My guide to getting it right.
I often tell clients that a quick way to sound more polite is to use ‘would like’ instead of ‘want’. And it’s true. If you’re meeting someone in person, using ‘would like’ can make your life easier. ‘Would you like some coffee?’ is way more polite than ‘Want coffee?’. That’s exactly what you need when you’re meeting someone in person for the first time. Read on for more information about when to use want or would like.
That’s the basic rule. But, like so many things in the English language, the basic rule will only get you so far. English has a lot of ifs and buts. So when do you use want?
Talking up and talking down
A lot of communication shows if we see someone as above us or below us. We call that talking up or talking down. If someone talks down to you and you don’t think they should, it may make you angry (Who does she think she is?) and you may feel insecure (Does he think I’m an idiot?). If someone talks up to you and you don’t think they should, it may make you feel uncomfortable (Why is he doing this? What does he want?).
There are also situations where you expect to talk up and talk down. Here’s some examples:
- You are a client at a company, phoning the helpdesk. ‘Would you like me to send out an engineer?’ If you are working in customer service in any way, use would like. It doesn’t matter what function the caller has.
- You’re asking your boss about her requirements for a report. ‘What would you like to see in the report?’
- You’re talking to your child ‘I want you to do that now’
If you’re talking up to someone, use ‘Would like’. If you’re talking down, you can use ‘Want’ (but just don’t expect people to really like you).
What do you want?
Let’s have a look at what happens if you use want in the wrong way. Say you’re talking to a new client or your boss and you use want, they might think you’re pushy or rude. It’s more okay to use want if you’re talking down to someone, because it’s not about being friends. Bosses and clients who use want all the time ‘I want this now’ might not be the best loved people, but they do sound assertive and in charge. Sometimes this is a good thing and sometimes it isn’t.
Weirdly though, you can also use want to sound close to someone. If you know someone well and you’re in the same social position, you’re fine to use want. ‘Want something to drink? What can I get you?’
That might be:
- You’re both colleagues in the same department or with the same job function
- You’re talking to family members or friends informally (as adults)
So, you know someone well and you’re talking on the same level. No-one thinks they’re in charge of the other person. It’s friendly and informal.
That’s exactly why you can use ‘want’ on websites and sales pages. You’re saying ‘we’re like friends (or we could be). I’m on your side’. If this is the style you’re aiming at, then want is fine.
Here’s how you use want:
Want to learn more about this?
Want to discover 7 exciting ways to grow your business?
This is really short for ‘do you want’, but we can leave out ‘do you’ here.
Let’s sum it up:
If you’re talking to a (new) client, your customer or your boss, use ‘would like’ to be polite.
If you’re talking to friends or family you can use ‘want’
If you’re writing a sales page or website text, you can use ‘want’ (make sure it fits your style though)