Impolite ‘Please’

Subway Platform

Photo: Jin Choi

‘Don’t forget your please and thank you!’ was perhaps your grandmother’s way of saying ‘try to be polite.’ Yet while ‘thank you‘ is still important to civilized discourse, I find that ‘please‘ has almost the opposite effect in American English. It can make a question sound urgent, blunt, and even downright rude. Take a simple query:

‘Can you drive me to the store?’

Now add please to the end of it …

‘Can you drive me to the store, please?’

Theoretically, there shouldn’t be much difference here. And yet, if I were asked the latter, I would wonder why that ‘please’ is tagged on the end. Did I cause offense? Is this an emergency? Haven’t I gone to the store a million times already? Fine, be that way!

I can only speculate about why ‘please’ became so blunt. It possibly turned into a misguided tool to avoid betraying one’s irritation.  Then at a certain point, it may have simply evolved into a tag meant to convey urgency or annoyance. With the exception of highly ritualized ‘May I please have the …’ constructions I’ve encountered at a few dinners, I don’t know that I’ve heard ‘please’s’ polite form since I was a child.

So what has taken the place of ‘please?’ In my mind, word constructions of the following type are more common these days:

Can we go to the store? … becomes polite … Is there any way we can go to the store?

Could you stop talking to me? … becomes polite … I’m sorry. Could you maybe speak with someone else?

Pass me the salt. … becomes polite … Is there anyone who could pass me the salt?

At least this is true of my own idiolect. If I want to sound polite, I add words, words, words. ‘Please,’ on the other hand, can easily be misconstrued as frustration.

I think it’s safe to say that the irate ‘please’ has been around for some time, though. This is certainly not an entirely new phenomenon. But is the word’s more polite usage alive in any part of the English speaking world? (That’s a non-rhetorical question).

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About Ben Trawick-Smith

Ben Trawick-Smith began his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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18 Responses to Impolite ‘Please’

  1. Nicholas Sanders says:

    I believe the BE RP dialect I was brought up to speak would put the please at the front of the request to make it polite.

  2. Amy Stoller says:

    My experience doesn’t mirror yours, at least not entirely. I think it would depend mainly on the context and the tone of voice, though in some cases possibly also the placement of the word “please.”

    “May I please have a sandwich?” might sound less impatient than “May I have a sandwich, please?” – but ultimately, I think context and tone are the deciding factors.

    FWIW, I recognize Nicholas’s Please-at-the-beginning as very English, and it strikes me as not at all American.

    • Nicholas Sanders says:

      I agree it is very English, and fading away as we become more abrupt or less subservient. Interestingly however, the word itself appears to be gaining popularity in Danish, which language lacks a single word equivalent — maybe Danes are becoming more polite?

  3. I use the polite “please” frequently, but I speak an old-fashioned form of English for my age (I’m 46.) In my idiolect, the polite please is unstressed. The annoyed please (which I rarely use, but hear all the time among younger people) is stressed, and may (as you say) turn up at the end of the utterance.

    I think you’re right: speakers were told for such a long time to “say please” in moments of urgent wanting, the message was heard as, “Mask your frustration with this word, or you won’t get what you want.” Or maybe it’s actually simpler: the impatient “please” connotes, “Okay, I’m saying what you want me to say–now *gimme*!!”

  4. And about Danish… We were taught to say, “vær så god”. But yes, the meaning of that is more like “bitte” in German.

  5. AL says:

    I still use please in a non-annoyed way, but I also tend to preface things with “could”: Could you pass the salt, please? I agree that the polite vs impolite “please” would be said with very different tones of voice.

    I also use “please” in writing: Please see the attached file… etc.

  6. CC says:

    “please” can still very much be used in a polite fashion around here (Oklahoma). More then once, my brother has said something like “Can I please borrow your car?” or “Can you please drive me to the school?”

    I do recognize the example you give as being impolite, but the reason for that might partially be because I just saw Sherlock on Masterpiece Mystery, and I’m fairly certain that the impolite “please” you’ve mentioned is something that Martin Freeman playing Dr. Watson has said to Benedict Cummberbatch playing Sherlock.

  7. Marc Leavitt says:

    This discussion pleases me, but please don’t think I’m trying to be humorous. I was pleased by Ms. Stoller’s insightful comment about intonation; The word comes pleasingly, tripping off the tongue, depending on its position in a sentence; who is in the one-up position in the conversation, and whether the plea is reasonable. Please! Let’s keep the dialogue going – if it please you.

  8. Tom says:

    I agree with Ms. Shipley: the polite “please” is unstressed. I seem to use it more with flight attendants than anyone else; to me, the situation seems to warrant it due to the innate stress of being jammed in with lots of people in a (literally) high-pressure environment.

    I had a co-worker once who took that grandmotherly “Don’t forget your please and thank you” perhaps a bit too literally. She would sign off every email to the larger group with the actual phrase “Please and thank you,” in its own paragraph.

  9. IVV says:

    I think the secret to the impolite “please” (and why “thank you” is never impolite), is that when “please” is used, a request is made. In other words, you’re telling someone else to do something.

    I’ll still use “please,” and “please” is still polite when a request isn’t really made: “Please find my resume attached.” “Please help yourself to coffee.” “Please let me know if I may be of further assistance.”

  10. What a great post. As a Brit, I have always used a gentle “please” at the end of sentences, and the sentence usually starts with “Would you mind….” or “Could you…”. In the States (Chicago – where I’ve lived for 22 years), if Americans say please at all (and that’s a whole nuther discussion) it is often placed in the middle of a sentence or at the beginning which, to me, can sometimes sound more abrupt. If it’s written that way, it is very difficult to know whether the writer is annoyed or not.
    Coincidentally, the sign at our school asking drivers to “Please pull forward” has been changed to “Kindly pull forward”.

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  12. Ken Brown says:

    “Please” is still a requirement of politeness in England. Almost as much as “thank-you” is. And there are at least some people who will get annoyed if you don’t use it. Nothing to do with being subservient either, because its expected regardless of the relative status of the person making the request or giving the order.

    I have recently – within the last week or so – seen barmaids in a pub in London criticising customers for not using “please” (now that’s un-American – the staff criticising the customers in front of customers?)

    The full exchange between a customer and the person serving their drink would involve two “pleases” (one from cusomer ordering drink, the other from behind the bar stating the price) and at least three “thank-yous” (when the drink is handed over, when the money is handed over the other way, and when the chenge is handed back). And there can be more “than-yous” than that.

    Maybe its the opposite of subservient as it preserves a surface of polite request in an exchange that is really a direct order. In Britain social distance tends to be seen as impolite, and formality is often seen as distancing – so the American use of “sir” and “ma’am” and the habit of calling people by titles rather than names can seem rather rude to us. But “please” and “thank-you” don’t come over as formal in that way, perhaps because they are reciprocal. Everybody says them to everybody else.

  13. panoptical says:

    Interesting post. I think there’s a lot going on here.

    For one thing, I think that short, direct request followed by please is problematic because it makes refusal problematic. If I make a polite request, that puts a certain onus on you to assent, and if you then refuse, we both lose face – me, for asking you to do something that you don’t want to do, and you, for not wanting to help me out with whatever I asked you for.

    If, on the other hand, I talk around the request, and instead pose a theoretical question such as “is there any way you could take me to the store”, then rather than asking you to do something I have simply requested information about the state of the world – and any answer that you give is an answer. Shifting the paradigm from request-refusal to question-answer allows us both to save face regardless of the outcome of the exchange.

    I think another possible factor is that many cultures consider directness rude in a wider variety of contexts. Where I live (the country of Georgia) people don’t usually sit down to do business until they’ve already sat down to meet and get introduced. This usually involves eating or drinking together (whether it’s coffee and biscuits or vodka and shish kebabs) and making lots of small talk. In parts of America it’s unseemly to state your business immediately, without first having a chat about how-are-you-how’s-the-family-how’s-the-weather-etc.

    So I think that possibly it’s read as polite to tack on a whole phrase, or even more (words, words, words, as you said) because it signals a willingness to put in the time to interact with the person on a human level rather than relating solely on the basis of whatever your needs are at the time.

    Incidentally, while living in a foreign country I have found that my attempts to be polite end up confusing the heck out of people. “Do you think we could…”, “Would you mind if…”, “Would you be able to…”, “Is there any chance that…” – and my favorite, “Could you do me a favor and…” – are so heavily embedded in my use of English that I still find it hard to drop them when speaking to non-native speakers who have never heard American politeness before.

    • ASG says:

      I really enjoyed this comment (and the original post too). I got to considering this exchange, which seems to inhabit a territory between what you (panoptical) call request-refusal and question-answer.

      “Would you mind driving me to the store?”
      “Sorry, I can’t today.”

      This feels like a pretty polite refusal to me, but what’s interesting is that the answer is not an answer to the question that was actually asked! “Yes, I would mind” is quite rude, but “I can’t” is interestingly deflective: it deliberately doesn’t answer the state-of-the-world question about whether the driver minds or not, but answers a different question instead, which is a different way of allowing both the seeker and the besought to save face.

  14. Strat says:

    An interesting discussion. I’m a Brit and I’m used to saying “please” all the time, and in speech I think it can be placed at the beginning or end of a sentence – “Please can I have a drink” and “Can I have drink please” seem equally polite to me, although “Can I please have a drink” suggests impatience. For some reason, though, I have a particular dislike of people putting “please” at the end of a request in a written sentence – it seems rather impolite. For example “Can you let me know please”. Interested to hear anyone else’s views.

  15. GET says:

    There seem to be 3 positions for please in a sentence:

    - beginning:
    Please send me… .
    Please can/could you send me …?
    Please may I … ?

    - middle:
    Can you please send me …?
    Could you please send me …?
    May I please …

    - end:
    Send me …, please.
    Could you send me …, please?
    May I …, please?

    Questions are obviously more polite than other requests.

    Being married to a British person I would also avoid the use of please in the middle of the sentence because it sounds too impatient (I think it’s possibly because you tend to stress it more in that position than you would at the end of the sentence).
    Please at the beginning is slightly stressed and could (in question form) be used to plead for something you absolutely want/need.
    The one at the end of the sentence should not really be stressed at all.

    I agree that please is still used all the time in British English, not necessarily in order to sound very polite, but to show respect.
    E.g. in BE your boss can’t give you an order without adding please unless he/she wants to antagonise you. However, he/she is not expected to beat around the bush by making his/her request so polite that it ends up not being a request at all.

    When you’re asking someone to do you a favour though, I think Brits would go to the same lengths (of words, words, words) that AE-speakers would use.

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