Technically called “registers,” these different ways to use a given language fascinate linguists but can frustrate learners.
It should be no surprise that English is no exception to this complexity.
In addition to the style of speech used every day by ordinary people, there are formal registers as well as those most appropriate to a business setting.
Although these registers in English might be less detailed than in some other languages, there are absolutely phrases and nonstandard uses of English words and phrases that can be confusing.
In many languages, politeness is often a big part of the formal or business register. That’s true in English as well.
In this post, we’ll take a look at one example, the phrase “thank you for your patience,” and determine exactly what it means and how to use it.
What does “Thank you for your patience” mean?
There are two ways this phrase is commonly used, usually in a customer service setting. The exact meaning will depend on the context of the letter, chat or other type of correspondence in which the phrase is used.
If you are dealing with technical support or some other support line, the phrase “thank you for your patience” will often be used to apologize for wait times, even if those were not long.
Alternately, if you are seeing this in a letter informing you about something that has yet to happen, the meaning is more like “it may take a while for this to happen, and we apologize in advance.”
In short, though, this phrase can be taken to mean that something is taking longer than might be ideal and the person speaking or writing to you about that is apologizing for it.
The parts of “Thank you for your patience” explained
Before we look at the contexts in which this phrase might be used, let’s briefly examine the phrases it contains.
The second phrase, “your patience,” simply refers to the act of being patient or waiting without getting upset.
The first phrase, “thank you for,” is more or less the same. The speaker or writer is saying thank you for something you are doing.
Put them together and you get “Thank you for your patience,” a polite way to acknowledge someone’s patience.
Why is this phrase so confusing?
Any language uses what are called “registers.”
Although it’s beyond the scope of this article to go into a lot of detail, a register is basically just a specific way language is used in a specific context.
For example, the way doctors speak to one another is very different than the way heavy metal singers in the same band speak to each other.
In other words, they use two different “registers” of English.
Although the idea of registers seems confusing at first, they are a useful way for a specific profession or other group to define shortcuts and phrases which carry a specific meaning in the context of a conversation.
For example, “How well do you drive?” will mean very different things on a golf course and when you’re behind the wheel of a car.
If you see the phrase “thank you for your patience” being used, it’s more than likely in a formal register of some sort.
Most commonly, it’s used in customer service settings, but it might also show up in memos, official letters or notices or in other similar contexts where polite, formal language is the norm.
Why “Thank you” instead of “sorry”?
One thing that’s particularly interesting about this phrase is how tricky it is psychologically.
Notice that “thank you” actually means something closer to “sorry” in this context?
Because it’s bad form to acknowledge that there was or is going to be a delay, the common practice in business is to turn that around and focus on a positive aspect of the customer instead.
Which would you rather hear after a long wait? “Sorry, I’m slow,” or “Thank you for your patience?”
Although neither is ideal, from the perspective of an employer or business the latter is much better.
It will make your customers associate politeness and good customer service with your company, rather than just slowness.
This trick is also useful for the customer service representatives themselves. Thanking someone for their good qualities is more likely to calm down angry customers than just reminding them of one more thing they can be angry about.
This is why the phrase “Thank you” is a better choice for customer service employees, or other types of support staff, to use when dealing with delays that they must explain to the customer.
How and when to use the expression “thank you for your patience”
“Thank you for your patience” after a delay
One of the most common ways this phrase is used is to acknowledge that a delay has already happened and apologize for it.
If you’ve been on hold for an hour, are receiving a refund a month later than you expected or have in some other way been inconvenienced by waiting for something to happen, chances are good someone will say this to you.
Of course, a basic principle of customer service is to always err on the side of caution, so you might even hear this phrase used if the delay has been short or nonexistent.
No matter how long the delay, though, in this context you can take “thank you for your patience” as just an acknowledgement that you were held up waiting for something to happen, and an apology for the time you spent.
Example 1: The use of “thank you for your patience” on a support line
“Hello, my name is Ted. Thank you for your patience while you waited for me to respond. How can I help you?”
Here, the customer service representative both thanks the customer and acknowledges that the response was slow.
However, notice that even when explicitly acknowledging the wait the tendency is to focus on the customer. It’s not “Thank you for your patience with my slowness” but “Thank you for your patience while you waited.”
Again, that reinforcement of the customer’s positive traits (real or imagined) goes a long way to leaving the customer with a good impression.
Example 2: The use of “thank you for your patience” in a formal Letter
“Dear Mr. Edamura,
We thank you for your patience while we reviewed your case.
Although it pains me greatly, however, I am afraid we cannot take responsibility for your decision to trade three magic beans for one cow.
Thank you again for your patience and understanding.
A. Trader & Sons, Inc.”
In this admittedly whimsical letter, the formality is dialed all the way up to eleven.
Not only does the letter writer thank Mr. Edamura for his patience, he reiterates that statement at the end of the letter while also thanking him for his understanding.
Another clear sign that this is in a formal register is that second paragraph, which is actually just one long and complicated sentence.
Such convoluted grammar, coupled with the extreme politeness and the exaggerated “pain” the letter writer claims to be experiencing, are part and parcel of business English.
“Thank you for your patience” for future delays
If you’re seeing this phrase but haven’t had to wait for anything, you might be confused.
This is just another aspect of how tricky formal English registers can be.
In fact, this trick is the same one as telling an angry customer they’ve been patient rather than admitting you were slow about something. The only difference is that the flow of time is now reversed.
We’re not talking science fiction here. Rather, put yourself in the shoes of a customer again.
Imagine receiving a letter that says “It’s going to take us six months to sort out your claim. Sorry.”
Now picture getting one that says, instead, “We thank you for your patience while we process your claim.”
Not only does the latter allow you to avoid making any promises about wait times, it’s much less confrontational and it once again puts the onus on the customer to live up to the patience to which you are ascribing them.
Example 1: Formal letter
“Dear Sir or Madam,
This letter is to inform you that we have received your request for a refund regarding the transaction you made with our broker on March 30th.
Although we will be happy to consider a refund, our company policies require us to follow strict procedures in order to ensure that
We thank you for your patience while we process your refund request, and please feel free to contact us with questions at any point.”
The very formal register used in this letter is the kind of place you’re likely to see this phrase crop up from time to time. Again, note how complex the sentences are.
In this case, it is pretty clear that the recipient of the letter is just starting to wait.
The mention of “strict policies” and the invitation to contact the company with questions are both good indicators that this “thank you for your patience”
Example 2: Support line
“We are currently experiencing high wait times. Thank you for your patience.”
This is a fairly simple example compared to the formal letters.
All the same, if you hear a recorded message say this on a customer support line you just know you’re in for a long wait.
This example is interesting because it actually accounts for any future slowness you might experience as well as however long you’ve already been on hold.
Let’s examine that idea more thoroughly.
How to tell if the delay is in the future or the past
Since this phrase is identical in both contexts, you might not be sure how to tell them apart.
If someone says “Thank you for your patience,” are they telling you you’re in for a long wait or just acknowledging that you might have already had to wait?
Unfortunately, there isn’t a way to tell for sure. In fact, as the previous example shows, sometimes it might even mean both.
Most of the time, however, which meaning is intended will be immediately obvious from the context of the conversation.
If you’re purchasing a product but it took a while, chances are good the cashier is not going to apologize for how long it will take you to get into the parking lot, for instance. (Although, again, if the cashier says.
“This is my first day. Thank you for your patience” as soon as you reach the register, it’s still possible!)
Likewise, if you receive a letter in the mail from a company telling you they are shipping a replacement your way and thanking you for your patience, odds are that they’re expecting the replacement to take a while to reach you, rather than apologizing for how long it took them to send you the letter.
As always, if you aren’t sure what the intended meaning is the best thing to do is ask.
Just remember that, especially in customer service settings, you are probably not talking to the person who makes the decisions or who is responsible for any delay you might be experiencing.
Even if you’re angry and frustrated, it’s best not to take it out on this person, and to acknowledge in turn that they probably have a stressful job.
Instead, try responding to this phrase with “No problem. Thank you for your help.” It might even make the person you’re talking to more inclined to try and help you out!
The use of “thank you for your patience” in an informal setting
As implied above, “thank you for your patience” is really not appropriate outside of a formal or business register.
If a friend is asking when you will pay back the five dollars you owe, saying “thank you for your patience” is likely to get you punched in the arm for being sarcastic rather than ingratiating you to them.
To make this phrase less formal, it’s better to just apologize for your own flaws by saying “Sorry, I don’t have it yet.”
Hey fellow Linguaholics! It’s me, Marcel. I am the proud owner of linguaholic.com. Languages have always been my passion and I have studied Linguistics, Computational Linguistics and Sinology at the University of Zurich. It is my utmost pleasure to share with all of you guys what I know about languages and linguistics in general.