Please winds up feeling impolite with people that you don't have the right to order around, ie anyone other than your children.and British commenters saying things like
not saying please makes it sound like a lord giving an order to his butler--that is, Americans saying please sounds bossy and Brits saying 'you have to say please, or else you'll sound bossy'. The conference papers will turn into one or two journal articles (eventually!). In the meantime, the two studies brought up so many little factoids about please that I could do at least a half a dozen blog posts on them. Let's start with one and see how I go.
This one comes from the work I'm doing with Rachele De Felice of the Survey of English Usage at University College London and that we presented at the Corpus Linguistics 2015 conference. We're looking at requests (1,350 of them in total) in two corpora of corporate emails, one from a British company that will remain anonymous, and the other from an American company you might have heard of. We found, as others have in other data, that twice as many British requests as American ones include please. What's more, in British English please is particularly often used in requests that do not involve much of an imposition--things like please don't hesitate to call if you need assistance, please note that tomorrow is a holiday or please accept our congratulations. They have the form of an imperative sentence (do this!), but the recipient is not actually asked to do much of anything; instead, they're offered something (help, information, congratulations).
This brings us to one of the types of please-imperatives found in the email data: please find attached and its relatives please find enclosed and please find below. There were 20 of these in the British data and two in the American data — all of them with please. So, not only do we have far fewer American please find attached's, we don't have any please-less find attached's. Surely British corporate emailers don't attach documents 10 times more often as American ones do?
The mystery of the missing find attached's is solved when we consider that this is another case where the "command" isn't really much of a command at all. There's no need to boss around the other person to go about finding things, since the sentence is just communicating "I have attached a document for you". In fact, it would be just plain weird to put this into another request form like Could you please find the document attached? or I would be very grateful if you would find the document attached. This underscores that please find attached is not much of a request at all. It is instead a set phrase in imperative form that does a not-very-requesty job.
We found that American business people are actively discouraged from using this set phrase. Here is what the Oxford Dictionary of American Usage and Style by Bryan A. Garner has to say (highlighting added):
Garner goes on to cite sources from the 19th century onward (all of them American) that agree that please find enclosed is a horrible business-ism that should be avoided. My small forays into (the possibly smaller genre of) British business writing advice has not turned up anything at all about this phrase. (Let me know if you know of any advice in either direction.)
Whatever you think of please find attached, it creates problems for our comparative speech-act research. If we look at British imperatives in our email data and say "84% have please, while only 43% of American imperatives do", it looks like maybe the Americans are bossier--ordering people around without saying please. But that might not be the best way to look at it.
Another way to look at it is: British emailers often only say please because they've put messages into command form that American emailers might put into a declarative sentence. The imperative could be seen as more imperious (or at least officious) than putting the same message into a declarative sentence.
And with that, I'll leave you with a British please sign that Peter Austin posted in the week of our presentation:
So...could the online version be updated to this?Since I'm in England, I thought 'Maybe I should add a please...' But look at what happens when I do:
So...could the online version be updated to this please?The problem here is that my way of being polite was to make the request indirect. It's passive so doesn't say 'would you update it' and it has a pretty weak modal verb--not would or could but can. The impersonalisation makes the request easier to reject: No, it can't be done because... rather than I can't/won't do it...
It also makes the request less bossy, in that I'm not asking someone to do something, I'm asking about the possibility of something being done--giving her the (probably fictional) option of outsourcing it.
It doesn't work with please because please says 'here's a request', and I've phrased this as not-a-request, but as a question of possibility.
All this is just to again make the point that just because Americans say please less, it doesn't mean they're (we're!) doing less politeness work. And sometimes Americans are more indirect than they're (we're!) given credit for!