showing a suitable amount of humor or light-heartedness at suitable times is considered to be a very appropriate social skill, even in situations that are quite serious. In other words, even though you might feel that the test is crucial to your progress in life, you have to try to pretend that you are just having an everyday conversation with someone, a situation where people are normally quite relaxed and not feeling any extreme sense of seriousness.

This leads us to what I believe is the key to communicating well in the Speaking test and this key is surprising in its simplicity: Before you enter the test room, have a strong desire, a strong willingness to communicate with the examiner. (Communicate, not just "perform" or answer questions.) This attitude will almost automatically cause you to communicate to the best of your ability. The more you really want to communicate, and the deeper you feel this, the better you will speak. Of course, you need to have the basic tools of communication such as vocabulary but having the tools alone is not enough to ensure that you actually use the tools in the best way possible. See HERE for more information about communication.

Returning to the question of politeness, you should also keep in mind that the IELTS Speaking test does have a cultural component, even though this is not reflected in the grading criteria that guide the examiner's grading of your English. This cultural component exists because the test 'assesses the candidate's ability to communicate in English' (as stated in the IELTS Handbook) and communication involves personal interaction, not just language. Examiners are native English speakers and you should try to act a little bit as English speakers do, not just the way Chinese people do in a job interview or similar situation with other Chinese people. Similarly, if I, as a native English speaker, were doing a test of spoken Chinese with a Chinese interviewer, I should try to be a little Chinese in the way I interact with the interviewer. Or, if I were doing a Korean language test in Korea or a Japanese language test in Japan, it would be suitable for me to bow (鞠躬) when meeting the examiner, even though I do not do that in my own culture.

Let's look at some specific examples of 'polite' behaviour that some students worry about.

1) When First Meeting the Examiner

However, if the examiner has said almost nothing and does not offer his or her hand, it often seems 'forced' and unnatural to say, 'Nice to meet you' as the first thing you say, especially if you don't offer your hand.

Certainly, don't say, 'Glad to meet you' because the use of the word 'glad' does not suit the situation of a test.

Most examiners would not be offended if you used the very informal greeting, "Hi" when you first meet each other.

My advice is this: If the examiner seems relaxed, friendly, not in a big hurry and not very tired, offer your hand if you really want to. But if the examiner seems to be in a hurry, or is not very warm or friendly, or seems tired, don't force the examiner to shake hands.

Also remember that males do not offer their hand to females  –  it is the female who chooses whether to shake hands or not.

When I was an examiner, I used to prefer going in second because I found that way easier for closing the door the examiner must make sure the door is closed.

2)  Sitting Down

Usually, as the two of you walk towards where you will sit down, the examiner says something like, 'Please sit down', 'Take a seat' or 'Have a seat' and beckons towards your chair. When invited to sit, you should sit down without waiting for the examiner to sit first. For Westerners, when people of equal status are together, worrying about whose bottom (屁股) touches the chair first is a ridiculous idea! It's true that if it were a king or a president of a country who asked you to sit down, then who sits first might be important. But not in this situation. (By the way, the candidate’s chair has its back to the door and the examiner faces the door.)

When I was an examiner, I sometimes invited the next candidate into the room even before I was fully ready to start the interview. I did this because I thought that, while I was getting my cassette tape and other things ready for the test, I could have a 30-second or 1-minute 'chat' with the candidate in order to relax him or her and in order to let him or her get used to my voice. Sometimes, I would invite a candidate to sit down and then, before I sat down, I would go to another table to get something such as a pencil or a cassette tape and sometimes I would look around and see the candidate still standing behind his chair, even though I had invited him to sit down. The first few times this happened, I was either a little puzzled or I thought to myself, "Wow! He doesn't even understand what, 'Take a seat' means!" I thought this even though I had already lived in China for several years. It was only after it had happened a few times that I realized the candidate was trying to be polite. If I, as someone who had already lived in China for several years thought that, then certainly many other examiners would also think that because many of them are quite new to China, as well as being quite new to examining.  

Occasionally, when I was an examiner, the candidate walked into the room with me and before I even had the chance to invite him or her to sit down, they walked straight up to the correct chair and sat down, uninvited, before I had sat down. Usually these candidates were very much 'being themselves' and usually they were quite self-confident and enthusiastic to do the interview. Did I feel offended? Not at all! I was a little amused but certainly not offended. After all, I am the same generation as the parents of most candidates and I just thought of these candidates as uninhibited young people. I was willing to 'forgive' their minor infraction of elementary politeness just as a father forgives his children. Overall, my feeling was one of relief that these candidates would be easy to interview. For an examiner who is tired and/or under time pressure, it's much easier and more pleasant to do an interview when the candidate is enthusiastic.

One reason why most examiners do not care too much about candidates sitting down uninvited is the fact that the interview is taking place in a classroom at a university, not in the examiner's personal office. Therefore, the examiner is unlikely to have a strong sense of 'proprietorship' or 'ownership' over the exam room and the furniture in it – the examiner is unlikely to feel that you are too 'pushy' (坚持已见的) or you are making yourself too comfortable in his 'personal place' if you sit down uninvited.

However, I definitely do not suggest that you deliberately plan to sit down uninvited!! Elementary politeness is important! If the examiner has not yet invited you to sit down, you can show both enthusiasm and politeness by first asking, "Is this my chair?" or "May I sit down?" That's quite natural for this situation.  

3)  Giving Your ID Card to the Examiner

In Chinese and in other Asian cultures, it is considered polite to use both hands when giving someone something such as your ID card. But this is an alien idea (= an unknown idea) in the West! It is true that Westerners feel pleasantly honoured to be given something in this way, a way that seems rather ceremonial but if you did not use both hands, the Westerner would not feel that you were impolite. 

In most cases, I would say that giving your I.D. card using one hand is better. The reason is, if you use both hands, some examiners might feel that you are somehow ‘forcing’ Chinese culture into the interview when Western culture is more suitable, as I mentioned above. In fact, you might make the examiner feel a little uncomfortable (or, gauche, 不善交际的) if he or she is not ready to receive the card with both hands.

On the other hand, if you strongly feel (or know) that the examiner is very interested in Chinese culture, for example, you know the examiner can speak quite good Chinese or wants to speak good Chinese, then ‘welcoming the foreigner to participate in Chinese culture’ in this way might be a pleasant ‘exchange of cultures’ that could add to rather than detract from the overall communication process. Of course, you should make sure that the examiner has both hands free to accept the card. However, candidates rarely have the opportunity to find out how examiners feel about Chinese culture before the test starts.

 4) When the Test is Over

Many candidates feel they must say something polite after the test is over or as they leave. But this is not as important as these people think. Examiners know most candidates have just been through a rather stressful experience and they don’t expect you to say much more than, “Goodbye”, preferably with a small smile if you can manage one. 

My suggestion is that you just be yourself and if you want to say something more than, “Goodbye”, be truthful.

Let’s look at an example of a candidate who feels that he must say something more than, “Goodbye” in order to be polite or in order to say something 'meaningful' as he leaves. Let’s say that, before the test, this candidate plans to say, “Thank you. I enjoyed our chat.” and he practices saying that a few times. Then, during the test, this candidate has a few problems here and there and is obviously a little disappointed in his performance – he didn't really seem to 'enjoy' his experience. If this candidate continues with his plan and says, as he is walking out the door, “Thank you. I enjoyed our chat.”, the examiner might think, “What a liar! He must have rehearsed that statement.” This might even cause the examiner to wonder how many of the candidate's answers were rehearsed. Not only that, the candidate will probably say those words like a robot, without any feeling of sincerity because he does not really feel that he enjoyed it! On the other hand, if the candidate was more sincere and said, “That was a little harder than I thought it would be!” then the examiner might be moved by the candidate's sincerity and offer a few words of encouragement or even a few words of advice. 

If that candidate had said, “Thank you. It was nice talking to you” it would have been much better. In fact, that statement is suitable for almost everyone to say. What is the difference between that and, “Thank you. I enjoyed our chat”? The difference is in the strength of feelings expressed – “It was nice talking to you” is not as strong as, “I enjoyed our chat.” The word, “nice” is considered to be a rather weak, not very emphatic, rather general way to say, “good”. On the other hand, to say you “enjoyed” something means that you liked that thing a lot.  So, if you did smile a few times during the test and seemed to be enjoying the chat, or if you were particularly interested in the questions, then “Thank you. I enjoyed our chat” is accurate and sincere. But if you never smiled at all during the test, or never showed particular enthusiasm or interest in the things that were spoken about then, “Thank you. It was nice talking to you” is more suitable because it can still be true, and a sincere statement. That is, it is possible to feel something was “nice”, and say so, even if you didn't show (by your face or in other ways) that you felt it was nice.

There are other, commonly used statements that you should be careful about using. For example, the phrase, “Thanks for your time” is unsuitable. Many people genuinely feel a sense of gratitude towards the examiner after the test and they feel to simply say, “Thanks” or “Thank you” is insufficient. But I don't think saying “Thanks for your time” is suitable because English speakers say, “Thanks for your time” when the other person has gone out of their way (特意不怕麻烦做某事) to give their time to you, for no payment. It is unsuitable to say, “Thanks for your time” to examiners because they are doing a job (and receiving quite good pay for it!) Instead, I suggest saying, “Thanks for testing me” or “Thanks for putting up with my terrible English!” as much more suitable phrases.

Another expression, which seems quite harmless and friendly is, “Have a nice day.” About twenty five years ago, this expression had a sense of sincerity about it, but then it became 'commercialized' as a slogan, much like “Just do it” became an advertising slogan more recently. For example, (and not the only example), about twenty five years ago McDonald's had all of their employees, all over the English-speaking world, saying, “Have a nice day!” to every customer after the customer received their McDonald's meal or even after you simply asked a McDonald's employee where the toilet was. This continued for a few years. After that, for me anyway, that perfectly nice phrase had lost a lot of its value as a sincere way to say goodbye. Besides, “Have a nice day” is an especially friendly thing to say after you have established a sense of friendliness with someone else but if you and the examiner were not especially friendly during the test, why say it as you leave? If the two of you were friendly during the test, then it would be suitable to use – but if you use it unsuitably (insincerely), it might quickly remind a middle-aged or older examiner of its clichéd (陈腐的词语) usage, leaving the examiner feeling cold.

To Summarize: 

5) Asking what your score is

Definitely do not ask the examiner what your score is, no matter how important or urgent this seems to be to you. The examiner is not allowed to tell you that, (assuming that he/she has already decided your score, which the examiner might not have done yet). As well as that, the examiner's score might be changed later by others who review the recording of the interview.

6) Don't Apologize for your poor English or make an excuse for your poor performance

Some candidates say, "Sorry. My English is so poor". This is not suitable in a test situation where someone's job is to judge how good your English is! In a conversation with some foreigner you meet on the subway, saying that might be suitable. But not just after an English test. It's not impolite to say that – it's just an unsuitable thing to say.

Similarly, it is not suitable to tell the examiner that you didn't speak very well today because you were nervous. There's no way the examiner can consider your nervousness as a factor when deciding on your score – every candidate is nervous, to some extent! Not only that, when candidates say that, examiners feel they are being asked to give you a better score than your true test performance today. And examiners don't respect such a request. 


How important is it to not make the 'mistakes' mentioned above? Will it affect your score?

The short answer is, no, such 'mistakes' (or, unsuitable things) will not affect your score, in theory, because your score in the test should only reflect your English communicative ability, not your ability to show politeness in a culturally suitable way.

But in reality, if you show several examples of slightly inappropriate language or behaviour, I think it might affect the examiner's enthusiasm for encouraging you to do your best. That is, the examiner might feel a little less warm and friendly towards you. As a result, this could affect how well you speak. 

In addition to that, if you show a poor understanding of how to relate to Westerners, or if you show little comfort in the presence of foreigners, the examiner will possibly grade you a little more strictly than he would grade a candidate who seems to be more socially suitable for studying overseas. Examiners are not supposed to judge you on your apparent social suitability to be a student overseas, but they are human and how the examiner feels about you as a person could affect his or her mood and how strictly he or she applies the grading rules. Most of this would occur almost unconsciously in the examiner's mind, and in just a few seconds, because examiners don't have time to deeply ponder each candidate's grade.

I estimate that if you make three or more of the 'mistakes' listed above, the greatest overall end result might be (i.e., only if you are very unlucky) a score that is 0.5 band point lower than if you had not made those 'mistakes'.