September 13, 2005

Please and Thank You

In this essay, I intend to examine why it is that people in virtually all cultures have some variation on saying "please" and "thank you". Further, in most cultures it is considered rude not to say "please" and especially not to say "thank you". When social conventions have this sort of ubiquity, it is usually because they serve some important social function. "Please" or "thank you", like much of etiquette, are ways of preserving social status in cases that might otherwise threaten social status. In the case of "please" and "thank you", the terms mark that a gift or service is done freely and not as a result of compulsion.

In the case of "please" and "thank you", the convention arises from the dangerous position involved in any trade or gift. Often, those who have power over others are able to compel or threaten others into giving things or providing services to them. Therefore, when someone gives something to someone else, there is always the possible appearance that somehow that trade or gift was demanded of the person giving it. This is a direct threat to our status; if we do things because we are compelled, we are subordinate to those who compel us. God, for example, does not say "please". Further, it threatens to lower our status, as if we give to others who are not grateful, we appear willing to be treated as subordinates.

The terms "please" and "thank you" mark of the service or gift as a free service or gift. By this I mean free in the sense that it is not done by compulsion, not that it is done for no price. Therefore, when we say "please", we are saying that someone else is acting "at their pleasure" or freely. Literally, "please" is short for "may it please you...." When we say "thank you", we are saying that we are giving good thoughts for the other person, or holding the other person's desires in mind. "Thank" has the same etymological root as the word "think". Other languages do not have this exact etymological derivation, but the intention is usually the same, to point out that the gift or service is being given at the pleasure of the giver and not of the receiver. It is a mark that the gift or service is not a compelled gift and a sign of lower status, but is a free gift and a sign of comparable status.

"Please" and "thank you" are terms that help show others that we do not consider them as slaves or subordinates. By saying "please" and "thank you", we show others that we are concerned with their "pleasure" and that we are "thinking" of them. Using these terms, then, are very important. When other people help us they put themselves in a vulnerable position. By using these terms, we show that we do not consider them our inferiors.


abner said...

in my language (portuguese), the roots have quite different meanings.

please: por favor. it means "could you do me a favor?"

thank you: obrigado, that means "I owe one", "I have a duty with you", etc.

Kyle said...

Interesting post, and interesting comment. I'd be interested in what the roots are in other languages as well.

Ash Sere said...

Interesting that you say 'think' and 'thank' have the same root. I confess to finding that unlikely, but now I've looked it up and find that it's true. Amazing, both from Middle English, hardly the source of much modern English.

I found in Italy recently that 'thank you' was generally done by intonation rather than words, though your argument still stands.

Sephora said...

I worked with a few people from Croatia who couldn't stand how Americans said "thank you" all the time. They were waiters, and thought it despicable that their guests would thank them for getting serving them their drinks, and otherwise fulfilling their job duties.

They even hated it when friends thanked them for their hospitality. "As a host," one explained to me, "I am supposed to provide you with good food. Say the food is good, but do not thank me."

This does not contradict the meanings you've extracted from the words. It might confirm your descriptions, actually, if my friends' culture considers the host a servant of his guests. I just though it was an interesting perspective.

andy b said...

even the seamingly slightest "selfless" gesture has impacts that are beyond our perception. however, we are always acting in the best interest of ourselves. so, if John is to offer his actions in an effort to acknowledge and, in their mind, better the affected's reality, then john is also expecting others to reciprocate. it is his reality that he and all people are integrated in the success/happiness of all.

this transcends culture. the idea that we are all in this together is personal, not regional. "please/thank you" are cultural. the way we express our appriciation for others' efforts to improve our reality is limited to the conditions of our experience. the waiter, who can't understand why american's are so verbal in their appriciatin, is expecting that the american's will follow through with their resposibilities without verbalization.

after all, anyone can say thank you, but acting on your resposibilty to all is the ultimate end.

Anonymous said...

"Stand and deliver, please."

Anonymous said...

I asked for a soda from a friend.

Here is the scene:
Friend 1: "You should try this."
Myself: "Ok, then grab me one too."
Friend 2: "PLEASE."
Myself: "Oh sorry, please."

Of course, I said thank you without a smarmy prompt. I however, find it easier and more heartfelt to say 'thank you,' and oft forget to say 'please'. Not that I think anyone is my slave, it just isn't something I remember to do. But I say 'thank you' 99% of the time.

Please, to me, is almost begging maybe. Or maybe it sounds like you're forcing someone to do something they don't want to.

"Please grab me a soda too."

I just found F2's reaction to be over-the-top because I didn't phrase my request this way.