Lynne Murphy is an American linguist who has lived in the U.K. since 2000. She is a Reader in Linguistics & English Language at the University of Sussex and writes the extremely popular blog “Separated by a Common Language” where she examines word usage on either side of the Pond. Lynne recently wrote about the use of the word “please” in corporate written communication, and, before that, discussed Brit and American use of “please” in restaurants. I have long commented that Americans don’t use the word very often compared to Brits, often to outraged howls of disagreement, so I was keen to question an expert on the matter.
TH: Lynne, you wrote in your blog post that, in general, Americans tend to feel the word “please” sounds bossy unless used with one’s own children while Brits generally see the omission of “please” as impolite and bossy. I have personally found that Brits use the word all the time and Americans far less, even in conversations with each other. What are your thoughts both as an academic and an American in the U.K.?
LM: “Please” can do a few different things to a request, because requests can be a few different things. If you think that you have a right to request whatever it is you’re requesting, “please” can just be a bit of added politeness or it can be emphasis. If you are not sure that you do have the right to ask for something, then “please” turns your request into a plea.
In the U.K., it’s natural to put in “please” where the request is small, and you do have the right to make that request, like if you’re a customer in a shop asking for something the shop would want to sell to you, or you’re asking your spouse to pick up milk on the way home. In the U.S., that’s less usual because [“please”] sounds fairly formal, and so when it’s done, it can strike you as being not-quite-right. Is the requester making a “plea” to me? Is that because they think I wouldn’t give it to them? What kind of person do they think I am? Or are they emphasizing the request? In which case, why are they being so bossy to me?
(I’ve had people tell me they don’t think “please” can be bossy, but a good indication that it can is the fact that you can say things like “Please shut up.” The “please” doesn’t make that any more polite!)
You can see the effect of this in some studies from Cedar State University in Ohio. In one, a small request was made by phone (would the person pledge to buy a 50-cent cookie for charity). When the callers asked with “please,” they were more often turned down than when they asked without “please.” The researchers concluded that “please” felt inappropriately arm-twisty in a low-stakes situation like that.
In another study, a “student” was obviously copying from another’s test paper. When he left, if he said nothing, the other student would report the cheater about a quarter of the time. If he asked them not to tell without a “please” more than half reported the cheater. But if his request had “please” it went right back down to about a quarter. In this case, “please” was appropriate (and worked) because it was a situation where the requester needed to “plea.” I would love to try to replicate these studies in the U.K., as I’m pretty sure the charity scenario would go a different way.
TH: So the advice for Brits in the U.S.A. would be to lighten up on the “pleases” and don’t take offense when they’re not as forthcoming as they are in the U.K.?
LM: Absolutely. To Americans, “please” can sound imperious especially with an imperative (bare verb form), and so you’re better off making requests in question form. British speakers are much more likely than Americans to make requests with “can” (“Can you please help me?”), whereas Americans prefer “could.” The “Can you please” can sound more like begging or impatience to Americans than it would to British folk.
[In America], “could” usually softens the question enough that the “please” is not necessary. If you really need a “please,” don’t emphasize it (that will sound bossy or desperate) and never put it at the beginning of the question (as in “Please could you help me?”), since that’s basically only done by small children in American English, and so it can sound like you’re seriously abasing yourself.
TH: Interesting. I remember being taught by a very posh primary/grade schoolteacher that if we wanted to go to the bathroom, we had to say “Please may I be excused?” Even now, I hear adults and children in the U.K. using “Please may I…?”
LM: Also watch out for making things into requests that don’t need to be requests. The British use things like “Please note” and “Please find attached” much more often than Americans do, and that can sound imperious. Instead of writing a sign that says “Please note: this copier is broken,” just write “This copier is broken.” Instead of “Please find attached our quarterly report,” try “Attached is the quarterly report” or “I attach here the quarterly report.”
TH: Who knew there were so many ways to get it wrong on either side of the Pond?Read More