Saturday, August 18, 2012

saying 'please' in restaurants

I did a TEDx talk at Sussex University a few months ago, and now the video is on-line. The subject is being polite in the UK and US, and it focuses on British thanking and American complimenting. I'm teaching a new course on Intercultural Communication next term, and I think one of the first things I'll ask them to do is to critique my use of the word culture in that video (did I really use it that much?!). Of course, we can also critique my use of the terms British and American--as many people do when writing to me about the blog. And we will do that in my course too, though I don't do it much here just because I want to get on with the business of discussing the phenomena I want to discuss. (And if you're interested in my courses, here is the door in.)

The main, vain thing I want to say about the video is this: all the lighting on me is from below. You know, like you did with a (BrE) torch/(AmE) flashlight to yourself in order to tell scary stories at (AmE) slumber parties/(BrE) pyjama parties (also AmE pajama party--there is another blog post in this. I will do it next). I don't think I usually look this spooky. Please God, don't let me usually look this spooky.
(But if you want to see me looking spooky, I recommend watching this on YouTube, as the embedded version here cuts off the right side of the video.)




There's a lot more to say about thanking in particular, but what I mention at the beginning of the video, then never talk about at all, is please. There is a lot to say about please. There is a lot to research about please. I'm limiting myself here to talking about saying please when ordering in a restaurant--just because it's the place I notice it (and its absence) the most.

Now, when I first came to this country--and for a while after--I would hear British people claiming that Americans don't say please, and I would bristle. Of course we do! We are trained to add the magic word when we request things. We are nice people! I'm a nice person! And anyone who doesn't think so can have a sock in the eye.

But then I lived here a while and my family and friends started to come over and visit. They'd order food in restaurants and I'd hear how abrupt they sounded, leaving off the please. Then I noticed myself and my English friends at our weekly gossip pizza get-together. If I ordered first, then I'd notice that everyone else had said please and I hadn't. When my brother's family came to visit a few months ago, I couldn't stop myself adding please at the ends of their orders because they just sounded so terrible to me without them. And their orders were always without them. And my brother does not have a rude family.

(My bossy, corrective behavio(u)r was no doubt facilitated by being the parent of a preschooler--and the fact that I'm the big sister. As a parent, I try not to add the absent pleases, but to ask: Could you say that again in a nice way?)

But look, even on Sesame Street, where children are taught lessons about politeness, people order food without saying please. Mr Johnson here says I'd like a bowl of hot alphabet soup (with a bit of politeness marking in the I'd like). He could have instead said I'll have the alphabet soup.



Of course, it's not true that every British person always says please when they order food, but I definitely hear more pleases here. (On my visit to the US in July, I continued to add pleases after my brothers' restaurant orders, mostly in whispers to myself, just because it was driving me crazy.)

So, how can it be that Americans think of themselves as  polite when they fail to extend this common courtesy word?

Part of the story is touched upon in my TEDx talk. American interactions are generally aimed at creating/maintaining a sense of equality among the participants. My reading of what we're doing when we don't say please is that we don't really want to point out that we are making requests in these situations--to do so would be to acknowledge that the customer is in a more 'powerful' or 'statusful' position than the waiter. So instead of thinking of it as telling waiters what to do (here I'm quoting myself from Emphasis Writing's e-bulletin):
Americans regard ordering as providing the waiter with the information he needs to do his job.
On the other hand,
The British say please when ordering food in restaurants because they view the action as a personal request to the waiter.
Please unambiguously marks an utterance as a request (it is an IFID: Illocutionary Force Indicating Device). Other means of softening requests involve making the request less obviously a request. Could you bring me a salad? is literally a question about someone's ability; I'll have the salad is a statement of my intentions; I'd like the salad is a description of my mental state. They give the requestee a plausible way around dealing with the request (e.g. Could you...? Not in these heels; I'd like..., Ooh, so would I. ). Not that they would refuse. But hiding a request in another type of speech act is a way of being polite, and that hiding is kind of cancel(l)ed out if an IFID like please is added to say "Look at me! I'm ASKING YOU TO DO SOMETHING FOR ME!"  

Please thus ends up not feeling right in some American contexts. Ben Trawick-Smith discussed this at his Dialect Blog:
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.

I'm sure people working in service industries in touristy places will have tales of cross-cultural request behaviour. Please let us know about them!

P.S. I've remembered that I've written about something related, so (please) see also: making suggestions

P.P.S. (12 September) Various pictures of signs like this are making their way round Facebook. Maybe this is what's needed in the UK, so that tourists learn the lingo without some of the rude interventions described in the comments section!

 

200 comments:

m.m. said...

speaking of downright rude, therse a type of correction that so far i see as only happening in the states. the most recent example

>which school does he go to? yale?
>harvard, please.

its quite the condescending please

Angela said...

Australian perspective. This is something I've not paid much attention to in restaurants, but of course won't be able to ignore now! My gut feeling is we skew American in this matter.

But I can report on the please effect in my workplace, where many requests and instructions are made via email. The majority use the sorts of strategies you describe to soften what is obviously a request. But one young manager has a fondness for including "please". Now I understand better why this apparent "politeness" comes across as obnoxious and is more likely than not to simply get the reader's back up.

Tom said...

My reading has always been that this is related to the British avoidance of talking about money and of highlighting relative status in the transaction - in other words, precisely the opposite of yours. This is also why tips are considered gauche in the UK, as it emphasises that the diner is the one who can make the waiter behave in a certain way, with coercion backed by the promise of money for good behaviour. It's a bit awkward, you know.

American society, on the other hand, (and I am presenting this in the least charitable light possible, but hey) has no problem with the idea of the rich having more importance than the working class, and that is reflected in the way food is ordered. The customer doesn't have to be nice to the waiter, because the waiter has to do whatever they say.

John Cowan said...

I agree with Trawick-Smith that AmE please followed by an imperative is not at all polite: it can be even more peremptory than the imperative.

lynneguist said...

Tom, my feeling it that yours is a frequent misinterpretation of US behavio(u)r by people who don't come from as much of a solidarity politeness system as ours (and there are few who are as 'solidarity' as us). That's the kind of misinterpretation-leading-to-negative-stereotyping that I talk about in the video.

What I didn't talk about here (because I speciali{s/z}ed in restaurant interactions is that I find that 'please' is also less common in family interactions. Of course, I didn't write about that because I would be generali{s/z}ing more from fewer people/interactions. But I talked about stereotyping Americans as bossy here as well, and all this relates to my husband thinking I'm being bossy in cases where I think I'm being egalitarian...

Meg said...

On a related politeness question, can you explain why my husband and mother-in-law (English) both have a tendency to hide a request in a general statement, i.e. "I wouldn't mind a cup of tea." to indicate "would you please make me a cup of tea?" And why it really irritates this usually open-minded American?

biochemist said...

Brits of a certain age will remember the advertising slogan 'Players please'. This was a pun - not only will these cigarettes please you, but also this is how to ask for them in the shop.

Ooh, in restaurants, middle-class Brits are usually very polite - and we do tip (about 10 per cent), because the waiter could so easily be a student or a child of another middle-class parent, and we all know how poorly-paid the staff are. A polite way to order might be 'I would like the pea soup followed by roast beef - thank you'. (Later one can ask 'May we have some tap water please?)

Expecting visitors at home, I have just been writing notes along the lines of: We have a septic tank, so please do not put certain items down the loo. This reminded me of how odd I find it when people write a comma after the word: 'please, see instructions for use'. It implies a supplicatory tone that I don't think one would use in speech! So perhaps the spoken please is not being used as a 'plea' in the restaurant, more like a signal that one is polite.

Czesław Liebert said...

It is true, what you've said that British tend to use a lot of thank-yous, here-you-ares and other politeness markers. They use it a lot more often than Polish do. Some of my British (actually Scottish, as they always remind me of it) friends said that they can tell a Brit from a Pole, no matter how good their accent is, on the basis of their use of politeness during conversations. Poles do notice those differences too, but, only if their knowledge of English is somewhat more than just grammar and vocabulary and that concerns mostly those who studied English on universities (the quality of English courses in secondary schools is something not even worth mentioning). They have lectures on English culture and the like and only then do they realise how ‘rude’ we sound when we interact with people in England using Polish politeness markers.

Matt said...

One point that jumped out at me right at the start is where you say "I say this having a lot of English friends who [...] say things like "oh I really enjoyed my visit in America'".

I do appreciate you were ad libbing, but this is a point I noticed just last week - I was talking to an American friend who referred to having had a nice visit with her cousin, and it jarred then, too. I don't think I've ever met an English person who would use the word visit intransitively. I'd say I really enjoyed my visit to America.

lynneguist said...

@Meg: see the link in the P.S. in the post re suggestions--that should help some.

Roger Owen Green said...

"And anyone who doesn't think so can have a sock in the eye." Off topic, but that's not what an American would say - it's so passive. They would take ownership of it - "I'll sock you in the eye." When I first read it, I thought you were talking about footwear, it was so passive.

asmarttranslatorsreunion said...

Slightly off subject, but my French husband is always saying "Please" in restaurants, when in fact he wants to say "Excuse me" (as in when you're trying to attract someone's attention). This is because the French say "s'il vous plaît" in this context, and in the 'stress' of the moment he translates it literally every time, even though his English is normally quite good!

Tom said...

Lynne, I take your point and I don't really think of American society as some kind of Roman Empire style pecking order. However, it's certainly less egalitarian than the national myth would have it - it's roughly as egalitarian as the UK, in fact, and neither is as egalitarian as, oh, Sweden.

I really do feel that your suggestion of 'please' being a marker of holding the power in the relationship is far from the mark. Britons use please and thank-you in the same unusual abundance in a wide variety of situations, including within families, as you note, and in situations where this power imbalance doesn't apply. (Zadie Smith does a gag about this in White Teeth.)

It really is just being polite and is, for the most part, independent of relative status. There are class and regional variations in terminology, of course, but the principle is surprisingly universal across the country.

Marc Leavitt said...

Lynne:
PLEASE tell them about the lighting; your talk was excellent,but you looked scary!

In my (self) observation,in the US, the restaurant encounter goes like this:

Waiter: "Are you ready to order?"
Me: Yes. I'd like the New York strip steak with French fries."
Waiter: "Would you like a salad with that?"
Me: "Please."

I would not say "please" after the first question; thereafter I would.


David Crosbie said...

I asked my wife whether Russians say pozhalsl'sto when ordering in restaurants. She said yes, of course, if they had any hope of decent service.

It was still the Soviet Union when she lived there, so there was little hope of good service even if you were polite.

I really don't think the British please is inegalitarian or defensive. The best suggestion I can make is that we see the waiter/waitress an an intermediary doing the favour of passing on the order to the provider who has put a choice before us. To simply inform the waiter/waitress of your choice is to treat him/her as a representative — as if he/she, not the menu, has articulated the choice.

I believe, though I may be deceiving myself, that I vacillate between British please and American I'll have. However, I always (I think) use please
• for requests which are not choicesCould we have some more bread, please? etc.
• in reply to a yes/no question offer, as Mark Leavitt observes

NemaVeze said...

In addition to "I'd like" / "I'll have," another speech act obfuscation strategy that I like is "can I have/get," as in "Can I get a grande latte?" In this case I'm (literally) inquiring about what's available, expecting my real illocutionary intent to be recognized. (And Americans like to think of themselves as direct!..)

My intuition is that this formulation tends to skew younger, so that older speakers might interpret "can I get" as impolite, just as BrE speakers might find "I'll have" to be impolite. It's the fundamental attribution error, of course: if you don't follow *my* politeness norms, that makes you a rude person.

Alberon said...

This blog is fascinating in the way it shows Americans and Brits taking two totally different approaches in an attempt to achieve the same thing.

I've always taken using 'Please' in restaurants (beyond basic politeness) to be a way of showing someone you consider them a social equal. It sounds like a request rather than a command.

To me, a Brit, not saying please makes it sound like a lord giving an order to his butler where he doesn't have to say please as he is the butler's social superior.

Bill said...

While I can't really comment on the whole "egalitarian" part. I definitely agree on the idea that it is because we in the US view the interaction as we aregiving the person the information they need to do their job.
I personally always say Thank You to the waiter/waitress when I am done ordering...and I don't just stare at my menu and barely acknowledge them. It is a poliite and cordial interaction, but in the end, it is a business transaction and that is generally how we see it. The phrase "The customer is always right" is all over the place over here, (might be prevalent there too, no idea), so there may be more of an "acceptance" of the customer/employee relationship. And more often than not, that phrase usually comes up in a restaurant situation.

Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth) said...

Talking of saying "Thank you", I'll never forget my first ever meal in an American restaurant. It was in Boston, Mass, and when the waiter did a small service, such as give me my cutlery or the water, I naturally said "Thank you". As did the English friend I was with (we were also with a US friend). To which the waiter, equally naturally to him, responded "You're welcome". I'm afraid I very nearly got the giggles rather badly.....

Zhoen said...

Mrs. R,
Yes, but Boston has so much British contact, the manners are a bit skewed.

After reading the blog notalwaysright.com, I have been very careful to be more than usually polite, just to balance out the morons. When I was young and poor, with no childhood experience of restaurants other than McDonalds, I'm afraid I was rather short and demanding of servers, as they had my hard earned and meager money. So, I am also working out my own bad restaurant karma.

I also think politeness is as much a matter of tone and attitude as it is about particular words, Am or Br.

David Crosbie said...

NemaVeze

In addition to "I'd like" / "I'll have," another speech act obfuscation strategy that I like is "can I have/get," as in "Can I get a grande latte?"

Now that does sound rude to my British ears, while I'm perfectly happy with I'll have a grand latte".

No doubt if I heard it in context I'd rapidly realise that the speaker wasn't being rude at all, but for a split second I'd be disturbed. In an ordered universe, you get what you're given. So, Can I get a coffee? seems to be questioning the restaurant as capricious authoritarian body which may not be in the mood to grant my wish.

The (to me) normal meaning 'Can I go somewhere (the kitchen/the coffee machine etc) and fetch myself a coffee?' is ruled out in the context of speaking to a waiter.

heath said...

I agree that Americans are communicating as peers with servers, and that's why they don't usually say please. Please is a flexible expression. It can carry a message of arrogance, or one of respect. Please can be a softly-stated order.

My personal solution, because I feel that Americans often use peer-style communicating in intentionally ironic ways that signal as much arrogance as please can, is to add thank you at the end of my requests.

Thanks are always appreciated. A thank you is acknowledgement of a debt or favor. It restores equality, and reminds thanker and thankee that both are real people.

clumsygrace said...

As an American on the West Coast I have to admit I haven't used 'please' to order. Most often, given my proclivity towards greasy spoons I will use 'I'll have...', but if the restaurant is nicer I will say 'May I have...' when ordering.

I would be likely to feel the 'please' would come across as sarcastic. As if you feel the waiter can't achieve such a simple task and you have to ask nicely. For example when you ask your husband to do something the hundredth time and add a please emphasis for him. However, I do say thank you whenever anything is brought to the table (food, drinks, etc), the waiter does not often say ‘you’re welcome’ however.

I’ve never understood why tips were gauche in Britain, even when I spent six months there as a relatively poor college student I attempted tip when appropriate. My program director said the British appreciated the American tips, but perhaps that was just in exchange for our poor ordering habits?

Jill said...

I'm American and have lived in England for several years. When I first moved here I got a lot of amusement out of listening to the people who check tickets on trains. Saying thank you to someone complying with a request to show their ticket is perfectly normal to me, but I was amused and delighted to hear a Southern Rail employee say, "thankyouverymuchmuchobligedcheersta", spoken very quickly, so four different thank-yous all crammed together.

(most ticket checkers don't do that, but he's not the only person I've heard string thank-yous like beads)



Jill said...

On the theme of judging sincerity cross-culturally, I think one of the easiest ways for Americans to find English speakers insincere is in the use of the word "sorry". In the United States it has a much stronger association with expressing responsibility for something that has gone wrong, or sadness or remorse that one has caused some harm, even a slight harm. In the UK it can be used that way but is far more often used as a politeness filler word to indicate that something vaguely awkward happened for a moment or didn't happen but might have happened had things been different.

It has taken me years to stop hearing that as insincere. During one of my journeys through the hostility phase of culture shock, I explained that "Americans use the word to express that they are sorry about something, but when English people say it it means roughly, 'My mouth is open and my lips are moving.'"

Baron d'Ormesan said...

I remember being impressed by the Viennese - and presumably wider German - expression when ordering "Ich hätte gern .." ("I'd gladly have ..").

On the other hand, it took me some time to realise that when Spaniards say 'Oyga' to someone, such as a waiter, it's not rude, which the English equivalent would be.

I also remember a discussion (conceivably somewhere in Tom Wolfe about different Anglo-American uses of "would" and "could" when speaking to a waiter, the burden of which was that Americans said 'would you get me X' since the only possible obstacle was that the waiter might not want to, while the British said 'could you get me X', since the only possible obstacle in their view was that the waiter was unable to fulfill the request, the implication being that his wishes were not a factor.

Rowan Collins said...

@Jill, I don't know if Lynne has written about this elsewhere (I'm too tired to hunt around) but the most extreme form of British "sorry" has to be the habit of saying sorry when you are the "victim" - e.g. when someone else bumps into you. I think it means something like "I acknowledge you as a person" (again, theories of equality?)

I also remember my Polish friend's confusion on first hearing "I'm afraid I can't do that" ("Don't be afraid!") which often serves much the same purpose.

lynneguist said...

Thanks for all the lovely comments. A few responses:

@Tom: As I say in the video, it's not about us being equal, it's about us acting as though we're equal. When I say 'egalitarian', I don't mean that people have equal status. I mean that in an interaction, Americans want not to acknowledge any differences in status. We act with strangers more like Englishpeople would act with loved ones, in some cases.

I am also NOT saying that the British use 'please' to say 'I feel that you are above me'. What I'm saying (or at least what I'm meaning) is that the use of please in one place cannot be judged based on the same sets of assumptions about how that word and the interactional relationship work in the other place. Americans (subconsciously) seem to have come to see 'please' as a bit bossy. That doesn't mean it's bossy in the UK.

I don't think anything can be explained as "just being polite", because there's not thing "just" about "polite". It is a terrifically complex concept.

@Marc: the lighting isn't really the fault of the TEDx orgainisers--it was the best they could do in our university lecture theatre, where there was no where to put a spotlight and where you can't pick and choose which overhead lights you turn on. I think universities should take the 'theatre' bit of 'lecture theatre' a bit more seriously when planning the lighting!

@David Crosbie: I never said the British was defensive. The technical term is 'deferential', and it is a technical term, so probably not how you'd use it in every day life. The point you make is the point I am trying to make: in the UK, it's like asking the waiter for a favo(u)r. In the US we don't see it that way, as it's their job, not a favo(u)r. We're cooperating in them doing their job.

@NemaVeze & DavidCrosbie: I've got two posts on 'can I get'-- see here.

@Baron d'Ormesan I love the Tom Wolfe bit! I may use that in future!

On those discussing 'sorry', it has come up in passing (but it's hard to search for on the blog because I'm always apologi{z/s}ing for not having blogged!), but I've never done it properly--because I haven't ever really felt like I have the whole story on it. But maybe I should just start by doing what I've done here with 'please' and not try to cover the whole topic--just one little context type.

I'm enjoying all the anecdotes! Waiting for more waiters to join in. :)

Bill said...

A very interesting discussion altogether. One aspect, that I didn't see mentioned, or may have missed (see what I did there?) is how one asks for something, whether it be "can I have x, please" (without a 'question' inflexion), basically because one is giving an order, or "may I have x" usually with a 'question' inflexion, which implies precisely the same sense of ordering, but is designed to sound more explicitly polite, without there being any increased sense of supplication, often quite the reverse.

One other aspect of the request construction is 'get', as in "can I get a coffee", almost always without 'please' being voiced or implied - basically because it is a straight order. I used to find this jarring (as a British person), because I only ever heard Americans say it, but in recent years younger British people seem to have begun to place orders this way, too, perhaps because of the influence of US films ('movies') or television programmes ('programs').

As you have in your excellent lecture observed, this is a very complex topic.

David Crosbie said...

Lynne

I never said the British was defensive.

Sorry, I didn't mean to suggest that you did. It's the Russian 'please waiter' that is (or used to be) defensive.

David Crosbie said...

Lynne

In the US we don't see it that way, as it's their job, not a favo(u)r. We're cooperating in them doing their job.

In many cases we're also cooperating with them in their job. It's just that we see the job differently. The management is on the other side. We want the waiter to be on our side. As biochemist observes, we may identify with waiters in a way that we don't usually identify with the the owners or the cooks.

It's not so very long ago that Brits of most social classes were rather intimidated by restaurants. Waiters were like Russian waiters in the USSR; we deferred to them or we wood them.

Even today, many of us tend to feel that good service is not the norm. OK, we often get good service, but we explain it away as our good luck.

David Crosbie said...

Lynne

Instead of the metaphor of opposing sides, let's use your observation in the video that we Brits have a strong (You were too polite to say 'exaggerated') sense of personal space.

Quite often for many of us, our table in a restaurant is our little island of personal space within alien (though not necessarily unfriendly) territory. The waiters enter our space as intermediaries, so it seems politic to make them welcome. In any case, it's nice to be nice.

I think this may also explain why many of us are so resistant to menu-speak. It's our personal prerogative to discuss and work out what the food names mean. When the restaurateurs or their marketing managers put long descriptions on the menu, they're stepping into our territory.

Some Brits of my age get apoplectic over words like panfried and drizzled on the menu. I can live with that, but I do feel invaded when waiters recite the management's description of how the dish is made without any invitation to do so. My wife, possibly because of her Russian background, resents it even more than I do.

lynneguist said...

I don't see that I'm saying that they're opposing sides. I'm saying that asking for something in a restaurant is seen more explicitly to be a request of someone you don't have a personal relationship with (which it is, of course) in British culture than in American.

As you allude to, the service culture in the UK does not have a history of being as customer-orient(at)ed as the American. In the US we have more of the illusion of the waiter as a friend. Well, not a friend, of course, but someone whom we could treat as we would treat like a friend--because we treat lots of people as if we are familiar with them.

There are two things going on here. One is the greater emphasis on social distance (strangerhood) in mainstream UK culture. And this goes with the big privacy thing in the video. People do not become familiar easily. And then there are the status differentiations--who is seen as having control in the relationship. In the US the customer feels they have the control. In the UK it is not unusual for the customer to feel that the server has control, because the customer cannot assume that they will get good service or that they can demand it (cue discussion of the lack of an individualistic complain culture in UK--people gripe to each other about things and may even go to protests about things, but there are self-stereotypes among the British about not being able to send bad food back).

Of course, all this is going to differ in different places and types of restaurants/businesses and according to individual temperaments, etc.

This is reminding me of something not totally unrelated:

Americans think nothing of going into a restaurant and ordering just coffee and dessert. In fact, we are known to have dinner in one restaurant then say 'let's move on for dessert' and move to another restaurant--either for a change of scene or to get better desserts. When I have tried this in the UK, I have horrified my companions. They see it as an insult to the restaurant staff at the second place. They worry that the restaurant staff will think that we're saying that their food was not good enough for a meal or that they will feel that serving us just for the price of pudding/coffee is too much bother. The American attitude is: I'm giving you my business--why on earth would you think ill of me for that? That, to me, illustrates very different attitudes toward(s) restaurant staff, and I see those attitudes coming out in the ordering interaction too.

Anonymous said...

This isn't 100% relevant, but the 'sorry' debate reminds me of my (British) parents' first visit to America, after I had been living there for a few months - my mother, passing through a crowded bar, tried to discreetly squeeze past a man who was telling an animated story, and occupying a great deal of space doing so. As she passed, she said 'sorry', to which he replied 'that's okay'. When she returned she was outraged, explaining (and I quote) "I wasn't saying sorry because I was in HIS way, I was saying sorry because HE was in MINE". Which of course he should have understood. Because it makes complete sense. Sort of.

biochemist said...

Anonymous - In this situation your mother should have said 'excuse me' to which the response is 'sorry'. But there are very few people who do this nowadays - I tried it once when no-one would move out of my way - to my 'excuse me', a person turned and said 'that's all right'.

On a station concourse, person A tripped over a wheeled case pulled by person B, knocking me sideways. A then said 'sorry' to B. I was in turn outraged that a) B did not apologise to A for the trip-up, and b) no-one apologised to me. Thanks for letting me let off steam!

jastrow said...

French here. Very interesting article, especially about the Americain point of view. American politeness or lack thereof is a major point of contention between American tourists and Parisian waiters/shop assistants (of course the reverse is also true).

About dessert, the UK point of view is probably a European point of view. I'm not sure you could get served dessert and coffee only in France during meal hours. I've also seen Italian restaurateurs positively refuse service to customers, one of them saying 'sorry, this is a restaurant'.

David Crosbie said...

Lynne

I don't see that I'm saying that they're opposing sides,

No, but I am. Nowadays that's bit of an exaggeration, but restaurants used to be a social minefield. In the most pretentious restaurants the waiter really did despise the customers. More often the average middle-class customer rather feared that the waiters might despise them.

My parent's generation worried about 'the rules'. At home they were safe — they knew the rules of table manners and were well practised in following them. But only the rich and/or socially assured understood the unwritten rules of restaurants.

A minority of those rich and/or socially assured would order waiters around like serfs and peasants. For other diners this was a disgusting breech of another set of rules. Thou shalt not be rude to waiters. Perhaps the formal politeness of please waiter arose from a fear of displaying such rudeness.

My generation lost some of these hang-ups, but many of us are still too intimidated to complain, or to try ordering a coffee and a dessert.

Anonymous said...

I took a Swedish course during my first year at university. I remember our lecturer saying that his Swedish wife was sometimes thought by locals to be rather abrupt because she didn't say "please" when making an ordinary request. There isn't an equivalent expression in Swedish; you can say "be so good as to...", but that would be much more formal. Sounds similar to what Czeslaw says about the Polish.

Kate (Derby, UK)

Autolycus said...

David Crosbie's is another aspect of this: eating out is, in cultural terms, not that old a social habit in the UK for the majority of people - it would be for special events. So that would be a different social dynamic.

The suggestion that Americans might experience "please" not as a politeness indicator but as something more peremptory was an eye-opener for me. But of course there are other uses for the word, not just the "condescending please" noted above (in my experience, often meant sarcastically, especially when inflated to "if you please"): it is also possible to use it fairly aggressively in BrE, particularly in "motherspeak", as in "Would you tidy your room... now, please", but it depends on tone/inflection and context (if it's delivered with hands on hips and foot tapping, that's usually a bit of a clue).

Joel A. Shaver said...

This is probably off-topic, too, but I'm wondering about the qualifications for being a "restaurant" in UK and US cultures. Is there a big difference for everyone between terms like "restaurant" and "café" (and other related terms)? Having grown up in a small (US) town, I've never been quite sure even of US conventions on the topic.

Joel A. Shaver said...

And the important part I left off—- how would behavior differ in each type of establishment? Would there be the same "rules" for middle-classers in a café? Certainly not in a chippy...

Boris Zakharin said...

In Russia we were taught (as children) that please is never correct when you phrase your request in the form of a question, and that indeed saying "could you pass..." or something is already a politeness marker. I would imagine it trips many people up as it did me when coming to the US (and more so UK, I guess).

Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth) said...

I thought of this discussion on Sunday when I bought an ice-cream from a van. It was one of those posh frozen yoghurt vans and you could order several different toppings, and I said, "I would like, please, the....." and enumerated my choices. But it would no more have occurred to me not to say "Please" than it would have occurred to me not to say "Thank you" when the server passed me first my yoghurt and then my change.

Similarly this evening I was in the supermarket, and the cashier and I both thanked each other at the end of the transaction!

For me, it is a matter of simple courtesy, and I would think that someone who didn't say "please" when ordering had no manners and hadn't been properly brought up! Ah well, cultural differences rule....

lynneguist said...

@Joel: There is probably a post in the terms for places where one is served food, but I wouldn't be surprised if there are a lot of personal and regional differences. I wasn't being particular here, I've noticed the 'please's in all sorts of establishments in the UK, but I was imagining a Pizza Express while I was writing. God, I want some pizza now.

Roger v.d. Velde said...

I don't see how omitting the 'please' even works in trying to equalise the relationship, because a request, especially one with a please (i.e. pleading) is hardly ordering someone about; a request is not an order.

Specifically the idea that it's a desire by the customer to not feel special baffles me, since in the States I've generally observed the implication that the customer does feel he has special rights as a paying customer.

If anything saying please puts the customer on the level with the waiter. I don't think Americans are trying to be rude by not constantly saying please, but also that the reasons for not saying it have little to do with equality in the relationship.

Patrick Williamson said...

In the southern United States, we say "please" when we order and we also use copious amounts of the words "thank you" throughout service. Indeed any time a water glass is filled, even if seated with several people, the wait person can expect a thank you from all diners present. Any time something is brought or taken from the table wait staff will be thanked and, any time something is needed, it will be accompanied by "please."

Unknown said...

@Roger I think you're missing the point. As stated in that situation Americans are pretending they aren't making a request at all, just sharing information with the server as they might with a co-worker.
I must admit that, to my American ear, please rarely sounds more polite coming from an adult. Most times I hear it, it's used either to add emphasis or mark sarcasm and condescension. The only person who says please to me regularly is my boss, when she's trying to pretend (poorly) that her orders are suggestions or request.

enitharmon said...

Loved the lecture Lynne, it was awesome! ;)

I don't altogether agree with your analysis of 'please' being a sign of deference and its absence being a sign of a deferential society. Britain has certainly been a deferential society in the past but I wouldn't say it is now; the 'de-deferentialisation' of Britain began in the years after WW1 when a generation of young men was decimated and revolution was in the air. Britain has a long history of radicalism and an equally long history of those in power stifling it, and the latter process all but failed in 1919. That's where things like universal suffrage originated. The process accelerated after WW2 when everybody pulling together was the norm as a matter of national survival and the Attlee government that followed set the consensual tone for the next thirty years. (Here it's worth noting that Britain's war experience was very different from America's; both countries lost family members serving abroad but the US never had the shit bombed out of its cities bring large-scale death to its own doorstep.) It accelerated again in the 1960s when affluence returned after the years of post-war austerity. In recent years there's been the first whisperings of a backlash, a move for a return to entitlement by class, but I think the generation that grew up in the 50s, sixties and early seventies still feels queasy about the history of deference and attempts to overcompensate.

If I go to France (where I have spent a lot of time, have never found French people other than courteous, friendly and helpful, and I wince at the francophobia of many of my compatriots) I have no problem appending s'il vous plait to any request. I can't see that as asserting superiority; after all, it means "if it pleases you" and it uses the non-familiar vous rather than the s'il te plait of master to servant. Welsh speakers are British too and the Welsh equivalent "os gwelwch yn dda" also means "if it pleases you".

I need to think harder about the American dining experience, which seems to be more of a social occasion that it is in Britain. I've mentioned Sunday mornings at the diner before. Momma B, my ex-Mom-in-law, and her niece used to go out for dinner every Friday night and exchange local gossip with the waitress. When we joined them I found the over-familiarity of the waiting staff difficult at first; it felt to me like angling for a tip and I share the British distaste for tipping. It feels akin to the nobility tossing pennies to the peasants as the carriage wheels splashed them with wood. There's always been a strong British belief in "a fair day's work for a fair day's pay". As a British person I feel that dining out is a more intimate experience and I want to spend the time with my companion without unnecessary intrusion.

Just another thought: is the British concern with privacy and private space connected with population density? British is much more densely populated than the US (the sparsest part, the Isle of Lewis, is more densely populated than 13 of the 50 states). Is there a discernable difference in 'please' usage between, say, Manhattan and Nebraska?

lynneguist said...

We need to be careful here. 'Deference politeness system' is a technical term, which doesn't necessarily mean what you might stereotype as 'deferent behavio(u)r'. It means having an orientation more toward(s) preserving/giving negative face as opposed to positive face. The British emphasis on privacy goes right with that--you do not want to be (giving the impression of) imposing or being imposed upon by many people.

As I say at the end of the video, solidarity politeness is 'escalating and addictive', and the UK has seen a great increase in solidarity orientation since WWII (BrE 'the War'). The UK is really a rather mixed system at present. But it is still 'further down the deference scale' (I think that's what I actually said) than the US. These are gradable categories, not absolutes.

Anonymous said...

Whenever I've worked retail (in the US) I don't think i've even noticed whether the customers said "please" or not. It's certainly not how I judge their politeness. Rude customers are rude in their attitude, (talking on the phone, taking stock shortages personally, etc.) not their phrasing. "Can I get a" or "May I please have a" (whatever) are all the same.

Sine Nomine said...

On a related politeness question, can you explain why my husband and mother-in-law (English) both have a tendency to hide a request in a general statement, i.e. "I wouldn't mind a cup of tea." to indicate "would you please make me a cup of tea?" And why it really irritates this usually open-minded American?

I'm not lynne, but I would guess it has to do with it coming off as passive-aggresive to Americans. Americans HATE people that are passive-aggresive, it tends to be infuriating. I guess we just see being direct with your requests as respectful. You see the other person as an equal so you treat them as an adult with your frank directness. I get the feeling this is probably a very american trait, but I'm not the expert

Maybe lynne can talk more about that?

Bill said...

Ok, so some of these comments raise a question for me...now I may be wrong here, but it really sounds from a few of these comments that the British don't like to eat out. Or at the very least there is some sort of negative stigma based around it? Am I reading that correctly?

Because we may have found the answer to the question right there...if for some reason, the British think that eating out is somewhat akin to "forcing someone else to cook for you" it completely follows that they would be much more "deferential" to the staff. Almost like the whole ordering experience has some sort of unspoken "I'm so sorry I am asking you to do this, it's just I don't have anything in the flat, and my friends wanted to get together and this place is so close so if you could just this once make me something for dinner, it would really be lovely of you."

In the US, it couldn't be further from that sort of experience. We see restaurants as a place that is providing a much needed service that we can't wait to take advantage of. We see it as this person opened a restaurant because they want to cook food for a living and we are helping them realize this goal. So in a way the unspoken subtext in the US is "You want to cook food for me? Excellent! Here is the food I would like!" (Clearly I am looking at this in an idealized case to make the point, but I think you can see what I mean)

Of course, if I am misreading the comments, the whole theory goes to pot.

Bill said...

A follow up, simpler version would be do you view the relationship as:

1. The restaurant is doing you a favor by cooking for you.

or

2. You are doing the restaurant a favor by patronizing their establishment.

Joe1959 said...

infer@Bill

There is no stigma attached to eating out in Britain, but it's my impression that it's probably not something Brits do as much as Americans. I also suspect that it’s not something that some Brits feel as familiar and as comfortable with as most Americans.

An earlier post mentioned the different ways our two countries experienced WWII. One of those differences would have been that in the UK food rationing did not end completely until 1954 (as opposed to 1946 in the US).

Other differences between our two countries that may be relevant are: relative wealth, and the cost of eating out, and how these have changed over the years.

It is my impression that those three differences mean that until relatively recently (the '80s?) eating out would have been a much more affordable, and therefore a more regular occurrence, for Americans than Brits.

Whilst eating out has therefore been a perfectly commonplace experience for my kids, it was the exception when I was growing up in the '60s and '70s.

If you exclude meals eaten at school (but include holidays/vacations), my kids probably dine out a couple of times a week on average. Until the '80s I can only remember my family being able to afford to eat out on special occasions (such as family birthdays) or when on holiday/vacation.

The differences between my children's experiences and my own are also related to the range of dining available in the UK now and in the past.

Here in Edinburgh today my family has a breadth of dining choices to compare with any major city in the UK or the US (from Mickey D's to Michelin-starred, and from Armenian to Zulu), but my experience as a kid was of greasy-spoons, quaint tea shops, cheap and cheerful Chinese restaurants (my childhood favourite) and posh places with menus in French and supercilious waiters. I don’t think this has affected my ability to enjoy eating out, but lack of familiarity with the experience, the terrible quality of the food in many British restaurants in the '50s, '60s and '70s (rare now thankfully) and the snootiness of higher-end establishments (again rarer now thankfully) certainly seems to have impacted their degree of comfort with, and enjoyment of, eating out for many people of my parents’ generation.

David Crosbie said...

Bill

do you view the relationship as:
1. The restaurant is doing you a favor by cooking for you.


In the past the feeling was rather that the restaurant was cooking for a different class for people. They were doing you a favour by allowing you to share in the experience.

Not that everybody seriously believed this to be the case, but there was the vestige of a fear that it just might be true.

Joe1959 said...

@Patrick Williamson

I guess that is the problem when trying to generalise about a nation of 312m people spread over 3.8m square miles!

Our family holidays/vacations in the US have to try to cater for everyone: my wife and I love cities, my older boy has a passion for history (particularly the history of the civil war) and my younger son would happily spend the whole day in a swimming pool. So our most recent US holiday/vacation for example, started in Philly, took in Valley Forge, Lancaster and Gettysburg and ended in DC.

Visiting such contrasting places over the space of a couple of weeks does highlight differences in the "pace of life" and in manners and attitudes. Perhaps the biggest contrast I remember though is from the time we spent a few days in New York en-route to Orlando. At the diner in New York the waitress could take our order, get the bill for the people at the next table, refill the coffees at the table opposite, and keep up non-stop banter with the chef in the same time it would take the waitress in Orlando to introduce herself and enquire how everyone was feeling today!

We tried to remember to do our bit to help keep up the pace in New York by following Lynne’s guidelines and omitting our usual British “please” as we ordered each item...

Joe1959 said...

@Lynne

Americans think nothing of going into a restaurant and ordering just coffee and dessert.

So how does that go down with the restaurateurs of Brighton?

I stopped recently on my why home from the office (in Edinburgh) to try to help some tourists who were looking lost. They turned out to be Americans looking for somewhere nice to go for coffee and dessert.

Though familiar with the concept, and in an area where I knew well, I found myself struggling to suggest somewhere.

I eventually came up with a couple of ideas but it wasn't until later that I realised that I had been struggling because "that just isn't what we (eastpondians) do".

I've no idea if these people took up my suggestions or how receptive local restaurants would be to the idea of someone occupying a table but only ordering dessert and coffee. I hope they were accommodated - such friendly people the westpondians - I would hate to think that they were snubbed

Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth) said...

I work in the UK branch of an American company; I often have occasion to e-mail my [BrE]colleagues/coworkers[AmE] and ask them to do something for me, to enable my work. And I always say "Please could you..." or "Please could someone...." if I'm e-mailing a department.

Am I being rude?

lynneguist said...

Mrs Redboots: That depends entirely on how the person is reading the email, but I'd say it sounds a little needy. I'm very aware of it in emails to our admin staff--I do try to put 'please' in there, but when I do it sounds to me like I'm pleading to them--and if I got an email like that I might think it sounded impatient. (Well, except that I try to always read emails in the most positive tone I can.)

@Sine Nomine: You've put your finger on something. I'm always going about (in my personal life) diagnosing behavio(u)rs in the UK as passive-aggressive. Like people in queues/lines who sigh a lot when other people are taking a long time at the ticket machine at the station, instead of (my very American urge to offer to help them and thereby save all of us in the queue some time. (Not to mention the times when I accuse Better Half of passive-aggression. No, no, let's not mention those.)

lynneguist said...

(And I should have said: the American urge to offer help is often NOT welcome! If I did so, I'd be pointing out that the other person was not competent, I'd be invading their personal space-bubble, I'd be treating them like a chlid... I generally only do it in the UK if I'm pretty sure that the person having trouble at the ticket machine is a foreigner. If I have no reason to believe they're not, I am afraid I sometimes sigh.)

Jadagul said...

As a followup to Joe1959's comments about contrasting attitudes in different areas, I (American, lived one year in UK) tend to very much adjust how I order to the speed of a restaurant. When I go to a fast-food restaurant, say, I often get the impression that doing anything other than spitting out my order is going to be an unwelcome interruption. At some restaurants the servers are rather chatty and I respond, and there's room for more formally polite language in my orders.

biochemist said...

Joe 1959

Is the Cafe Florentin still there? We went several times for coffee and dessert during the Edinburgh Festival about 15 years ago.

Joe1959 said...

@biochemist

Yes, still there on St. Giles Street last time I checked - also Patisserie Florentin on North West Circus Place.

I'll bear both in mind for the future!

Anonymous said...

It is a very interesting post for me as I learned English while living in the US for 3 years and then moved to the UK for a year.
Never could put a finger on it but British please' in emails always sounded to me a bit upsetting as if a person was irritated. BTW I felt the same when Brits addressed me by my name - we don't do it that often
in Poland. I am more likely to hear
'Magda, you spend too much money' or Magda, don't eat any more of this cake' than I am to hear
'Magda, open the window'. There are many other ways to address a person and we often simply use imperative to make it sound informal and familiar.

So, what in Britain marks politeness ,Magda,could you
open this window, please' in my country would sound as if the asker was impatient or even irritated.

Graham N Witless said...

The idea here seems to be to account for the fact that people from some Northern parts of the USA don't say 'please' and 'thank you' in restaurants, by explaining that they are complying with an alternative New World system of politeness, which is incompatible with that of us Old Worlders because it is founded on 'solidarity' rather than 'deference'.

This is plainly bollocks (BrE). It doesn't make any sense, even on its own terms. How could anybody construe a lack of courtesy towards people who wait on tables as a show of solidarity with them? Or construe a propensity for aristocratic Home Guard sergeants to summon their working-class platoon to parade with a "Would you mind awfully falling in?", as evidence of a rigid deference to social status? What kind of perverse intellectual hall of mirrors would you have to construct to allow you to see the world in that way?

Of course, Lynne will say that these are technical terms, not to be taken literally. When she contrasts the words 'deference' and 'solidarity' she doesn't mean to imply that Britons are submissive, class-conscious forelock-tuggers, who always look to authority rather than to each other; nor that Americans are freewheeling individualists with terrific social cohesion. But no matter how much the social scientists protest, those are the words that they choose to use. Connotations can make words powerful, even, or perhaps especially, when they are employed as technical terms. Karl Marx's use of the word 'exploitation' as a technical term for the ratio of surplus labour to necessary labour, endows his theory with a persuasive power that would have been absent if he had called it, say, 'the labour ratio'. Linguists, of all people, must be acutely aware of this kind of thing. The choice of terminology by the people who devised this theory strongly suggests a particular agenda.

The message seems to be that all cultures are equal, but since solidarity is better than deference, one particular culture is more equal than the others.

A few comments further up, 'Unknown' wrote "Americans are pretending they aren't making a request at all, just sharing information with the server as they might with a co-worker."
All this says to me is that people like 'Unknown' are as ill-mannered at work as they are when dining out.

It may give us a warm feeling to think that, in his or her own way, by straightforwardly treating servants as servants ("cooperating in them doing their job"), 'Unknown' is being just as polite as the urbane and genial Sergeant Wilson, or the deep-bowing Japanese executive at a business meeting. The trouble is, it isn't true.

It is a simple fact that politeness is more important in some cultures than others. This doesn't make them better or worse cultures - just different. Why can't social scientists accept that fact, rather than attempting to hide it by redefining the word 'politeness' in this Orwellian way? It puts me in mind of well-meaning but woolly-minded attempts to redefine the word 'intelligence'. ("There's different kinds of intelligence, you know - Dwaine may have failed all his exams, but he's pretty good at football - he's got physical intelligence." compare "Some Americans may not say 'please' and 'thank you', but they are really friendly - they've got solidarity politeness.")

If it is the norm for many Americans to be less polite in restaurants than Europeans, then so be it. If we know about such cultural differences, then we can take them into account in our interactions - just as we hope the Japanese will take account of our cultural backgrounds and not judge us too harshly when we behave like ignorant oafs, crassly failing to live up to their cultural norms of politeness.

David Crosbie said...

Graham Witless

It is a simple fact that politeness is more important in some cultures than others.

Prove it.

Well, at least define your terms and attempt to justify your opinion.

lynneguist said...

GN Witless: You clearly have a very narrow definition of 'politeness' that is not in keeping with the way I have used the term, and in which it is generally used in politeness studies. To give a quick definition of 'politeness', it's the interactional work that we do that is concerned with minimizing loss of face in interactions. How it's done in different cultures (not just national cultures, but family cultures, student cultures, professional cultures, etc.) depends on culture-specific assumptions about how people like to be treated and what our relationships are with other people.

Two other quick points:

(1) I have never, nor would I ever, say that solidarity systems are better than deference systems. I have repeated the idea that solidarity systems are 'escalating and addictive', but those are not attributes that are translate to 'better' as far as I can see.

(2) It's Penelope Brown & Stephen Levinson's politeness theory I'm using. Brown is American by birth, Levinson is English. They're most recently of the Max Planck Institute in Nijmegen, the Netherlands. Just in case you were thinking that the terminology was some kind of unilateral American plot against "polite" people.

enitharmon said...

[FX: Sound of penny dropping]

Would I be right in thinking that my mistake in my earlier comment in this thread was assuming that "deference" carried its sociological/psychological meaning of something like 'submission' in this context? And that I should have been looking to the idea of the deferral of meaning in semiotics?

Or am I barking up completely the wrong tree?

(I've caught up with the blog now so I should be quieter in future)

lynneguist said...

I didn't choose the label "deference", and I wonder if Brown & Levinson ever regret doing so. But it does not mean 'defer/submit to the wishes of others'.
Attending to negative face means trying not to be seen as forcing your wishes on others (or having theirs forced on you). It is for this reason that such systems generally use a lot of mitigating language in making requests--including indirectness, offering choices and explicit politeness markers like 'please'.

If you really need to put the word 'deference' into context, you could think of it as 'deferring to people's negative-face wants' (by mitigating your threats to them).

Amanda P. said...

I (AmE - Midwest and South) find that I adjust my "please" depending on the type of restaurant. I would tend more to say please when ordering at a mid-level "sit-down" restaurant than I would in a "stand-in-line and order" restaurant. I would also NOT say please at a very high-end restaurant, especially one where the waiter is trying to be unobtrusive.

I do look up, smile and say "Thank you" when I hand over the menu, get my drink, have my food set in front of me, get a refill, get the check, basically any interaction after ordering.

David Crosbie said...

I've slowly come to the conclusion that there are two cross-cultural differences that have become combined in such a way as to obscure each other.

1. Going to a restaurant is a culturally different experience. The language differs because we have different perceptions of the transactions.

2. Please is interpreted differently. In Britain it is not confined to one sort of politeness. Many or most of us say please in all situations because we were trained to do so long before we could understand why.

Later in life, when the please habit is already ingrained, we develop a sense of not offending and a sense of not setting ourselves apart. What doesn't happen is the association that Americans seem to make between standing apart and the use of please.

I think the same holds for all the mitigating constructions we use I don't suppose I could ask whether you think you could possibly ... etc. It all depends on the context:- the topic in many cases and the intonation in pretty well all cases. The same phraseology may have the subtext I hope this isn't presumptuous or the subtext Do me a favour, there's a pal!

I believe the British ideal of politeness isn't felt to involve other people — except as audience or passive recipients. You're polite to people not for their sakes but to show that you know how to behave. Play up and play the game. Those other things — showing respect, preventing discomfort, creating empathy — are also valued, in some ways more highly valued, but they're seen as different from politeness.

Anonymous said...

Does Graham Witless above really think that Americans don't do politeness? The rules I was taught when I was little (in the US midwest) were to smile and look people in the eye when you talk to them (whoever they may be, parents' friends, waiters, or panhandlers), always be friendly, even to the dentist when you really really don't want to be there, (i always got scolded for that one when I was younger), remember the shop clerk's names (as in, I'm Angela, let me know if there's anything I can get you), people like to be complimented, and so on. Please and thank you were just the intro to politeness for toddlers. (-Do you want a cookie? -Yes! -Yes what?) So, whenever I was in a store or restaurant in the UK and put on my best manners and still was treated like an ignorant oaf, it was really distressing, and I never knew whether I'd broken some British rule I was unaware of, or they just expected americans to be rude.

Anonymous said...

What I meant to say by all that, in response to Mr. Witless, is that politeness is valued in the US as much as in the UK. The word "please" just carries a different weight.

Bill said...

The problem is that politeness is very cultureally and geographically subjective.

Japanese culture generally uses both hands when giving or recieving something, particularly small things like credit or business cards. My understanding is that this is just a "politeness" thing.

People who then just take or recieve the card in one hand aren't more or less polite, they are just different.

It is the same with the "restaurant please." Your average polite American will look the waiter or waitress in the eye, smile, have a civil tone of voice, and generally say thank you when they are done with the order and when the food comes. I don't think anyone would ever say that they are being impolite simply for omitting the "please"

Also, nobody is saying that the words "Please" never come out of our mouths in a restaurant. If the waitress is walking by to attend to another table, but I would like a refill on my drink, I would get her attention and say "Could I please get/have...etc." But if she were to come to my table and ask "Do you need anything else?" My response would probably be "A refill would be great, Thanks!"

The difference I suppose is that in the first case, I am interrupting her from doing her work for antother patron, where in the second, I am the "current" patron.

Anonymous said...

Also, "over politeness" can very easily come across as rude sarcasm to American ears.

If someone were to ask an American Waitress for a refill of their drink by saying "I'm so sorry, but I appear to have finished my drink. I don't mean to be a bother but if you could please bring me a refill I would be very appreciative. Thank You Very Much." That waitress would likely think that they were mocking her and be annoyed.
Or more likely that they were talking down to her, as if the person were implying that the waitress was too stupid to understand a simple "I would like a refill."

Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth) said...

167I don't think anybody is talking about over-politeness, but to me, "Another beer, please" is a very great deal more polite than, "Another beer!" which sounds very peremptory. Also, if the waiter happens to notice your glass is empty and asks if you would like another, the only possible answer is, surely, "yes please!" (or perhaps "Not just now, thank you" if you've had enough to drink).

Also, if one of us is ordering, they would probably say, "We'll have one chicken biriani and one lamb dhansak, please" - and again, omitting the "please" would come across as very peremptory and probably cause the waiter to mark you down as crass. Which I suppose doesn't matter, but it might well impact on the level of service you receive!

David Crosbie said...

Anonymous

"I'm so sorry, but I appear to have finished my drink. I don't mean to be a bother but if you could please bring me a refill I would be very appreciative. Thank You Very Much."

This is excessive not because of the language but because of the conversational ploys (grandly styled 'strategies' in language-teaching circles). There are to many ploys and too many of them are falsifiable.

I'm sorry is an assertion that in British English we generally take on trust. However, if the intonation is wrong, then even here it's perceived as insincere and therefore rude. Inserting so raises the stakes (as would milder I'm very sorry). The claim is greater, and so less likely to be sincere. In the context, it's too strong to be plausible without some corroboration.

I don't mean to be a bother is accepted only if it's a plausible claim. It would be very difficult to make this sound sincere in the context you describe.

If you could bring me a refill I would be very appreciative is not implausible — people order second drinks because they expect to enjoy them. Very appreciative is formal, but that's acceptable if the customer is consistently formal. What does spoil the utterance is the insertion of please between could and bring. It's out of place, which makes the sentence stylistically wrong, which makes the utterance seem insincere.

In Britain this collection of ploys would be as inappropriate as it would be in America. We too would suspect some other motive such as the mockery or anger you suggest.

But there's all the difference in the world between an excess of awkwardly deployed 'strategies' and the simple insertion of the single word please.

David Crosbie said...

Anonymous

Please and thank you were just the intro to politeness for toddlers. (-Do you want a cookie? -Yes! -Yes what?)

I think this may be the crux. In America, but not in Britain, automatic please is childish thing that people put away.

I wonder whether this is an adolescent phenomenon. I remember I was well into my late teens before it felt normal to go into a restaurant (or any eating place with a printed menu) with other teenagers but no adults at the same table. There was no teenage culture of restaurant interaction, no impulse to avoid the norms of childhood.

Teenagers have changed since my day; they eat out a lot. But it's still not the norm here for teenagers to sit at a table and order from a menu.

Anonymous said...

David Crosbie - I don't think it has anything at all to do with restaurants. When i was a teenager out with friends, we would "avoid the norms of childhood" by being generally loud and silly and thoughtless, but would have been unthinkable to be intentionally rude to the waitresses - only the really naughty boys would do that. I suspect the automatic pleases get dropped earlier: the say-please rule for toddlers is replaced the say-it-like-you-mean-it rule for 4- and 5-year olds: correct the child until he or she says please, thank you, and i'm sorry in a sweet enough tone of voice. If the kid uses different words to same effect (Do you want a cookie? -You're the best mom ever!), that's ok too. The intent and tone of voice matter most. I assume that British parents would still correct the kid to say please here?
(The last rule of politeness as I remember it was "You should always think about how you're making other people feel". This applies to absolutely everyone you speak to over the course of the day.)
In reply Mrs. Redboots, by US standards, it doesn't matter what you say (within reason), it matters how you say it. Calling out, "Another beer, please!" is just as rude as "Another beer!" if you're not giving the waiter or bartender the time of day, and if the waiter asks if you want a refill, any response will do (e.g. "That'd be great!", "yes, thanks!", "Sure!"), as long as you sound appropriately grateful. The polite way to make a request in the US is as Bill says above. The End! Really! The word "please" is just a little more formal.
Separately, saying please can turn a casual request into an order (by making it rude to say no if the request is inconvenient), but that could be something else entirely.

David Crosbie said...

Anonymous

the say-please rule for toddlers is replaced the say-it-like-you-mean-it rule for 4- and 5-year olds

That's what's so alien to British instincts. Ideally (if not always in reality), the say-please rule is for us supplemented by the say-it-like-you-mean-it rule.

David Crosbie said...

Anonymous

I wasn't for a moment suggesting that there was an American teenage culture of being rude to waiters. I was speculating that they had the opportunity to evolve a comfortable culture outside the childish rules of politeness — or at least outside one particular rule.

Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth) said...

Anonymous:
saying please can turn a casual request into an order

Whereas here, not saying please turns a casual request into an order! How very odd that it should be so opposite! Here, "Pass the salt!" is an order; "Please pass the salt," or "Pass the salt, please" is a casual request.

(Is it me, or are the captcha words becoming more and more illegible? I tend to have to submit at least 3 before I get them right).

On childish politenesses, our family's classic dates back some 50 years now when my mother had a slipped disc and couldn't lift us, so employed a local schoolgirl to give us our baths in the evening. My brother, at the end of his bath one night, was heard to say to the girl, "Lift me out!"

"Lift me out, and then what?" asked the girl, expecting a "Please" from him.

"Lift me out and dry me" said my brother!

David Crosbie said...

Annabel

Is it me, or are the captcha words becoming more and more illegible? I tend to have to submit at least 3 before I get them right.

You're not alone.

saying please can turn a casual request into an order

Whereas here, not saying please turns a casual request into an order! How very odd that it should be so opposite! Here, "Pass the salt!" is an order; "Please pass the salt," or "Pass the salt, please" is a casual request.


It's hard to make comparisons where there are three independent variables:

1. presence or absence of
2. 'paralanguange' — intonation, gaze, facial expression etc
3. the seriousness/triviality of the thing being asked for

In your salt example, there's a fourth variable: the position of please.

The only fair way to compare the politeness of two utterances is to isolate one variable and keep the others constant. I believe that Anonymous has heard utterances starting with Please that came across as orders. I believe that he/she has heard utterances without Please that came across as requests. But I find it hard to believe that it wasn't the other variables that made the difference.

Similarly, I believe that requests with initial Please can sound more peremptory than requests with final please. But I don't believe that the positioning is the sole decisive factor.

Passing the salt is an example of a relatively trivial 'ask', where the language is not so important in identifying it as a request, not an order. You have to work really hard to make Pass the salt sound like an order. Tagging on please adds nothing to the interpersonal dynamics. I stick to my view that it's a badge, a little-Jack-Horner-ish What a good boy am I! (or girl).

Anonymous said...

To clarify, Mrs. Redboots, if you said, "Can you pass the salt?", I'd feel free to say, "sorry, my hands are full", and not deal with the salt until i'd finished with the dish I was carrying. If you asked, "Could you pass the salt, please?" (however you would phrase it), the only polite thing to do would be to put the dish down immediately, hand you the salt, then pick up the dish again and carry on with what I was doing. So it's in effect an order even though it's not phrased that way, because not to pass the salt would be rude once you asked. Without the please, i could reasonably answer the literal question by saying in effect, "no, I can't pass the salt."
I think we understand each other otherwise. Next time I'm in the UK I'll have to remember to say please religiously. I agree on the captchas, they're impossible.

Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth) said...

Now, see - I (okay, in the absence of other variables) would see it just the other way round; if someone said "Could you pass the salt?" I'd see it as a peremptory order, whereas if they said "Pass the salt, please" or even just, "Salt, please!" that's a casual - and courteous - request.

I find it impossible to imagine a scenario where not saying "please" when one is asking someone to do something, or asking for something, is in any remote way polite!

David Crosbie said...

Anonymous

For this Brit there are two responses to either Can you pass the salt? or Could you pass the salt?.

1. I pass the salt.
2. I say Just a sec. My hands are full. or similar. I finish what I'm doing, then pass the salt.

The tense of CAN makes no difference because the request is so trivial. In other requests I might feel a difference.

Anonymous said...

Coming late to the party, but I agree with my fellow Americans who don't find "please" obligatory in restaurants because of the contractual nature of the interaction. The contrast with how we expect children to behave is instructive: We ask a child to say "please" when they are asking for a cookie because they are asking for a favor: nobody is obligated to give them a cookie.

If I order a cookie in a restaurant and I'm paying for it, then there is reciprocity and I am not asking for a favor. I have the money and I'm paying for it. I also agree that I am more likely to say 'please' if I feel I am asking for something special ("could you please bring me an extra plate, please?") or otherwise imposing on the waitstaff.

Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth) said...

It isn't just British, though - it's pan-European (I think - anybody from another European country care to chip in here?). We've already mentioned how the French expect a greeting, as well as please and thank you, even at a supermarket checkout.

Some years ago now I was in Poland; I don't speak Polish, but the young folk there all spoke excellent English. I was chatting with a very pleasant waitress in a restaurant one evening; my husband and I were amusing her by our efforts to pronounce the name of the local beer. I commented that my daughter had said, before the trip, that all one really needed to know in a foreign language was how to say "Two beers, please!" to which the waitress said, rather sourly, "Hmph, most people seem to omit the please!"

Anonymous said...

Ha ha! Mrs Redboots. From anecdotal evidence, it seems that middle-class children (at least upper-middle class children and thereabouts) in England are generally taught the equivalents of "Please may I..." in French and German, whereas the general population get taught the equivalent of "I'll have... please."

Not that I'm suggesting a deliberate policy: just various choices made about what is "appropriate" by various people, which is after all how the class system works. My comprehensive tended to teach the equivalents of "tu" forms at the lower level, and only went on to "vous" forms consistently after we had been set by "ability". (My German teacher actually told us at one point that the teachers at the Exchange school tended to be shocked by her use of "du", which to those of us primed for this stuff was a huge warning sign to learn the "Sie" form and use it, even if she didn't) That was also when we learnt more polite forms of questions, but those of us whose parents (or parents' friends, given the power of networking) had taught us some French or German had already learnt the "may I" forms.

Children without these networks, and especially those who did not get put in the higher sets (which largely followed class lines, no matter what was intended), would not learn the "may I" form in a comprehensive. Those in independent schools, in my experience, do.

Sorry for the length: your post just reminded me of how our class system apparently spreads its tendrils into how we interact politely across Europe!

David Crosbie said...

Anonymous

My comprehensive tended to teach the equivalents of "tu" forms at the lower level, and only went on to "vous" forms consistently after we had been set by "ability".

The poor teacher has to teach one form first or the other one first. In the past it was the V form. But in the past it wasn't normal for school students to speak to each other in the target language as part of the methodology — 'pair work' in the trade.

This demands T forms anyway, and there's the additional expectation that — unlike past generations — today's school students stand a good chance of conversing with target-languagespeakers of their own age.

David Crosbie said...

Mrs Redboots

It isn't just British, though - it's pan-European

That was my belief also, having worked in quite a few European counties and having holidayed in quite a few more.

The weakness in the argument is that I might be misremembering or, worse, remembering a very British way of speaking foreign languages.

So I looked in the language-learnings books I've acquired over the years. In particular I looked at books designed for beginners and based on realistic social situations. I don't have any books on or experience of Scandinavian languages, but otherwise my collection covers Western, Central, Eastern and Southern Europe. With the exception of Greek, they all use a word for 'please' in the relevant lessons.

I also looked at may favourite English language coursebook based in statistically calculated reality. The COBUILD Course is based on word frequency and on recordings of authentic conversations (contrived, it's true, but skilfully contrived). The authors' judgement of an essential starting point is this sort of exchange:

Tea or coffee?
Coffee please.

Eureka! Please in restaurants is not the marker of a request, it marks the acknowledgement of an offer.

Well, that's the principal use. Sometimes there's a genuine request — for some additional service for for an item that isn'e on the menu. I suspect that many Americans would say please in many of these cases.

Wyndes said...

I've noticed in my (American) family that "please" is the marker of an order. "Would you wash the dishes?" is a question -- the answer can be "no, I can't right now" or "I will a little later" or "it's not my turn" but "Would you wash the dishes, please?" is a statement that can have no other reply but washing the dishes immediately. "Please" winds up feeling impolite with people that you don't have the right to order around, ie anyone other than your children.

Lisa Ng said...

I did a summer course in Cambridge and there was a baked potato shop right outside the gate of Downing College. When the food poisoning from the dining hall food became a regular occurrence (I'm sure our food was being adulterated just because we were annoying, privileged, American youth), I started eating baked potatoes every day. One day, after I'd been eating there for a week or so, I ordered my usual as I always did: "May I have a baked potato with cheese and broccoli?" The server responded with, "no, not unless you start saying please."

I was gobsmacked. Wasn't the "may I" an implicit "please?" Wasn't it supplication enough? I hadn't demanded a potato for God's sake. I refrained from pointing out that correcting someone else's manners is the worst possible offense because I have been raised with: manners. I did not go back there again.

Ironically, the superiority and condescension of the English towards others who do not adhere to their rigid sense of politeness is the worst rudeness of all.

David Crosbie said...

Lisa Ng

I was gobsmacked. Wasn't the "may I" an implicit "please?"

No it wasn't. Nothing to do with politeness — the idiom is totally different between the two cultures.

It doesn't help matters that May I? is for most Brits is unidiomatic affectation in place of Can I?

I would guess that the effect of an American saying May I have? to some Brits is the equivalent of a Brit saying Please to some Americans.

It's a cruel rule of life that it isn't enough to intend to be polite. It's a cruel rule of being American that many people in many countries are prejudiced against you.

Zoe said...

As an American, I don't really feel qualified to speculate too much on what the British English speakers are thinking, but reading through these comments, I think I've realized something about why adding "please" to a request can come across as rude.

With the salt example, I agree that with "Could you pass the salt?" I would feel free to say no, if I were busy or my hands were full. But with "Could you pass the salt, please?" I would feel socially obligated to do so, or sincerely apologize if I actually couldn't.

I think that adding "please", at least in some cases, comes across as rude paradoxically because you're being extra polite. You're making it rude for the other person to refuse your request. And it's that removal of the other person's choice that is perceived as rude.

On a slightly different topic, I think that it's very important that in America we use other politeness markers, such as the "may I" mentioned above. We are of course nowhere near unique in that, but so long as there are some present (even if only in tone), we won't notice the absence of other specific ones.
I also think that in America, "please" has a slightly stronger connotation in its own right than it does in Europe, so adding it to a sentence with other politeness markers can very easily come across as overkill, and therefore sarcastic or condescending. Whereas in the UK, "please" is expected merely as a matter of custom.

Obviously neither of these two ideas applies to all of the kinds of situations we're talking about, but I think that they each cover important areas of the subject.

Kayleigh said...

Very interesting topic! As a Canadian, I find our social rules for politeness often fall more to the British side, but sometimes seem to go right in between British and American.

As Alberon said, I view leaving out please in a restaurant interaction as imperious and bossy - like a lord commanding his butler as he put it. It's definitely more Canadian to view the interaction with the waiter as asking them to do you a favour rather than commanding them to do something for you, whether its their job or not.

Anonymous and biochemist discussed the use of "sorry" and "excuse me" in British and American English, respectively, and I found that especially interesting because I think in this case Canadian English falls right in the middle and we simultaneously use both. Here, if someone were trying to squeeze by someone in their way, you would most likely hear, "Excuse me, sorry." or "Sorry, excuse me." Or they would repeat both back and forth. Overkill maybe but it just seems more polite to my Canadian ears.

Mrs Redboots and Patrick Williamson discussed the use of please in other service situations and in later interactions in the restaurant, and I can say in Canada this "extra level" of politeness is de riguer as well. It's common for everyone at the table to be having a conversation, even an engaging one, but when the waiter/waitress stops by to refill your water, everyone stops to say thank you before carrying on. Ignoring them would feel rude to us. Similarly in a retail situation - you'll commonly see people who come in, take a quick browse, and leave without buying anything or requiring any assistance from the staff but still say, "Thank you" to the staff on the way out. Less common in larger stores or stores where there are no staff nearby the door on the way out - we won't seek someone out to thank them (unless an exceptional service was performed) but if someone is handy nearby as we leave, the thank you is pretty usual.

enitharmon said...

Lisa Ng and David Crosbie:

It's also a cruel rule of being a student in Cambridge that the townies will be prejudiced against you. And vice versa. And woe betide a graduate of a 'mere' redbrick who happens to be living and working there – damned from both sides!

Penelope said...

Thank you so much! I've always felt that my husband (who is American) was being insufferably rude when ordering in restaurants, saying, "I'll have ...", whereas I would always say, "May I please have ...". It makes so much sense after reading this.

Anonymous said...

Might there also be regional differences in the US? As a person raised and living in the South, I (and others around me) routinely say "please" when ordering in restaurants. I'll certainly be listening more closely from now on, though!

lynneguist said...

There is of course regional difference in each country. There's also class differences, formality differences, all kinds of things. I haven't got good enough data on these things to say much that's specific.

But we do have to watch out for here are retrospective self-reports of what people do. I believed that I said 'please' in restaurants when I lived in the US. Now I'm quite sure that I didn't. We rarely remember what we've said verbatim; what we remember is what we intended to communicate. I believed I regularly said 'please' because I knew I had set off with the intention of being polite when asking for food (and I had no evidence that I hadn't succeeded in being polite) and so it was easy to insert a 'please' into my reconstructed memory of the polite encounters.

So, I'd not have a hard time believing that 'please' is heard more in the south than in the north US, but I'd want some research to back it up. My greater suspicion, though, is that there are different politeness markers--or more overt politeness markers--in the south without those necessarily being 'please'--e.g. more putting the request into question format and appeals to the kindness of the server.

flatlander said...

I made it a point to listen to myself order in a restaurant yesterday, and, as other AmE speakers have noted, "please" was not a natural part of the ordering process. However, "thank you" was used frequently and "please" for additional requests. Of course, in the U.S., the ultimate rudeness to waitstaff is leaving little to no tip, but that's a whole 'nother can of worms.

Sarah Duncan said...

A fascinating discussion. As a Brit, I use please automatically in restaurant situations - it's bred into us, along with saying sorry when someone steps on our toes or spills wine down our backs.

However, as a Brit who teaches students, I also use please to mask orders eg 'I'd like that work in by Tuesday, please.' or 'Please present your work according to the following format.'

As a Brit teaching American students I now realise they think I'm being rude and/or bossy. This may be related to several who have commented that the Brits aren't as polite as they thought they were going to be. I have assumed this was based on watching too many Jane Austen adaptations, but perhaps it's our liberal use of please/thank you/sorry that offends.

Molly said...

I (an American) am a little stunned at the number of Americans who seem to be saying that adding "please" to a request makes it impertinent somehow. What? Wait! No it doesn't! I would not react in any way differently to "pass the salt" than to "pass the salt please" or "please pass the salt."

If someone asked to have salt passed and my hands were full I would not ever say "no." At worst I'd say, "in a second."

On another note, I agree with a commenter above regarding use of first names. I have noticed this particularly with Canadian friends, who use my first name to get my attention, which causes a brief and tiny panic attack because I think I have done something wrong. But then they go on to ask a benign question. I had not noticed before these incidents, but I came to the conclusion that first names are not often used (in AmE) in casual conversation unless you are trying to soften a blow or couch a criticism or something else unpleasant like that. (Which is not to say they should stop using first names! It's charming, and we should get used to it and maybe even adopt it ourselves.)

Lindenwood said...

I obviously have it all wrong.

I just thought "please" and "thank you" were the polite things to say to anyone, regardless of their status in relation to the speaker in the (real or imagined) social heirarchy.

No wonder my first boss told me off for saying "Could you pass the forceps, please?" during my first surgery!

THE AUTHOR said...

What an interesting observation! I remember starting to study politeness at university (I was doing Translation Studies) and how interesting I found it straight away. I am a German living in Britain, so of course I have also experienced moments of seeming rude.

EVERYONE would feel like that in the UK, it's a country with a massive emphasis on the negative politeness, the "sorry for disturbing you" and "I regret having to enter your sacred space". America on the other side seems to be much more about positive politeness, the "we're friends", "hey buddy" and other ways of flattering the other person.

As a German, I don't know where we stand. We put a lot of value in coming to the point and communicating with honesty, so particularly in situations where patience is running thin the German focus on "sorting it out" can seem REALLY rude, downright scary to the Brits who avoid rocking the boat at all costs.

Terry Collmann said...

I'm stunned at the comments here from people who took offence because others did not understand that their cultural politeness indicators were different, and vice versa. Lisa Ng - do you not understand that the person at the potato stand thought you were a very rude American for not saying 'please'? Why could you not accept this as a mutual cultural misunderstanding, instead of getting unnecessarily angry about it?

Andy JS said...

Like Terry Collmann, I too am surprised by Lisa Ng's comment. Can't she understand the simple fact that in the UK it's normal to say "please" when ordering something? And that "please" isn't usually used in a condescending way in the UK as it might be in the US?

lynneguist said...

I think that the point is that someone was rude to Lisa Ng because she, a foreigner, did not know the British rules. With customer service like that, the Google auto-complete suggestions and the SkyScanners survey results (mentioned in the video) are not surprising.

Anonymous said...

Andy JS - why would Lisa Ng understand that you absolutly must without fail use the word "please" when asking for something in the UK or you will be castigated by the servers*? It's not a simple fact, it's a complex and sublimated attitude about words, behavior, and human interaction that she ran afoul of. If she were studying in France, she would have learned to say "Bonjour, Madame, je voudrais un n'import quoi, sil-vous-plait." as a complete phrase in her french classes, and anyhow her accent would have given her away as a non-native speaker so faux-pas would have been overlooked. Since she already spoke fluent english, no one taught her the British rules of polite interaction, and some of the people she encountered assumed was intentionally flouting them, which was not at all true.
*Is there a lower threshhold before rudeness merits a rude response in the UK compared to the US? Because it'd seem to me that you'd have to step on someone's foot without apologising, call their child ugly, and maybe insult their background for good measure before you'd get a cold shoulder, much less a rude retort.
And Terry Colman, polite americans really don't like to be treated like rude americans. Why is that stunning? It's only a "mutual cultural misunderstanding" when it happens to someone else. To your face, it's an insult.
Anyhow, if a hundred-some-odd comments from a hundred-some-odd well-meaning and curious americans and brits (and others) can't be convinced of the validity of each other's politeness markers, it's an entirely lost cause. Next time i'm in the UK, I'll just carry on insulting the servers with my best midwestern manners, it seems i'll be damned if I do or don't.

David Crosbie said...

Anonymous

Is there a lower threshhold before rudeness merits a rude response in the UK compared to the US?

The answer would seem to be yes.

I think it's because politeness is a game that works as long as both are playing. If one player breaks the rules (as it appears to the other player), then the game is called off.

Mike J. said...

Here's what I say in a restaurant. Waitress says, "What can I get you?" I say, "You would make me very happy if you would bring me X and X and X." Sometimes I even add, "Can you do that?" To which the answer is usually "Absolutely," or something like that, to which I say "Excellent!" Everybody seems happy.

I view it as setting the server up for success--she is going to make me happy by doing her job.

Of course I know most of the servers by name at the few restaurants I patronize, so usually the conversation is more like "How was your trip to Japan?" Or "Is your neice still visiting?" etc.

Mike J. said...

...By the way, I just discovered this blog and I loved the TEDX Talk! There's some positive face for ya!

Andy JS said...

In the UK, I think what happens is that it's okay not to use "please" on one or two occasions with the same person, or maybe on more occasions with different people in the same establishment. But if you keep going back to the same server/waiter/waitress over a period of time and every time you fail to use "please", eventually that person might lose their temper and get annoyed. I think this is what happened with Lisa Ng and the baked potato server.

On another subject, I'm interested in the topic of visiting restaurants for one course only with coffee for example. We do this quite a lot in the UK and the important thing is to ask when you first arrive at the restaurant whether it's okay to do this. Usually the restaurant/cafe will reply that it's okay to do that as long as it isn't too busy. I think what you have to avoid is going into a busy restaurant and then after a while saying to the staff that you only want dessert/sweet/pudding (or whatever) and coffee. They don't like to be surprised like that when they're busy and might have been able to accommodate another party that was going to have three courses, etc, so they're losing money. Maybe one of the factors in this is that restaurants tend to be smaller in the UK so they're more likely to be losing business when one party is taking up a table.

lynneguist said...

But are we agreed that it's not good service for people who serve in restaurants/cafés to get annoyed with customers and basically scold them?

Lynn said...

I hope we are agreed! I used to wait on a fair amount British tourists (in a fairly high-end inn on the coast of Maine). They were usually very nice, but took forever to order, always using some variation of "I wonder if I could possibly have if it isn't too much bother etc, etc, etc." for each item ordered. Then the next person at the table would go through the same routine, while my smile started to freeze in place and I could sense the people waiting to order at the next table starting to get restless. I don't particularly remember any of them saying ever saying please, but I do remember it being excruciating in the extreme to keep smiling, stay friendly and helpful, and not rush them through this odd ritual they seemed so attached to!

David Lauri said...

I don't care what English-speaking country I'm in, but if I ask for something, as Lisa Ng did, in a pleasant tone of voice, but without saying the obligatory "please" and get the response, "No, you may not, unless you say please," my response will be, "May I please speak to your manager?"

David Crosbie said...

But are we agreed that it's not good service for people who serve in restaurants/cafés to get annoyed with customers and basically scold them?


The trouble is that there's a strain of thought in Britain — largely, but not entirely, suppressed — that service is degrading and so 'good service' is not necessarily a good thing.

The comic verse writer-performer Pam Ayres was on the radio this morning recalling her mother who was 'in service' after leaving school and hated every minute. The historian on the programme made the point that women in service migrated to other jobs as quickly as they were created. And after the Second World War, even the servant-employing middle class grew increasingly uncomfortable with the very notion of service.

In Britain we (I speak for older Brits) tend to associate waitering not with professional services but with what servants used to do. Young Brits are, I think, less resentful of giving service. It seems Lisa Ng caught an exception, or caught him.her at a bad time.

Anonymous said...

Hello, newbie here, what a fascinating blog!

Lynne, I think we can all agree that the potato man was a [insert expletive] and of course you shouldn't reply to a customer like that no matter what the perceived slight. If they're paying you, they're paying you.

However, as a Brit, I can see why he would have been annoyed, because to me it sounds very rude not to include 'please' in ALL requests, no matter what the situation, whether you're ordering something you've paid for, whether you're ordering someone you manage to do something or whether you're asking a friend to pass the salt.

It's sort of silly in some cases, when the request is clearly an order which makes 'please' redundant, as in the potato order, but it would still seem awfully rude and abrupt not to include it. I find it funny, but understandable, when mothers ask their kids to 'please' do something, like stop hitting the cat, and then get really angry when their 'polite request' is not complied with immediately, because it was really an order, but would have sounded very imperious without the please. Likewise my mother used to annoy me by saying things like 'would you like to unload the dishwasher' which was plainly an order couched in a query which I always sarcastically replied 'not really!' to because I thought it sounded silly, but I think the principle is the same- if I had a kid, I would think it rude to just say:'unload the dishwasher'.

To be honest, I think it most cases it's perfectly plain if people are basically nice people not trying to be rude, however, and anyone like potato man who gets seriously annoyed at what's obviously a cultural difference should step back and calm down!

Ginger Yellow said...

If someone were to ask an American Waitress for a refill of their drink by saying "I'm so sorry, but I appear to have finished my drink. I don't mean to be a bother but if you could please bring me a refill I would be very appreciative. Thank You Very Much." That waitress would likely think that they were mocking her and be annoyed. Or more likely that they were talking down to her, as if the person were implying that the waitress was too stupid to understand a simple "I would like a refill."



It's worth bearing in mind that in this specific example, restaurant culture as well as politeness culture would make your version seem more reasonable to British ears (though the specific wording would still be over the top). Refills, especially free, prompt, unrequested refills, are not the norm in Britain. So asking for a refill is not simply alerting the staff to your empty glass, it's equivalent to, and often actually is, ordering a new drink.

lynneguist said...

For those of you following the comments thread--I've added a P.P.S. to the post, with a photo, if you're interested.

David Crosbie said...

Anonymous

If they're paying you, they're paying you.

But they're not. The money goes to the café/restaurant owner.

The worse paid the servers, the less they'll worry if the customer goes elsewhere. (This is an observation, not a value judgement.)

Dru said...

Since this thread has revealed that cross-cultural assumptions about manners do not work, could I ask a question for other readers. I am English. To me, the behaviour of the man on Sesame Street ordering alphabet soup is rude and uncouth, the sort of thing that I would present to children as an example of how not to behave. His manner is offensive. He is treating the waiter as a menial. Also, he is inconsiderate in that not only does he insist on something stupid, but once he's decided that it matters to him that all the letters are there, he doesn't check all of them but summons the waiter back each time until his soup is cold, and then rejects it.

My question. Is that a universal? Is the filmlet saying that? Or am I being misled by my own cultural spectacles?


Going back to some of the other points raised, my suspicion about the Cambridge baked potato episode is that something about the way the exchange operated, grated something more profound - I would hope, unwittingly. It is very important in this culture (England) not to do something that a person might interpret as regarding them as so menial as to be not quite a person. By giving them a command that requires them to obey you, in return, you owe it to them not to do so in a way that takes away their status as a person who is entitled to be treated as a person.

It sounds, from what has been said, that in the US, this is done by trying to create an atmosphere of equality, whereas here, it is done by trying to create one of courtesy. Otherwise, it would be even odder, since in the US there is a history of slavery whereas here there is only one of social stratification and exploitation.

I also think it's unlikely to the point beyond belief that the catering staff at a Cambridge college would set out deliberately to contaminate food. I can see that the whole experience went sour, but wonder if it was a gastric reaction to some unfamiliar basic ingredient.

I thought THE AUTHOR's comments on German differences particularly interesting, as here, when things get fraught, it is particularly important not to lose sight of niceties and upset people, as otherwise, that which was fraught becomes irrepairable. So the idea that wading in so as to 'sort it out' is indeed very scary - an ill advised. That's a very perceptive comment.

Anonymous said...

David Crosbie -
I don't see it that way at all-politeness governs how you ought to interact with people. I think everyone would agree that little old ladies automatically merit polite behavior and drunken louts don't, but there's no universal law on where "the game gets called off". Or are you saying that's the (or one possible) british view?

David Crosbie said...

Anonymous

-politeness governs how you ought to interact with people

I don't think that's the traditional British view of politeness. Politeness is a part of how you interact. And it's the easy part because you don't have to think about it, you just have to maintain habits of speech — of which saying please and thank you is perhaps the most important.

little old ladies automatically merit polite behavior and drunken louts don't

Little old ladies merit consideration. They invite polite speech because they are themselves so polite, and thus both sides enjoy the reciprocity. One is generally polite to drunken louts as a defence mechanism. You don't have to respect the people you're polite to.

Anonymous said...

I asked DuckDuckGo to convert 39 quid to dollars. One of the suggested searches was "£39 to USD please"

Anonymous said...

Dru - I doubt Lisa Ng and her coursemates actually thought they were being poisoned for being obnoxious.
The Sesame street character's behavior isn't really acceptable by american standards, either--you can see Grover getting more and more irritated with each demand, but the man is a just being a nuisance and Grover wouldn't take it as a personal insult.
Americans in the service industry don't like to be treated menially either, but there's no resentment over centuries of social stratification and exploitation*, so we seem to be underestimating how deeply our missteps in british courtesy insult british servers. But the British and American ways to respect a server as a person seems to be so different as to not even register in the opposite country, hence Lynn's forced smiles to her british customers and Lisa's grumbling potato server. All the british comentaters here read the american requests as treating the servers like servants, but that's not what an american server would take away, and the british circumlocutions mean nothing to american ears.
*(Except for the african-american community, where the resentment is perfectly justified but more concerned with ongoing social inequities then improperly phrased requests)

David Crosbie, in the US one is polite to other people because one is a Good Person. There's no need for reciprocity, you have to be polite even to people who are rude to you. Not to be polite, even if provoked, is bad manners, and if you're going to be outright rude, you'd better have good reason. People who aren't polite, be they bankers, bus drivers, or street bums, are Bad People. This might be leading to some of the intercultural confusion.

David Crosbie said...

Anonymous

David Crosbie, in the US one is polite to other people because one is a Good Person.

If I were to use 'Good Person' in that way, it would be ironic. I have no idea how serious you are.

The people you makes peace with are your enemies. In the same way, the people you're polite to are those you don't particularly care for. You may grow to like and respect them, but that's for later. What seems to divide us is that you Americans take far less time to reach the point where what we call politeness in no longer necessary.

Dru said...

This discussion puts me in mind of the Waldorf Salad episode of Fawlty Towers, which manages the remarkable feat of making one feel some sympathy even for Basil Fawlty.

Bill said...

One thing that seems may be relevant is that American diners live in constant fear of the waitstaff spitting in our food.

Clearly I am being hyperbolic regarding the constant fear, but it is without question something that is considered if you think you have offended the staff or chef.

Now some would ask then why don't we go out of our way with the Pleases? No idea.

But one thing that I think is being overshadowed is that this thread/post is only concerning the "Please" part of the interaction. "Thank You's" ar e(or should be) used regardless.

lynneguist said...

If British diners don't have the same fear, they should. I remember a Sussex kebab shop being closed down for semen in food.

enitharmon said...

There are, I regret to say, some parts of Britain where the staff of curry houses are routinely subjected to abuse late at night ("Oi! Gunga Din!") and respond with admirable sang froid. Since such abuse is also associated with macho demands for the hottest curry possible it's not hard to imagine the innovative ingredients masked by the lashings of extra chilli in the kitchen.

Ti said...

(This will be wildly off-topic.)

Anonymous said:

Americans in the service industry don't like to be treated menially either, but there's no resentment over centuries of social stratification and exploitation*, so we seem to be underestimating how deeply our missteps in british courtesy insult british servers.

On reading this, I thought of David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, which deals with themes of exploitation and the abuse of power. When I read it, I found one section particularly underwhelming; it was about a young man who, fleeing debts in 1930s England, obtains work as the amanuensis of a famous composer in Belgium. The young man continually complains about his state of dependency, and it's evident he comes from a wealthy family who has lately disowned him.

I saw him as spoiled and entitled. 'So you have to work for a living? Boo-hoo! Welcome to the human race,' was my response. I found the section's inclusion in the book a digression from the main theme and a poor authorial choice. Only by the greatest stretch of the imagination did the section fit the themes of exploitation and the abuse of power more fully developed in other sections. So I thought.

Now I wonder. David Mitchell is a British author; I'm an American. Am I missing some key cultural context? Would the circumstances read differently to a British audience? I just can't sympathize with someone who would complain about being financially dependent, while possessing an enviable occupation, pleasant lodgings, the use of servants, and the satisfaction of all one's basic needs.

On second thought, I've decided that the character is, in fact, an ass, and the section is, indeed, misplaced.

The movie adaptation comes out late October, for those interested.

Joe1959 said...

Lynne

Just eeeew!

I'm sure I'm not the only one who reads your blog at work while grabbing a lunchtime sandwich at my desk, and I really could have done without reading that :-)

Thank goodness I have never (and now definitely will never) visit a kebab shop...

David Crosbie said...

There are, I regret to say, some parts of Britain where the staff of curry houses are routinely subjected to abuse late at night ("Oi! Gunga Din!") and respond with admirable sang froid. Since such abuse is also associated with macho demands for the hottest curry possible it's not hard to imagine the innovative ingredients masked by the lashings of extra chilli in the kitchen.

For those who haven't see it, this sketch is a famous riposte.

Jodie Martin said...

I tried to scan the comments but didn't get far so sorry if I'm repeating.

An interesting variation was pointed out to me by a Singaporean student. Often in Australia we'll say thanks rather than please. As in "I'll get the hamburger thanks". We decided this was because it's not really a request, and jumps past the acknowledgement to thanks. However if there was a non-standard variation, which might legitimately not be possible, then we'd use please as a more request-like request: "A cafe latte, thanks, but could I please get it in a mug?"

That was our take on it anyway.

Jodie Martin said...

Aaaaand I failed to say that was for Australia. Oops! Sorry. I'm sure it's a device that is used elsewhere, but I noticed you didn't mention it and my Singaporean friend had pointed it out about Australia. It seemed very natural to me.

rushingtoread said...

I was born and raised in the Great Lakes region of the US, and my four-year-old daughter apparently listens to me when I order because both she and I say, "I'd like..., please!" when we order anything at a restaurant (even in a drive-through). Although I resist the urge, she also often reminds her daddy (born and raised in a small town in Florida) to say please when he orders. I do it because no one likes to be bossed around, so I'm as polite as possible whenever I'm asking someone to do something for me (even if it is his or her job).

rachel said...

I'm fascinated by Lisa Ng's experience and how everybody assumes that the baked potato server was being rude. It is possible that he thought that he was helpfully educating a young foreigner into the norms of British behaviour. Having grown up in an equivalently beautiful tourist town in the UK, one does get very weary of people not conforming to the local cultural norms. It's possible that he just cracked on the sixth day and attempted (probably humorously) to make the exchange more pleasant. Obviously it did not cross the cultural boundary.

Sarah said...

I know I'm coming to this post late, but I have to say I've never thought about it this way. I'm a perpetual "please"-er, and hadn't noticed its scarcity until I started hearing parents pointing me out to their children as an example of good manners. It's not a hard thing to say "please" and I think a little politeness goes a long way when it comes to social interaction, but it does tend to surprise people (as does responding "Thanks, you too!" to the perpetual "Have a nice day," or saying, "Fine, thank you, how are you?"). I'll have to watch people more closely and think about your solidarity/egalitarian theory.

(Also, as a former English/Anthropology major, this is a much needed and appreciated mental exercise, so thank you!)

Tom Lines said...

I totally agree with the other Tom and Alberon. To my English ears, to make an order (note that word!) without a 'please' sounds like a command - almost what an army officer might say to a private. To add the word 'please' implies respect for the other person, who you are asking to do something nice for you. The latter sounds a lot more egalitarian to me than the former.

Padma said...

I used to live with a Portuguese fella who couldn't understand why people got shirty when he asked them to do things (he was then in charge of the kitchen in a Buddhist retreat centre, in England). I watched him in action, and then told him he just needed to smile whilst issuing orders - it made all the difference, more than saying please or not. Cultural cues vary across national borders.
Also, "spooky" is very American :).

Andy JS said...

Just read the comment about Cloud Atlas, which I happened to read again a few weeks ago.

I would say this: you're not supposed to feel sympathetic about the 1930s upper-class character Robert Frobisher. The whole point of it is that David Mitchell is portraying what life was like at the point in time in those circumstances.

I didn't sympathise very much with the Robert Frobisher character but I found that section very interesting and entertaining nonetheless.

PlatformEdge said...

I found this post really interesting. I've travelled between the UK and US and now live in the Czech Republic and there's not a lot of scope for the word 'please' in Czech as much as there is for 'thank you'. Which feels the same in the US. But not Britain. Anyway, this made me think of other things and write my own blogpost here : http://lettersfromtheedgeoftheplatform.blogspot.com/

and I've put in a link to your blog as well as adding you to my blog list, so if you get a chance, I'd love to know what you think. (I started out with a reference to a recent NYTimes article about how more New Yorkers were using Britishisms to sound more educated...)

David Crosbie said...

PlatformEdge

I lived for a couple of years in the Czech Republic, and used to say prosím all the time.

Rightly or wrongly, I regularly said prosím when ordering food and drink. It seemed only polite.

Azu-catto said...

"Ooh, in restaurants, middle-class Brits are usually very polite - and we do tip (about 10 per cent), because the waiter could so easily be a student or a child of another middle-class parent, and we all know how poorly-paid the staff are."

Actually I'm not sure you can generalize this and this is why service charge is added automatically to you bill (at 12.5% on the VAT inclusive amount).

Azu-catto said...

"for requests which are not choices — Could we have some more bread, please? etc."

I have been trying desperately for the last twenty years to stop saying this, as I found when travelling in Europe it always leads to some comment from them, instead of them getting on with it.
_ increasingly in the Uk as well

Bryn said...

As a Canadian turned British, I have long found pleasure in linguistic and social comparisons between the two countries. Adding the American view into the picture is making my mind explode a little bit. I've been taking it for granted that Canadians and Americans are similar-but-different. I didn't realise how different, and how that difference shapes cultural understanding of a third country (the UK).

Politeness-wise, I've always felt very much at home in the UK. I like to say please and thank you, and I also like to remain anonymous in public. I believe in giving and receiving personal space, am deeply disturbed when strangers try to talk to me, and I'm a big supporter of stand on the right/walk on the left. I've always seen it as an equality thing, not a hierarchical one. I am no more and no less important than anybody else, therefore live and let live. And I say please to a server in the same way I would to my best friend or my boss or Her Majesty the Queen. I assumed it was the same for everybody.

I can also relate to American-style complimenting. I like a lot of things and I enjoy saying so. It never occurred to me that anyone might find this intrusive, and I've frequently observed British people offering compliments in a similar way.

In fact, I'm usually the one left feeling uncomfortable. Kissing everyone on the cheek, for example, is still a confusing ritual for me (although I miss hugs). And small talk... I hate small talk. I'd rather not play 20 questions; let's dig into something juicier, please, or else leave each other alone.

It never stops being interesting.

Anonymous said...

It is me or this lady's accent sounded like part British and part American? She said she was living in the UK for 12 years. So that explains it.

lynneguist said...

Hey 'this lady' is me! And I'm no lady!

Anonymous said...

Coming to this thread super-late, but the saddest thing about Lisa Ng's story is that both parties came away with their prejudices confirmed and without reaching any kind of understanding. Lisa felt she'd been wronged, but had proved her manners were the best by walking out instead of retaliating or explaining her own cultural context. The server felt she'd been wronged by a week of rudeness from Lisa, but had proved that Lisa was in the wrong because when she called Lisa out on her bad behaviour, Lisa was so ashamed that she couldn't even bring herself to return to the Spud-u-like.

I feel like if they'd been able to talk they could have easily reached an understanding, but that would have involved one or both of them being aware that there was an alternative context for please, which it sounds like neither of them was at the time, so all the stereotypes about arrogant Americans and bad customer service from Brits get reinforced. Sad.

This thread has been very instructive to me in understanding the different contexts, although obviously one of them still feels much more natural to me! Particularly helpful was the exchange about how both Americans and Brits teach their children to say please as a building block of politeness, but that where Brits tend to add more nuanced forms of politeness to please, Americans are more likely to replace it with those nuanced forms.

I am curious now about a situation where an adult American could use please in a heartfelt, non-passive-agressive way without it being misconstrued. The above conversations seem to have ruled out family, co-workers and polite interactions with strangers in a service context. Is there ever a time when please is an obligation of basic manners in American English like it so often is in British English?

Anonymous said...

I actually had to pause while reading the comments because I was getting so upset by a few folks from the UK absolutely refusing to trust Americans on our own understanding and usage of please in our own culture. That, to me, is rude.

I was taught to say "the magic word" as a child, and only adults or kids-on-a-power-trip required it of me. I think Lynne is completely correct that in the US we see dining out as transactional; we like to treat servers (never called waiters these days) as we treat peers; and we consider please while ordering to be a power play that's obsequious, passive-aggressive, and/or impatient.

As an American adult, I use please sincerely in a few cases.

1. When making a reasonable request of a child (eg. "Alex, help us clean up the toys, please"). In this situation is means something like, "Don't worry, I like you, but, yes, you need to do this now."

2. When asking a favor (making an unreasonable request) of a peer (eg. "Sweetheart, could you pleeease bring me a tissue [even though we're both sitting down across the room from the tissues]?" Here it's an acknowledgement of having asked for a favor. The usual response is either a gentle eye-roll (meaning, "Yes, my damsel in distress"), or a dipped chin and raised eyebrows (meaning, "Are you kidding me?")

In a restaurant, I might use please to request a new fork after I dropped mine. The please here indicates that I'm asking the server to do something extra (yeah, I know it's part of the job, but it wouldn't have to be if I'd held on better). To be especially considerate, an American can also add, "No rush," or "When you get a chance," which communicates empathy (and solidarity) with this individual who has a very busy job.

3. As almost a suffix to the affirmative when accepting an offer (eg. "Fries with that?" "Yesplease,") This please communicates enthusiasm and I would consider an enthusiastic "Sure," to be equivalent.

SJH said...

I've only recently discovered this blog, & so have found it increasingly frustrating that there are several topics which I would like to comment upon, but since the last comments were years ago, I didn't feel like i could! Finally, I've found one with a relatively recent comment so I don't feel so bad about it!
I (Br/E, born & raised in the Midlands) had always found it jarring when seeing restaurant scenes in American TV Shows/Films, where 'please' was not used directly after placing an order (in the eg. "I'll have the fish" type way). At least this post has given me some sort of explanation for it. Personally, I would always say please after asking for something in a restaurant. The really interesting thing in this for me, is the reasoning behind saying or not saying please. I would say "I'll have the X, please" to a waiter/tress because that's how I would make the request to anyone, including a close friend. My 'please' is, to my mind at least, saying 'I consider us to be equals, and so I am making this request of you in the most polite way I can, as without the please, it would (again, to my way of thinking) be an order or a demand, made that way because I consider myself to be superior to you.' I find it very interesting that (unless I have completely misunderstood this entire thread) that this is the SAME reasoning that a Am/E speaker would use for NOT saying please!
Does that sound about right?

lynneguist said...

Yes, that's probably about right.

Please feel free to leave comments on any post, no matter how late. They continue to be read by lots of people well after the original post date! Comments all but the most recent posts do have to go through a moderation process, so they might not appear immediately, but they do appear.

Clint Anglin said...

"I think this may also explain why many of us are so resistant to menu-speak. It's our personal prerogative to discuss and work out what the food names mean. When the restaurateurs or their marketing managers put long descriptions on the menu, they're stepping into our territory." -- David Crosbie19 August, 2012 11:37

I was absoluted astounded to read this comment. I would never in a thousand years have guessed the anyone would ever feel this way about something as helpful and time-saving as the descriptions of offerings on a menu. Why would you want to waste your time trying to guess what is being offered (and worse, perhaps guess wrong and end up with something you didn't expect or want)? I agree that lengthy oral descriptions of menu items by the server can be annoying and pretentious, but how a written description can be considered anything but desirable is beyond me.

David Crosbie said...

Clint

something as helpful and time-saving as the descriptions of offerings on a menu

I don't think anybody objects to brief objective descriptions. However, in Britain, some — I believe many — older speakers object to long, emotive descriptions larded with alien terms such as pan fried, drizzled or jus.

(I don't particularly share the hostility, but I do find it interesting.)

Yes, the words have meaning — but not to everybody. And there's a fine line between (a) making something sound attractive and (b) assaulting the eyes with aggressive promotion. Things which are acceptable in adverts, which we choose to read, become unacceptable to some in menus, which we are obliged to read.

This antagonism is found among the same demographic group where you can still raise a laugh with Don't tell me what sort of day to have!

Anonymous said...

My husband always coaches our children to add please when ordering in a restaurant whereas I am fine with them saying "I'll have..." or "I'd like..." I even cringe inwardly at his direction to add the please in this particular circumstance. I grew up eating out more often and at posher places. And he tends to chat up the wait staff quite a bit. I think that is why he uses the please; he is seeing them as people of whom he is asking something whereas I am simply answering a question. What will you have? I'll have the...

Chloe said...

American Southerner here- as someone who has both worked in the service industry and been a customer in the American North (NYC) and South (Atlanta), I would say that 'please' is in no way as necessary for us as it seems to be for British customers and servers. To me, the important thing is eye contact, a friendly tone of voice, and definitely saying thank you. I would be most likely to look at the waiter, say, "Could I get the fish?" pause for a nod or some other quick affirmation from the server- then follow it up with "Thanks so much!" and a smile. The biggest regional difference I've observed is that in NY, the less of someone's time you can take up the more polite you are being, while customers in the south tend to appreciate more pleasantries- and to speak a lot slower.

Joshua Graham said...

I have to agree with an earlier poster. As an American, I've always felt like I was simple answering a question.

"May I take your order?"
"I'd like a burger."

or

"What can I get you?"
"Can I get the fish?"

In the first answer the person has asked for my order and I am giving it ho them. I don't feel like I'm making a request of them at all. They are making a request of me. In the second example I'll want the server to let me know if I actually can get the fish or not. A 'Sure!" Or a "Sorry, but we are out of the fish tonight. How about the beef. It is delicious," may be expected. After that I'd reply with a "Thank you."

Jill said...

I was reminded of this discussion on reading a recent post by Miss Manners (who is American) answering a question about the proper way to order food in a restaurant. The asker has a mother who uses 'please' and a grandmother who doesn't, and he or she is confused about who is correct.

Miss Manners's response: 'It is good of you to think of the waiter’s feelings, and Miss Manners has no wish to discourage you from saying “please.” She only asks you to understand that your grandmother is not being rude. Ordering food in a restaurant is a business transaction, not a petition for a favor. It is not customary to say, in a store, for example, “May I please buy this?”'

I bring this up as another data point and to further point out that this is not some kind of rudeness in US culture. The full question and answer are at http://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/miss-manners-bribery-is-one-way-to-ensure-good-behavior-in-a-child/2013/09/13/7d2c5294-1c96-11e3-8685-5021e0c41964_story.html

lynneguist said...

Thanks so much for posting that!

Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth) said...

And I still "take it strange", as they say in Northern Ireland, because in a store I might well say "I'd like to buy this, please" or "I'd like to look at that, please", if the item in question is under a security lock or whatever.

What about in clothes shops? I would definitely say, "Please may I try this on?" or "I'd like to try these ones, please", but would this not be necessary in US English?

And I do NOT understand why I can't get my head round this particular cultural difference, but I am finding it well-nigh impossible, which is unusual for me.

Graham N Witless said...

There is confusion here between politeness and friendliness.
From comments above, it seems that many Americans consider an appearance of friendliness to be a necessary, or even sufficient, condition for politeness.
This is wrong. Politeness and friendliness are two separate things.
Obviously it is nice to adopt a friendly manner when appropriate, but since undue familiarity can cause offence, even in the USA, it is often desirable to be polite but distant - a thing that would be impossible if friendliness were a prerequisite of politeness.
You don't have to affect to be someone's friend to be polite to them - you just have to treat them as human and accord them a reasonable amount of respect and dignity.
This means, among other things, treating taxi drivers and restaurant staff primarily as people, rather than as agents of their employers. Perceptions of neediness aside, failing to say 'please' turns a respectful request into a peremptory order, no matter how charmingly it is delivered.
I have witnessed American tourists getting into taxis and, without even attempting eye contact, flatly stating a destination, as if the cab were being operated by a machine, rather than by a tired and slightly irritable cockney with a chaotic home life.
This is disrespectful, and therefore impolite by anybody's standards.
If it is acceptable behaviour among Americans, as appears to be the case, that means that, in these circumstances at least, politeness is less important in American culture than in British culture.
This is not a criticism of American culture, it is just a simple observation, and a useful fact to keep in mind when dealing with Americans.
(Of course, it is probably also true that maintaining a facade of friendliness is less important in British culture than in American culture, but these are two separate phenomena, notwithstanding that academics in the rather surprising field of 'politeness studies' appear to have conflated them.)

David Crosbie said...

Graham N Witless

This is wrong. Politeness and friendliness are two separate things.

I said it last year, and I'll say it again...

Prove it.

Politeness and friendliness are not things, they're words. They're words used by people to express subjective interpretations of their own behaviour and the behaviour of other people.

A simple act, such as saying please in a restaurant may be (or may not be):
1 politeness as interpreted by a British customer
2 politeness as interpreted by a British waiter
3 politeness as interpreted by a British eavesdropper
4 friendliness as interpreted by a British customer
5 friendliness as interpreted by a British waiter
6 friendliness as interpreted by a British eavesdropper
7 politeness as interpreted by an American customer
8 politeness as interpreted by an American waiter
9 politeness as interpreted by an American eavesdropper
10 friendliness as interpreted by an American customer
11 friendliness as interpreted by an American waiter
12 friendliness as interpreted by an American eavesdropper

Graham N Witless said...

Sorry for not responding sooner to your comment of August 2012.

You asked me then to prove my assertion that politeness is more important in some cultures than in others, or at least to attempt to justify it. I believe I have now done that, using as an illustration evidence (admittedly anecdotal) of cultural differences in how polite one is expected to be to taxi drivers.

You are asking me now to prove a different assertion, that politeness and friendliness are two different things. I thought I had already done that, but I see now that my argument wasn’t strong enough. It would have been better if I had said

"people are often 'polite but distant' - but that would be impossible if politeness and friendliness were not independent from each other."

(Rephrasing it this way also enables me to avoid engaging in an empty semantic dispute over the meaning of the word 'thing'.)

I might also mention 'coldly polite' and even 'polite but hostile' as possible attitudes, and phrases that I am reasonably confident are used on both sides of the Atlantic. It would be interesting to do one of those fancy database searches on 'polite but {adjective}', '{adjective} but polite', and '{adverb} polite', and see what adjectives and adverbs turn up, and their relative frequencies in British versus American literature. How would one go about doing something like that?

Graham N Witless said...

Lynne:

I think I owe you a response, too, to your comment of 26 August 2012:

You wrote "You clearly have a very narrow definition of 'politeness' that is not in keeping with the way I have used the term, and in which it is generally used in politeness studies."

Yes, you are right. I am using the word 'politeness' in the sense in which it is generally used in the real world, rather than in the contrived, unintuitive, technical sense that is apparently current among a small number of academics.

The Collins dictionary defines 'polite' as "showing regard for others, in manners, speech, behaviour, etc; courteous".
That sounds about right to me.

You also wrote "I have never, nor would I ever, say that solidarity systems are better than deference systems.".

You appear to have misunderstood what I wrote. Please read it again. I did not say or imply that you or anybody else has said that 'solidarity politeness' is better than 'deference politeness'.
I said that solidarity is better than deference. Which it is.

I was making a point about the words that the authors of this theory have chosen to use as the technical terms for their two supposedly contrasting 'politeness systems'. They are not neutral words - and that matters more than you appear to recognise.

Imagine for a moment that instead of 'solidarity politeness' and 'deference politeness', they had chosen the terms 'good and true politeness' and 'evil and false politeness'. No amount of pleading that 'these are only technical terms not to be taken literally' could remove the colouration that this would lend to the theory. 'Solidarity' and 'deference' may be less emotive words than 'good' and 'evil', but it is just a question of degree. They are still emotive, in a rather more subtle way, and no amount of pleading about them being only technical terms can change that. The theory is consequently insidiously biased in a way so subtle that it gets under most people's radar.

The inventors of this strange theory are not stupid. They must have known what they were doing, and I remain suspicious of their motives, regardless of their nationalities.

David Crosbie said...

Graham

You [i.e. me] asked me [i.e. you] then to prove my assertion that politeness is more important in some cultures than in others, or at least to attempt to justify it. I believe I have now done that

It was a purely rhetorical challenge. I can't see how anybody can prove or disprove such an assertion. It's entirely circular. It rests on a definition of politeness which is itself culture-bound.

I know more or less what you mean by politeness because we are both British English speakers imbued with British attitudes from childhood. But I also know — from listening to Americans English speakers and, not least, reading what some Americans have written on this thread — that a great many of them understand something different by the word politeness and have been imbued from child hood to see consideration as the essential characteristic.

Yes, in theory we could — some of us/all of us — be fooling ourselves. We could be paying lip service to what we conceive to be politeness while actually behaving otherwise. In practice, this thread is full of evidence that this is not the case. Those who envisage politeness in the same way as us do, put the idea into practice by saying please to waiters in restaurants. Those for whom politeness is envisaged as a mark of respectful empathy put it into practice by not saying please to waiters in restaurants.

To prove what i take to be a preposterous assertion, you would need to find a number of societies where parents teach their children that politeness is not particularly desirable. How could such a society function? Adults expect norms of considerate, respectful, non-confrontational behaviour from other people's children both while they are still children and after they have grown up. Those who are parents, educators or simply mentors to the young will inculcate whatever the society takes to be politeness in order to maintain the immediate supply of polite children and the future supply of polite adults.

David Crosbie said...

Graham

It would have been better if I had said

"people are often 'polite but distant' - but that would be impossible if politeness and friendliness were not independent from each other."


Remember that this is a blog about language and the way that two two different societies produce and interpret language. If somebody says the phrase polite but distant, linguists in general and semanticists in particular start by questioning what they mean.

There is a considerable difference in the use of the word polite in

• My mother taught me to be polite
and
• His manner was cold but polite

In the latter polite means 'not impolite' it involves adhering to the letter of the rules of civility while ignoring the spirit.

Earlier in the thread, an anonymous poster imagined the utterance:

"I'm so sorry, but I appear to have finished my drink. I don't mean to be a bother but if you could please bring me a refill I would be very appreciative. Thank You Very Much."

I can imagine a context where this could be described as polite but rude.

Graham N Witless said...

Lynne,

I think perhaps I ought to apologise for the tone of my last comment, which, looking at it now, seems rather blunt and... ah, impolite.

Sorry about that. It's something that often seems to happen when I am trying extra hard to get a point across clearly and persuasively to people who don't seem to have understood what I am trying to say. I hope I haven't caused offence.

I can see that the theory you discuss so entertainingly in your talk does provide useful insights into why people behave the way they do. But it is misleadingly named - it is not about politeness - and its internal nomenclature is clumsy and (whether by accident or design) systematically biased.

I think the theory would be fairer, more intuitive, and easier to understand if instead of 'politeness systems' it spoke of 'norms of civility', and instead of 'solidarity politeness' and 'deference politeness' it spoke of 'cordiality' and 'courtesy', which is what those misleading made-up terms seem actually to mean in practice.

'Positive and negative face' is a problem, too. I noticed that in your talk you clarified that in this context 'positive' and 'negative' shouldn't be taken to mean good and bad. The fact that you felt the need to say that does rather suggest that you, too, recognise that there's something seriously wrong with the theory's nomenclature.

Why did they choose 'positive' and 'negative' in the first place? And why that way round? Although I can't just at the moment think of them, I'm sure there are good natural language alternatives they could have chosen. But if they were determined to use terms that sounded artificial and 'sciencey', why did they not simply call them 'type 1' and 'type 2'?

You can see why the whole thing makes me suspicious.

Graham N Witless said...

David,

When I said "I have done that", I meant only that I had attempted to justify my assertion, not that I had proved it. But I don’t agree that it could never be proved.

I don’t see why it would be more problematic to prove an assertion about the relative importance of politeness in different cultures than, say, the relative importance of hats. People have different kinds of hats and wear them in different circumstances. Some people hardly ever wear hats at all. To draw conclusions about this you wouldn’t have to track down people who actively discourage hat-wearing. Hats are just hats, and politeness i just politeness. There’s no circularity.

You wrote:"Those for whom politeness is envisaged as a mark of respectful empathy put it into practice by not saying please..."

Do you really think that my anecdotal American taxi passengers were displaying respectful empathy? If so, please explain how, because I really can’t see it.

I watched that amusing Muppets Alphabet Soup sketch again. The old fellow certainly isn’t showing respectful empathy to that waiter. As in my taxi etiquette example, there is a complete absence of politeness towards service staff. That doesn’t seem to bother Americans, though, so it follows that in those circumstances, politeness must be less important to them than it is to us.

You also wrote
"There is a considerable difference in the use of the word polite in
‘My mother taught me to be polite., and
‘His manner was cold but polite.’
In the latter polite means 'not impolite'. It involves adhering to the letter of the rules of civility while ignoring the spirit.


I don’t agree with any of that at all. This is the nub of our disagreement. The politeness your mother taught you in the first sentence is the same politeness to the rules of which you are sticking in the second sentence. Whether you stick to them warmly or coldly is neither here nor there. (Of course, your mother may also have taught you to behave cordially, but that is also neither here nor there.)

Finally, your example of being 'polite but rude’. This differs in an important way from all the examples I gave.

If someone is ‘polite but cold’, they can change to being less polite but continue to be just as cold. Or vice-versa. Coldness and politeness in this example are what mathematicians would call 'independent variables'.

But in your example, the rudeness is actually caused by the (excessive) politeness, rather in the way that too much oil can damage an engine and, paradoxically, cause it to seize up. If the over-the-top politeness is toned down, the rudeness’ lessens or even evaporates entirely - the rudeness is dependent on the politeness. Mathematicians might say that the rudeness in this example is a 'function' of the politeness.

So, clever as it is, your example is incompatible with mine and it doesn’t invalidate my argument.

Anonymous said...

Off topic, but in the expression "coldly polite" isn't "coldly" acting as an adjective not an adverb?

lynneguist said...

No, 'polite' is an adjective, 'coldly' is an adverb that modifies it. Adverbs modify sentences, verb( phrase)s or adjective( phrase)s. The Internet Grammar of English might be helpful.

Anonymous said...

Ah, yes. Thank you.
That looks to be a very handy site indeed. I promise to consult it in future before asking idiot questions!

Graham N Witless said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Graham N Witless said...

An anonymous commenter above wrote "I agree with my fellow Americans who don't find 'please' obligatory in restaurants because of the contractual nature of the interaction. ... I am not asking for a favor. I have the money and I'm paying for it."
(30 August, 2012 20:34)

It is precisely that attitude of Americans, their feeling that it's not necessary to be so courteous towards people if they are paying them, that British people often misinterpret as imperiousness.

In British culture, "having the money" in a situation doesn't lessen the imperative to be polite.

Whereas in American culture, apparently it does.

I repeat that this is not a criticism of American culture.

In many Asian cultures it is polite to proffer money to shopkeepers with your right hand, and rude to use your left. We British are generally not bothered which hand we use, so we are much less polite in that way than Asians are.

We don't need to be defensive about admitting that. Nobody interprets it as a criticism of British culture. It's just a useful fact.

So why be so defensive about this way in which Americans are less polite than Britons?

It is a real, frequently met cultural difference, which people need to be aware of to avoid misunderstandings.

It doesn't help cross-cultural understanding to downplay it and to pretend that in some mysterious way discernible only to trained academics, when Americans show a lack of courtesy toward service staff they are actually (to use Lynne's expression) being 'differently polite'.

We need to be honest and to admit that in these circumstances at least, American culture sets less store by politeness than British culture does.

There's no shame in it - it's just that our cultures differ in this respect.

I don't understand why people are so squeamish about saying that.

lynneguist said...

Graham, you seem to be quite stubbornly holding to defining 'courteousness'/'politeness' from a British point of view. That is an ethnocentric reading of the situation that is informed by British class-consciousness.

As has been said repeatedly: Being "courteous" in saying 'please' in those contexts is often perceived by Americans as being distancing and bossy. It sounds *more* like you're flaunting your power/money than not saying it. The word 'please' does not have the same connotations in the two countries, so treating them comparatively in that way (one way is polite, the other is not) just doesn't work.

I think I'll leave it at that. There's some interesting research on the placement of 'please' in sentences in different national varieties that underscores my points here, but I'll save that for another blog post in the future, as it's too complicated to get into here.

Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth) said...

It's funny, though, how what is polite in one culture is rude in another - for instance, here in the UK, when paying cash in a shop, it is very rude not to put the money directly into the cashier's and, and not to allow him or her to put the change directly into your hand.

In France, on the other hand, it's perfectly acceptable, even normative, to put the money down on the counter, and for the cashier, or you, to pick it up. Always strikes me as odd when I'm there, as I'm used to our system.

And, of course, in France it's frightfully rude not to greet people when you go into a small shop, and again when you leave; or, in a big supermarket, not to greet the cashier when it is your turn.

We all differ.... and it can take some getting used to other people's cultures.

Anonymous said...


Off-hand thought:

The comment made about someone hopping into a cab and ordering the driver around, combined with all of the Brits who seem to be imagining that ordering food without saying "please" implies a bossy tone...it all makes me wonder if a lot of these stereotypes of Americans come from movies about New York? (Or actual experiences in New York?) In which case, can I just say (as an American), that New Yorkers are generally considered an exception in America to usual polite behavior?

Graham N Witless said...

Aaaargh! And still Lynne misunderstands me!

I've not disputed the fact that saying 'please' to an American waiter is likely to be perceived as bossiness or sarcasm.

That fact has been repeated and reinforced in this comments thread almost to the point of tedium. It is a specific example of what seems to be a general principle: if you evince more politeness than the local culture requires in any particular circumstance then people will think you are taking the mickey.

What I have disputed, however, and continue to dispute, is the notion that Americans show just as much politeness to waiting staff as Britons do, but in a different way.

It's not just about saying 'please'. When an interaction is perceived to be contractual, American culture seems to require fewer politeness markers of all kinds.

'Fewer politeness markers' = less polite!.

Too many politeness markers = too polite = officious, sarcastic, etc

Too few politeness markers = insufficiently polite = imperious, arrogant, etc

I'm not using some exclusively British definition of the word 'polite' here. I'm using the word in the sense in which it is generally used on both sides of the Atlantic, and as it is defined in all the English dictionaries I can find, both British and American.

(I have now looked up 'polite' in 35 different paper and on-line dictionaries, 19 British, 14 American and 2 international. I won't clutter up this comments thread further by reproducing all the definitions, but I assure you that none of them differs significantly from the Collins definition I quoted earlier, and none of them resembles the definition Lynne gave.)


As I said before, I've witnessed American taxi passengers just flatly stating a destination and sitting back. (I've no idea whether they were New Yorkers. They may have been, but that wouldn't undermine my general point.) It's not just that they didn't say 'please' - they omitted all the courteous preliminaries that are usual in Britain when interacting with strangers. I don't believe they would have acted any differently if the taxi had been operated by a robot.

I'm sure that an American (or NY) taxi driver wouldn't perceive such curt, brisk, impersonal behaviour as rudeness, however, but rather as helpfulness: the passenger is assisting the driver to do the job efficiently, by not wasting time with unnecessary chit-chat.

But it is decidedly weird to say that such bluntness of manner constitutes politeness.

To withold courtesy, for whatever reason, makes one less polite. The fact that this is an appropriate level of politeness in an American context doesn't change the fact that it is a lower level of politeness than is expected in an analogous British context.

Disciples of Brown and Levinson at this point will no doubt declare that my analysis is invalid because politeness (in the way they define it) is culturally determined. In effect they are saying "stuff dictionary definitions and general usage, we now declare that 'polite' means whatever is normal civil behaviour in a culture, regardless of what that behaviour actually entails".

Polite behaviour is no longer courteous or considerate behaviour like the dictionaries say, it is just whatever is normal.

If it is normal in a particular society to be inconsiderate in some way then by dint of this redefinition, that lack of consideration magically becomes a form of politeness.

Japanese people customarily wear face masks when they have colds, to prevent the spread of germs.

It seems to me that Japanese tourists cooped up in a train carriage in Britain with people who are coughing and sneezing freely, sending microscopic specks of phlegm everywhere, are unlikely to derive much comfort from the knowledge that social scientists have defined the word 'polite' in a way that means such inconsiderate behaviour is actually a form of politeness.

(to be continued...)

Graham N Witless said...

(...continuation)

This surreptitious redefinition of the word 'polite' is not only inconsistent with actual general usage on either side of the Atlantic, it also drains the word of all useful meaning.

Earlier in this thread, David Crosbie, trying gamely to take this new definition on board, observed that its circularity makes cross-cultural comparisons impossible.

But of course that is the whole idea. If our language can be artfully impoverished in a way that makes cross-cultural comparisons of politeness linguistically impossible, that will help disguise the fact that politeness is a bigger feature of some cultures than others.

Just why social scientists find that fact so uncomfortable is a mystery to me, but then so are many of their other preoccupations. I've already mentioned their mysterious sensitivity about the fact that some children are brighter than others, and their attempt to prevent us from discussing that subject by redefining the word 'intelligence' to the point of meaninglessness. (What the feck is 'emotional intelligence' anyway?)

Finally, to address the curved ball Lynne has pitched me. [Have I used that American idiom correctly, by the way? I've always assumed it meant the same as 'bowling a googly' - i.e. a legitimate attack, but from an unexpected angle.]

As I have said, I see no evidence that the word 'polite' has different meanings in America and Britain. But if it did, why would my using the word in its British sense be ethnocentric, as Lynne alleges, but Lynne's using it in its American sense not be ethnocentric? How does that work?

And how on Earth is British 'class consciousness' supposed to be relevant?

If anybody here is exhibiting class consciousness it is not the British diners who behave towards professional waiters and waitresses just as they behave towards everybody else; it is the American diners who treat what they like to call their 'servers' quite differently from the way they treat people not in their employ. And indeed also the American 'servers' themselves, who are apparently unembarrassed by the fact that their income depends to such an undignified extent on the arbritary big-tipping largesse of those they serve.

[I feel perhaps I ought to say now that I am arguing my case so passionately here not because I am contemptuous of this blog (as I suspect some might think), but because I love it so much.]

lynneguist said...

Thanks for the kind words about the blog. I recommend Richard Watts's book _Politeness_. He makes a distinction between first-order and second-order politeness that you might find useful. He also makes the distinction between polite and 'politic' behavio(u)rs, and the use of 'please' in British English would often fall under the category of 'politic', rather than 'polite'. Its absence is noted, but its presence is more habit/ritual than facework.

I have lots of reason to believe that 'polite' means different things in the two countries. As Watts discusses, people find it much easier to define or exemplify 'impoliteness' rather than 'politeness'. If impoliteness is the opposite side of the 'politeness' coin (which one could debate, but the introduction of the notion of 'politic' in contrast to 'polite' is helpful in that discussion), then this whole discussion seems to point in that direction.

But at any rate, my current research project is about 'please', so I'll have more to say about this in some months. Until then, good night!

Graham N Witless said...

Good afternoon.

Thanks for that book recommendation. I have just ordered it from the library.

I'll be interested to see what evidence you have for the American definition of 'polite' being different from the British one.

Even though I said I wouldn't do this, here are the relevant parts of those 35 definitions of 'polite'. As you can see they are all broadly the same, regardless of which side of the Atlantic the dictionary was published.

(I am trying to work out how to do that comparison of "{adjective} but polite", etc. in AmE vs.BrE corpuses. If I manage to do it I will report back here.)

American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (AmE, 2014)
Marked by or showing consideration for others, tact, and observance of accepted social usage

Bloomsbury Concise English Dictionary (BrE, 2005)
Showing or possessing good manners or common courtesy

Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary (BrE, 2014)
Behaving in a way that is socially correct and shows understanding of and care for other people's feelings

Cambridge Academic Content Dictionary (AmE, 2014)
Behaving in a way that is socially correct and shows respect for other people’s feelings

Cambridge Business English Dictionary (International, 2014)
Behaving in a way that is socially correct and shows understanding of and care for other people's feelings; Socially correct rather than friendly

Cambridge Essential English Dictionary (BrE, 2004, 2014)
Behaving in a way that is not rude and shows that you think about other people

Cassells Dictionary (BrE, 1999)
Refined in manners, courteous

Chambers Adult Learner's Dictionary (BrE, 2005)
A polite person has good manners

Chambers Dictionary (BrE, 2010)
Refined, cultivated; having courteous manners

Chambers Essential Learner's Dictionary (BrE, 2009)
Behaving in a pleasant way towards other people, for example saying thank you and please.

Collins English Dictionary (BrE, 2009)
Having good manners; courteous; Cultivated or refined; Socially correct but insincere

Collins Gem (BrE, 2012)
Showing consideration for others in one's manners, speech, etc.; Sociallly correct or refined

collinsdictionary.com (BrE, 2014)
showing regard for others, in manners, speech, behaviour, etc; courteous

collinsdictionary.com (AmE, 2014)
Having or showing good manners; esp., courteous, considerate, tactful, etc

Concise Oxford English Dictionary (BrE, 2011)
Respectful and considerate of other people; Cultured and refined

dictionary.com (AmE, 2014)
showing good manners toward others, as in behavior, speech, etc; Courteous; civil

freedictionary.org (AmE, 2014)
Showing regard for others in manners, speech, behavior, etc.; Not rude; marked by satisfactory (or especially minimal) adherence to social usages and sufficient but not noteworthy consideration for others

infoplease.com (AmE, 2014)
Showing good manners toward others, as in behavior, speech, etc.; courteous

Longman English Dictionary Online (BrE, 2014)
Behaving or speaking in a way that is correct for the social situation you are in, and showing that you are careful to consider other people's needs and feelings

Macmillan English Dictionary (BrE, 2014)
someone who is polite behaves towards other people in a pleasant way that follows all the usual rules of society

Macmillan English Dictionary (AmE, 2014)
someone who is polite behaves toward other people in a pleasant way that follows all the usual rules of society

merriam-webster.com (AmE, 2014)
Having or showing good manners or respect for other people; Showing or characterized by correct social usage; Marked by an appearance of consideration, tact, deference, or courtesy

Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary (BrE, 2005)
Having or showing good manners and respect for the feelings of others; Socially correct but not always sincere

Oxford English Reference Dictionary (BrE, 1996)
Having good manners, courteous

(continued...)

Graham N Witless said...

(continuation...)

Oxford ESOL Dictionary (BrE, 2006)
Speaking or behaving in a way that shows respect

Oxford Mini Dictionary (BrE, 2013)
Respectful and considerate; civilized and well bred

Oxford Wordpower Dictionary (BrE, 2000)
Having good manners and showing respect for others

oxforddictionaries.com (BrE, 2014)
Having or showing behaviour that is respectful and considerate of other people

thefreedictionary.com (AmE, 2014)
Marked by or showing consideration for others, tact, and observance of accepted social usage

vocabulary.com (AmE, 2014)
Showing regard for others in manners, speech, behavior, etc.

Webster's New World College Dictionary (AmE, 2014)
having or showing good manners; esp., courteous, considerate, tactful, etc

Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary (AmE, 1913)
Smooth and refined in behavior or manners; well bred; courteous; complaisant; obliging; civil

wiktionary.org (International, 2014)
Well-mannered, civilized.

wordsmyth.net (AmE, 2014)
Demonstrating good manners or thoughtfulness; well-trained in deportment; courteous.

yourdictionary.com (AmE, 2014)
Someone or something that exhibits consideration for others and socially acceptable behavior

lynneguist said...

But what does it mean to be 'courteous' in either place? What does it mean to be 'considerate'? In different places those amount to different things. I don't think the exercise of listing dictionary definitions is particularly helpful. I've defined 'politeness' above in the way that I'm using it, but the way that that politeness is operationali{s/z}ed in a culture is not going to be captured in a dictionary definition.

Consider this analogy: the definition of 'tea' is going to be the same in dictionaries in both countries. The reali{s/z}ation of 'tea' and what counts as 'proper tea' differs considerably. Same for politeness.

Anonymous said...

('Graham N Witless' here again, but unable to log in for some annoyingly unfathomable Google reason.)

I see what you mean. That's a nice analogy. (Better than my one with hats!)

But now ask yourself why American tea is... ah... shall we say "differently palatable" compared with British (or Irish or Australian) tea.

Surely that is because Americans don't really have a tea-drinking culture.

Which is exactly my point.

Tea is more important in some cultures than others, and so is politeness.

(Interestingly, like politeness, tea is even more important to the Japanese than it is to the British. Very nice analogy!)

lynneguist said...

But Americans do have a tea-drinking culture. It involves putting ice in the stuff.

Anonymous said...

(GNW again. Still can't bloody log in.)

I fell into your heffalump trap there, didn't I?
I hadn't thought of iced tea, which makes your point.
Iced tea is such an unusual, esoteric drink in the UK that it doesn't really register as tea at all. Even though it is.
I guess you are saying that American politeness doesn't register in exactly the same way.
Nicely done.
I'm going to have to think about this some more.

Albert Welch said...

Massachusetts age 25-

Wow, there's a lot of good stuff here. Much of my thoughts while reading these many meaty posts have already been at least partially expressed by others, so I'll not belabor them further.

What hasn't been mentioned directly is the concept of formality.

In my experience, please is still polite in America but it is too formal to include in a casual request.

I would consider a formal request to be more than a request but less than an order.

Interestingly someone mentioned the use of names as a sign of formality. I've only found that to be true in the use of full name.

It's interesting that in an online text based exchange, the speakers' names are included automatically.(Aside: I should have included this bit in my response to the greetings and introductions post, but I didn't think of it then and I CBA (BrE) going back to that now.)

I also find it noteworthy that no one here will admit to saying just the name of the item by itself. It's possible some of us will do so, at least occasionally, but I'm willing to give us the benefit of the doubt here. However whereas the British, or leastwise the English always add please and sometimes add other markers, Americans tend to add other markers first, before topping off with please. ( Hence i would find Graham's taxi example of "address" as rude as he does, but I find "adress please" to be almost as terse, and less polite than "could you take to address?" though of course, with a London black cab driver's rigorous training the latter might be construed as slighting his navigational skills.)

Now for a less picked over topic, on to your video!

Being read well over half your blog posts so far it was interesting to finally hear rather than see your words. I was initially concerned at the number of ums (AmE) in your speech, but was pleased to hear them dissipate as you warmed to your topic. In contrast to that informality I only noticed your dialectical translation once in the talk, (privacy), whereas you sprinkle them liberally throughout your posts here.

It was also interesting to observe the slur in your speech which you mentioned in another post. It was only noticeable on certain words of course, likewise some words were more British in pronunciation, amusingly, none more-so than British itself. ;)

In regards to auto-complete "the British are German", either it refers to a similar lack of gregariousness among the Germans and the British, or else it's an analog to the English language being so-called Germanic in origin.

Irene C. said...

"The old fellow certainly isn’t showing respectful empathy to that waiter. As in my taxi etiquette example, there is a complete absence of politeness towards service staff. That doesn’t seem to bother Americans, though, so it follows that in those circumstances, politeness must be less important to them than it is to us."

No, Nameless Elderly Muppet is *not* showing respectful empathy to Muppet Grover. And the way the scene is written and staged, there is an undercurrent of disapproval towards the behavior. It's an example of American culture's reliance on mild dramatic irony and Shakespearean asides for indirect critique. The preschooler watchers are supposed/meant to catch Grover's asides of increasing exasperation, along with the complete absurdity of the NEM's unsystematic scruples (why does he start the recitation over each time?!), and empathize completely with Grover Muppet. Who, it happens, is the *familiar* Muppet -- the other guy is just that, the strange pretentious one we don't know. We aren't supposed/meant to necessarily be on his side.

In other words, the scene is an *implied* example of How Not to Behave in a Restaurant, brought to you by all the letters of the alphabet, and the loveable Muppet Grover.

That said, I (southern Californian, spent years in DC) see myself as part of a transaction with the waiter. The difference, for me, is that I'm very aware of being "Mary's" #382rd customer that shift, and so I'd want to make her job go as as efficiently -- courteously efficient, but still -- as possible, but I'd take my cues beyond that from her or him. "I'd like the [dish]." Direct eye contact, entreating intonation. "It comes with soup or salad." "Salad, please. Thanks." Smile. And on my own behalf or my entire table's, because I am my father's slutty/slovenly daughter, "Could I/we have some extra napkins when you get a chance, please? Thanks."

Graham N Witless said...

Lynne

To overlook iced tea was an insensitive ethnocentric blunder, especially given that you have written with some passion on the subject previously on this blog. I can only apologise.

But I don't think anyone would deny that in Japanese culture, tea holds greater significance than it does in either British or American culture. (Unless you go in for elaborate iced tea ceremonies that I’ve not heard about !)

So I’m going to stand by my assertion that tea is more important in some cultures than in others.

Having clambered awkwardly out of that heffalump trap and looked around, I find that the landscape hasn’t changed.

You’ve not really addressed the problem I raised, that the definition of politeness you are using doesn’t accord with any dictionary definitions. You can’t just change the meaning of a word to suit your purposes. That’s not playing fair.

I’m working my way through that Watts ‘Politeness’ book you recommended, but it’s not light reading. Early on, the author, rather patronisingly I thought, refers to the generally understood meaning of the word ‘politeness’ (as defined in the dictionaries) as its ‘folk’ definition. That doesn’t endear him to me, as you can imagine. Academics are a breed apart from us mere ‘folk’, apparently.

But to return to, and extend, your nifty tea metaphor, it seems to me that if politeness (as defined in the dictionaries) is like (hot) tea, then friendliness is like coffee.

Both beverages perform a similar function, and both are drunk in both the US and the UK. But one is relatively more important in the US and the other is relatively more important in the UK. (Until very recently, my snide remark about the palatability of American (hot) tea could equally have applied to British coffee).

But they are quite different drinks. Coffee is not tea. Friendliness is not politeness. And the dictionaries, which are surely intended to reflect common usage, back me up on that. None of them included ‘friendliness’ as an aspect of politeness. (Actually I thought I did come across one that did, but I can’t seem to find it again now. Must have dreamt it.). But the definition you want us to adopt seems to include friendliness, which you term ‘solidarity politeness’. Its as if you wanted us to accept that coffee is a variety of tea. ‘Bean tea’, say.

To an American this may not be such a big deal since (iced tea notwithstanding), tea and courtesy are relatively less important in your culture than coffee and cordiality.

But to a British person (well, to this one at least: it would be helpful if others would chip in to agree or disagree), it is just too big a stretch. Your technical definition of ‘politeness’ is too far removed from the common meaning of the word for us to accept it.

As I mentioned before, these arguments would not have arisen if the theory we are discussing had been named ‘Civility Theory’ instead of ‘Politeness Theory’, and if it had used the terms ‘cordiality’ and ‘courtesy’ instead of ‘solidarity politeness’ and ‘deference politeness’.

lynneguist said...

Meanings aren't made by dictionaries, and dictionaries do not record all uses of words, or all their connotations. I've provided citations for specialist works that define politeness in a more theoretical way.

David Crosbie said...

Graham

1. Politeness is a universal concept, which is manifested through different behaviours in different societies. British and American sub-cultures are very similar and use the same language to describe their values, so it comes as a surprise when differences like this are revealed. If we were comparing British society with Amazonian hunter-gatherers, it would be easier to discuss the differences.

2. Dictionaries discuss words by means of and with reference to other words. When both the word examined and the words used for discussion are subjective, it's hard to avoid circularity.

3. Pragmatics is a perfectly repeatable discipline, not some mumbo-jumbo invented to justify some Americans' sense of what politeness is. Unlike lexicography, it seeks to relate words to social practices that can be objectively studied.

Anonymous said...

['Graham N Witless' here, but my phone won't let me log in]

Yes, of course there is value in academic 'politeness theory' and research, but my point is that it isn't about politeness.

I make no apology for stubbornly sticking to the meaning of that word as it is understood by everybody in the world except a tiny number of academics.

Neither you, Brown & Levinson, Watts, the Queen, the Pope or anyone else has the power to change the meaning of a word by decree.

Anonymous said...

['Graham N Witless' here, but my phone won't let me log in]

Yes, of course there is value in academic 'politeness theory' and research, but my point is that it isn't about politeness.

I make no apology for stubbornly sticking to the meaning of that word as it is understood by everybody in the world except a tiny number of academics.

Neither you, Brown & Levinson, Watts, the Queen, the Pope or anyone else has the power to change the meaning of a word by decree.

lynneguist said...

Graham, people change meanings of words all the time by decree. Academic work in the sciences, philosophy, etc. adopt words and use them in particular ways all the time. When a physicist talks about light, they probably don't use the word in the same way that I do when I talk about light. But if I want to understand what they're saying, I'll have to learn how they're using the word.


And it's not just in academia where words get new meanings just because someone decided to define a word in a particular way. When someone invents a new board game, they may decree that 'zygote' is what happens when you roll a 6 and have to go backwards. It doesn't stop the word meaning what it meant earlier, but it gives a new way of using the word. It's completely unhelpful in that case to pretend that 'zygote' always means 'fertilized egg cell'.

There is a large body of people using the word 'politeness' in this technical way. There are also, as I have pointed out, people who take care to refer to first-order and second-order politeness to distinguish between the theoretical construct and the folk notions of politeness in any particular culture. People argue about what studies of politeness should be covering--whether there are any universals, whether we need to be looking at ever-smaller particulars. But one can only take part in those conversations if one is willing to get beyond a general dictionary definition.

You also seem to be arguing that if I have used a word in a way that you don't want to use it, you can pretend that I've used it in your way, and that's somehow an argument against the points that person was making. That's wil(l)ful miscommunication, so I can't see what's to be gained by that.

So, you can be stubborn all you want. I just think you lose more than you gain by that.

And, really, I'm going to stop replying to this. If someone tells me that their aim is to be stubborn, there is nothing to be gained by me putting my time into the discussion, is there?

David Crosbie said...

Graham

Neither you, Brown & Levinson, Watts, the Queen, the Pope or anyone else has the power to change the meaning of a word by decree.

What those theoreticians are trying to do is to identify in abstract terms what language users mean by 'polite'. The way you and I and the bulk of British English speakers habitually use the word does not correspond exactly to what happens all those contexts where many American English speakers use the word. This is empirical observation, not arbitrarily imposed 'change'.

If two people say 'That's red', we rely on Optical Physics to check that they really have similar perceptions — that neither is colour-blind, for example. If two people say 'That's polite' or 'That's rude', we can't rely on what they say they perceive. Politeness Theory in the latter is like Optical Physics in the former.

Bryn said...

I think we're getting too caught up in semantics. It's a simple fact that every culture has different ideas about appropriate behaviour. We might consider it polite to shake someone's hand and make eye contact when we're first introduced to someone, but in some parts of the world, that would be unacceptably rude. Does this make politeness more important in one culture or the other? No. We just have different cultural mores based on different perceptions of politeness.

Ask Americans and Brits to rate importance of politeness and I'd be willing to bet the results would be comparable. Politeness is a social construct, and as such, it absolutely does depend on context.

Graham N Witless said...

Bryn:
I agree with everything you say except that word 'too' in the first sentence. Semantics here are a problem as the nomenclature of this theory is systematically biased.

David:
I see what you mean, but no dictionary compiler appears to have observed, empirically or otherwise, that Americans consider friendliness to be a variety of politeness as you implicitly assert..

Lynne:
When physicists talk about ‘light’, they mean the same thing that you or I mean by it. They just have a deeper understanding of what it actually is, in terms of electromagnetism. The technical term they chose was the natural language term for the thing they were describing.
For your purposes, a better example would have been ‘spin’ and ‘colour’, which are properties of the subatomic particles known as ‘quarks’. Those technical terms are really quite unrelated to the generally understood meanings of the words ‘spin’ and ‘colour’.
The phenomena that those words describe are entirely beyond human experience, so there is no possibility of using natural language to describe them.
That is not the case with the phenomena that we are dealing with here, however.
There are perfectly obvious and satisfactory natural language words for civility, cordiality and courtesy, (namely ‘civility’, ‘cordiality’ and ‘courtesy’!) but the theoreticians choose to use words that are not just unnecessarily confusing, but, as I have pointed out previously, systematically misleading.
It's all very well saying that sometimes you distinguish between 'first order' and 'second order' politeness. More often than not you don’t, and you seem quite happy to live with the false conclusions that people draw when they conflate the two. I could point out a whole bunch of examples in this thread alone, where that has happened.
So it’s a bit rich to accuse me of deliberate miscommunication when all I am doing is sticking to the conventional meaning of words.

David Crosbie said...

Graham

no dictionary compiler appears to have observed, empirically or otherwise, that Americans consider friendliness to be a variety of politeness as you implicitly assert.

It's easy to disagree with me if you put nonsense into my mouth. But I assert no such thing.

David Crosbie said...

OK, Graham, this is what I do assert.

First a scenario.
• You or I or some other BrE speaker is at the same table as one of those many Americans who feel that please is inappropriate when ordering from a waiter.

• The British observer asks the American speaker why he or she used that particular tone of voice and wording, and why he or she avoided wording such as please

• The American speaker replies Well it just seems the polite way to speak. ASSERTION ONE

• Questioned further, the American speaker reveals that he or she was taught that true politeness is a mark of respect ASSERTION TWO

• You or some other BrE speaker while sitting at a nearby table overhears the order and the assertions, and reacts negatively What i heard was not exactly respect and certainly not politeness. It was simply friendliness ASSERTION THREE

Now what is the status of these three different assertions?

ASSERTION ONE cannot be false — unless, of course, the speaker is deliberately lying. If he or she sincerely says This is what I feel, it can't be contradicted. The feeling may be an illusion., but that's another matter entirely.

ASSERTION TWO is ambiguous. It can be:
STRONG: 'This way of speaking is how to show respect'
or
WEAK: 'This way of speaking is how I try to show repeat'

The STRONG version may or may not be accurate; what matters is that it's the speaker's belief. It is thus data of a sort, which any objective description should encompass.

The WEAK version is incontestably true — unless the speaker is lying.

ASSERTION THREE is also ambiguous, although one version seems the more likely intention
WEAK (not so likely): 'This form of words is more like what I call friendly than what I call polite.'
STRONG (more likely): 'That form of words is not polite. The speaker is misguided in thinking that it is.'

The WEAK version is something that I might assert. I wouldn't be lying, so it couldn't be gainsaid.

The STRONG version is a highly contentious, highly subjective judgement. The Bellman said What I say three times is true but that was in a nonsense poem. The only 'facts' backing the judgement are themselves perceptions based on the premise that the conclusion is true — the original, now rare, meaning of begging the question.

So what I assert is this:

• that ASSERTION ONE is valid
• that the WEAK version of ASSERTION TWO is valid
• that the WEAK version of ASSERTION THREE is more or less what I would myself assert
• that the STRONG version of ASSERTION THREE is invalid by reason of circularity

Returning to the scenario:

• At yet another table, Lynne or some other linguist interested in Pragmatics overhears the preceding order and discussion of the order. She or he interprets the assertions thus:

ASSERTION TWO is based on attitudes and practices that in Politeness are termed solidarity politeness

ASSERTION THREE is based on attitudes and practices that are termed deference politeness

The terms are not in everyday use, because few people are aware of the difference between British and American politeness. Most of us were astonished by the force of argument used on this tread by speakers from the side of the Atlantic opposite to our own. And they're not in use because fewer people still feel the need to analyse these differences — and all other differences — in perceptions and practices of politeness. Shock horror! Academics engaged in abstract analysis use technical terms and ordinary punters don't!

Graham N Witless said...

It's easy to disagree with me if you put nonsense into my mouth. But I assert no such thing.

Sorry, David, I must have misunderstood you. I withdraw that remark.

But I wonder what, specifically, you were referring to when you wrote

The way you and I and the bulk of British English speakers habitually use the word [polite] does not correspond exactly to what happens all those contexts where many American English speakers use the word. This is empirical observation...

Thank you, by the way, for taking me seriously and for tolerating my abrasive style without taking offence.

I plan to respond to your second post before too long.