Please and Thank you

When my wife and I came to the UK from Thailand, she asked me why English people say “please” and “thank you” so often. This happened after a bus ride. I got on and asked for “two to Birmingham please”. The driver replied, “five pounds please”. I gave him the money, and he said “thank you”. I took the tickets and said “thank you”. On leaving the bus, I said “thank you, driver”.

My wife asked me why there were so many “please”s and “thank you”s. After all, she explained, he had only done his job; there was no service performed above his usual day-to-day tasks.

In Thai, there is an equivalent of “thank you”, but there isn’t a similar way to say “please”. You can say “khor” as in “khor beer song khwat” (“may [I have] two bottles [of] beer”) but you can also easily say “khor hai aroi” which translates as “may [it] give deliciousness” (or “bon appetit”). To ask for something vehemently needs “karuna”, which is the Sanskrit word for “compassion” or “mercy”; that is, “I beg you”, which is stronger than English social “please”.

I’ve noticed that French and Turkish speakers say “please” and “thank you” regularly (those are the only other languages I speak), whereas Americans seem not to do so; they’re more like Thai speakers and only seem to use it when requesting or acknowledging something beyond what could generally be expected of the person they’re talking to, and not as absolutely necessary in general transactions. That is, in the US, you can say “I want a beer” rather than “a beer, please” and it’s still considered perfectly polite. My Mum woud have given me a clip around the ear if I didn’t say “please” (like saying “what?” which is polite in the USA but horribly rude in British English).

It seems to me that English in England is unnecessarily polite — but I couldn’t bring myself not to follow the rules. Do you say “please” and “thank you” so regularly in your language or culture?

21 Responses to “ Please and Thank you ”

Comment by Cobey

Interesting, I’ve not thought of it that way. I’m American but I say please and thank you all the time. However, I have been told I say it more than most, but perhaps that was the way I was raised. I also tell people (cashiers and the sort, random stranger I talk to briefly) to have a great day. That seems uncommon too because the reaction is generally one of mild surprise and a smile. Certainly makes me feel good inside :)
Interested to see what others say. Cheers!

Comment by Matt May

I wouldn’t consider “I want a beer” perfectly polite among Americans. It’s more along the line of both sides of perfunctory transactions stripping down the exchange to a minimum. But I would say a thank-you is far more common than a please in most such situations (bars, restaurants, ticket booths, government offices, and at least in Seattle, bus drivers).

Comment by Bruce

Matt

true, I can’t judge the effect it has on US ears. But I’ve heard “what can I get you?” “get me a beer” without a “please” many times, and waiter/ waitress has never seemed disgrunted, and my drinking partner appeared otherwise polite and decent.

Comment by Jared

In the states, you tend to hear such courtesies less on the coasts (especially the East Coast) and more so in middle America. Here in Utah people are polite to a fault and you’ll hear so many “Please” and “Thank You”s out of habit that it can be annoying at times. Here it would be out of the ordinary to not say please when ordering a meal or thanking the waiter each and every time they refill your drink, even if you’re unhappy with the meal or service.

I think I enjoy these niceties more than the curt rudeness (though perhaps it just seems rude to me) you hear in New York or San Francisco.

Comment by Bruce

@jared it’s true than my experience of the US may be skewed; I’ve only been to Boston, San Francisco, Seattle, Las Vegas and Austin – all for conferences.

“Here it would be out of the ordinary to not say please when ordering a meal or thanking the waiter each and every time they refill your drink, even if you’re unhappy with the meal or service.”

Proof that Utah is England, then. We do exactly that.

Comment by KevinG

I’m from Texas. I would say we say “thank you” or more likely “thanks” for quite a few things: servers at restaurants, someone holding the door open for you, etc. Maybe not “please” so much.

Currently, I’m in Spain and “gracias” or “gracia'” is said very frequently. “Por favor” I can’t really say I’ve ever heard here.

Comment by Bruce

@dstroii oh, you misundertood me. I’d never accuse a French person of being polite. Nor am I saying that Americans or Thais are impolite, only that some cultures seem to require “please” to be polite to one another, while other cultures don’t.

Comment by Craig Patik

Usage of “please” in the U.S., at least in the northeast, is often used based on context. For example, if I waltzed up to a bar on my own accord and got the bartender’s attention, I would say “One beer, please.” But if I was waiting in line at a food truck or counter, when my turn came up the person would say “what would you like?” (or something less polite like “next?”) and I would simply reply “one beer”, sans “please”. I don’t think the latter case is impolite because I am not initiating the exchange.

Also, I would be more inclined to say “please” if the situation were such that a request was not expected, i.e. with a person who is not strictly a server or provider of service.

Comment by Tony Dunsworth

I try to use please and thank you as my ordinary speech. I use it when getting off the bus as well to remind the driver I appreciate him delivering me to work safe and sound. I have noticed, however, that my continued use of those courtesies tends to accrue benefits to me for which I would not have asked or expected. I suppose that it is simply a case of people of all stripes appreciating the courtesies and treating me a little better for them.

Comment by James Hart

I’m not sure please and thank you differ that much in US and British usage, though I have had to check myself from my reflexive British ‘cheers’ for either ‘thanks’ or ‘please’, as that makes no sense whatsoever over here in the US.

But the defining characteristic of british politeness that really doesn’t carry over to the US is the default British posture of apology, embarrassment, and fear. Here’s an alternative polite bus-ride scenario that could only happen in the UK:

‘Sorry, does this bus go to Birmingham?’
‘Five pounds’
‘I’m afraid I’ve only got a twenty.’
‘Here you go’
‘Cheers.’

Comment by Eric A. Meyer

I’d say your American experience is incomplete. Between the coasts, “please” and “thank you” are quite common. Kat and I insist that our children use both and model that as much as possible, to the point that each kid’s first dozen or so signed and spoken words included both. Joshua, now 22 months, will verbally thank servers in restaurants without prompting (of course, it comes out as “ank oo”, but it’s instantly recognizable).

The beer-ordering scenario is unique and location-dependent, however. If seated at a table, I would say, “May I have a beer, please?” (Assuming for the moment I drank beer—work with me here.) At the bar, however, once the bartender has asked what I want, I’d either say simply “One beer” or “Can I get a beer?” I might or might not append a “please” but it wouldn’t be remarkable either way. Regardless, I’d definitely say “thank you” or “thanks” once I got the beer—the former more likely at the table; the latter more likely at the bar.

Social customs are weird.

Comment by Teddy

I’m pretty sure all the Scandinavian countries say it as much as British as well, at least in Sweden we do.

I’ve only been to America one time, and the majority of that time was spent in Vegas (so I’m not sure how well that translates to “between the coasts”) but I noticed a difference, but never thought people were impolite in anyway. The opposite really, strangers opened up for small talk and such all the time and “thanks” or “thank you” was used regularly.

In Sweden we do say please, thank you, etc. all the time but we barely freakin’ speak to people we don’t know – unless they open up first.

Comment by Justin

Being french, I’ve been taught to say “please” and “thank you” pretty much all the time… Recently I somehow realized how nice gestures from strangers could just brighten a day and started to go a step further, leaving stores saying “have a nice day” or even just actually smiling at cashiers handing me my money.

This makes me feel better than just saying “thank you” which became kind of an automatic task I don’t really control or think about, hopefully it makes that other person feel nice for a few minutes and if not then no big deal.

Best scenario in my opinion is the escalator. “Good morning, excuse me, 3rd floor please, thank you. Oh here we are, excuse me, thank you, have a nice day, thank you, you too !”… It’s like you only had 5 minutes to show how polite you can be.

Comment by Richard

In Holland it’s considered polite and normal to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ but people rarely do these days which I think is rude. O the times we live in!

Comment by Charlie

In addition to please and thank you the conditional and subjunctive are ways of being polite: “Could I…, I would like…, etc.”.

The Germans are the worst I know for being peremptory (or blunt if you ask them) that I know. Getting on and off public transport is an experience I do not recommend for an otherwise thoughtful and generous people! It is very rare for anyone to say “thank you” when getting off a bus. In such an environment it’s hardly surprising to see buses not waiting five seconds for the gravitationally challenged to get there, though this does vary significantly by region and seems to parallel the use of smalltalk to grease the wheels of society.

In cafés there is a tendency to the informal (use of du instead of the formal Sie (analogous to tu and vous in French)) where too much formality makes little sense. This is similar to “What are you having, love?” “Mine’s a pint…”. Restaurants are generally more formal. The reserve and lack of chitchat can come across as cold but is often more than made up by being served by people who know what they are doing.

Comment by Sijmen

I’m Dutch and I’ve lived in England for a short while. I’d say we’re pretty close to the English in this regard but certainly not all the way. We also tend to be more direct, for better or worse.

Comment by Jonny Axelsson

I don’t think there is any language without words or stock phrases for “sorry” and “thank you”, JavaScript excepted. The last two words/phrases in the extended trilogy, expressing “please” and “don’t mention it/you’re welcome”. The first is prominent in American and British English, while the second is much less consistent. Languages that have both can use the same word for both, like German “bitte” or the Czech “prosím”, meaning “I beg/nag/pray”. You could conceivably use “please” this way in English too, but with different connotations:
– Please, beer!
– Here beer!
– Thank you for giving joy to my worthless life!
– Please…

Norwegian uses neither. There is a stock phrase “vær så snill”, but nobody would use it. The bar exchange above could be expressed like thus in Norwegian:
* Finger in the air (which one expresses level of politeness, frantic hand waving the level of desperation)
* Handing over beer
* Nod
This conversation would go over better when accompanied with smiles though.

Incidentally “vær så snill” means “be so kind”, but while that phrase is common in non-native English, you won’t hear Norwegians or other Scandinavians say it. We are so unused to say it in our native language that we need to learn when to plead while learning English.

Comment by Jonny Axelsson

Umm. The phrase “is optional” is not optional, neither should proofreading before posting be. The second sentence above is supposed to be:

The last two words/phrases in this extended trilogy, expressing “please” and “don’t mention it/you’re welcome”, is optional.

Comment by Evandro Oliveira

Hello, Bruce.
I’m brazilian. Here’s a huge territory with several culture mix. Social differences applies too.
Due to it, is perfectly possible supress “please” and “thank you” whithout being unpolite. Altough sounds rude to me, it’s common, like I’ve said, depends on series of factors. I use please and thank you often, bus drivers included. Some ppl also greet strangers similar to the escalator proposed scenario. I would and Could I never happens.