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At the outset, I would like to express my thanks and gratitude to all of you for undertaking this historic tour, for taking the trouble of coming all the way down here to have a first hand knowledge of/ about the situation on the ground.

How can I greet a visiting team of human rights activists in a polite manner in a formal meeting? Does the above sound okay?
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I would like to express my thanks/gratitude [choose one; they are synonymous] to all of you for undertaking this historic tour, for taking the trouble of coming all the way down here to gain first-hand knowledge of our situation.

I don't think 'on the ground' is the appropriate idiom-- presumably any competent team of activists is already 'on the ground'.
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To me, "first-hand knowledge of/about the situation on the ground" is fine. "On the ground" emphasises that they're seeing with their own eyes what things are really like -- what's really happening -- rather than learning about it in a more distant and theoretical way.
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Thanks MM. "Our situation" sounds great although a search for
"situation on the ground" on google book search has got a good number of hits.
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I think you are both overly enamoured of the phrase. I can only repeat:
I don't think 'on the ground' is the appropriate idiom-- presumably any competent team of activists is already 'on the ground'.
Using 'on the ground' suggests that your guests are unaware-- so it is potentially slightly insulting. 'Our situation' alone is sufficiently clear, while remaining polite.
Mister MicawberI don't think 'on the ground' is the appropriate idiom ... it is potentially slightly insulting

Curious. To me it is entirely appropriate for a visiting group (who will not have seen the situation first-hand, but have probably heard/read about it), and is not in the least bit "insulting".

Does anyone else have an opinion on this?
Yes, I thought it sounded ok as well. Although it sounds as though this is the first time those people have visited that environment. It wouldn't be appropriate if they'd been there before....but I don't see it as insulting or that they have little knowledge of the situation.

Maybe another Brit/US thing?
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Can we come to the conclusion that while the phrase may be potentially slightly insulting to some people, it is not so to others?

My another question is: does the use of the phrases "To begin with", "first of all" or "at the beginning" at the beginning of your
delibertion make you less formal? If so, can I use them in any semi-formal meetings?

Thanks.
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Let me just try to clarify one more time: the phrase itself is certainly not necessarily impolite. In this specific situation, given that the visitors are activists, I would expect them not to be ivory tower execs but already hands-on operatives-- and already 'on the ground', as it were (if not specifically at this location). That is my only caution against using it here.

Now, onward and upward:

To begin with", "first of all" or "at the beginning" at the beginning of your
deliberation make you less formal? If so, can I use them in any semi-formal meetings?
-- No, I don't think they are less formal; I struck out your 'At the outset' because such a phrase here seemed to me to be redundant. The audience can see that you are beginning to speak; it is already obvious, and needs no comment.

On the other hand, if you are planning to make a list of points, then there is good reason for the discourse markers: 'To begin with, we will have a presentation by our local representative; we we will then open the floor for discussion.''
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