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!

P.P.P.S. To see all comments for this post, please click on the 'load more' link at the bottom of the comments.
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bed skirts, dust ruffles, valances

I've now remembered what I meant to cover and forgot in my last post. That post is already too, too long, so here's another post about bedding.

Years ago, my former colleague Max sent a list of presumably AmE terms that were new to him when he read Jane Smiley's Ten days in the hills. It included the following [emphasis added in the Smiley quotation]:

"She leaned over the side of the bed and reached under the bedskirt. She pulled out a large-ish box wrapped in blue paper."

= BrE "valance"?
My response at the time was that I wouldn't have called it a bedskirt--I'd have called it a (AmE) dust ruffle, which for me was a new fancy thing that I came with my first (AmE) comforter set (see last post). Nowadays, I think I would say bed skirt (though I would make it two words) when referring to one that hangs down straight (maybe with a neat pleat or two), as one finds in hotels. The pink gingham one that I had in my youth had more of a 'ruffle' to it.  But US retailers call them both bed skirts, it seems. The Pioneer Linens site is indecisive about whether to put a space in bedskirt and treats bed skirt and dust ruffle as synonyms:
A bed skirt or dust ruffle slides in between your mattress and box spring, making your bed appear more together and complete.
The Corpus of Contemporary American English indicates that bed()skirt and dust ruffle are equally common, with 30 dust ruffle, 26 bed skirt, and 4 bedskirt.

 Max's suggestion of valance in BrE surprised me, as I only knew this as something that covers a curtain rail. (It has other meanings too, covering altars and such.) Clearly, it's not something I've ever shopped for in the UK. The OED gives us this definition:
2 spec. a. A border of drapery hanging round the canopy of a bed; in later use, a short curtain around the frame of a bedstead, etc., serving to screen the space underneath.
It's hard to tell from the quotes when the 'later use' begins, but at the latest it's mid-19th century.  One can get around the ambiguity of valance by label(l)ing them valance bed sheets, as does, but in the British National Corpus all the instances of bed-related valances are just called valance--the rest of the context serves to let you know which kind.

Two blog posts within 24 hours? Don't get used to it!
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bed linen(s): duvets and comforters

If you want to know how to buy bed sheets in the US or UK, then the last post (on bed sizes) is the best place to start, since the sizes of beds affect the sizes of sheets and related things. But now let's talk about what we call the bed linen or bedclothes or bedding-- starting with those collective terms.

All those terms can be found in both BrE and AmE. Whether you spell bed linen and bedclothes as one word or two, with or without a hyphen, varies, but it's not a US/UK issue. Two-word bed linen and one-word bedclothes are the most common forms of their respective lexical items in both dialects. Bedding and bedclothes have other meanings, of course, but comparing the relative numbers of the terms is helpful for considering whether there are differences in their commonality in the US and UK. Here's what the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) and the British National Corpus (BNC) have to say about how often these words occur per 100 million words of text and speech. (The bed linen and bedclothes numbers include spellings with and without spaces and hyphens.)

per 100m words AmE BrE
bedding 324 394
bed()clothes  57 149
bed()linen* 41 107

BNC is older than COCA, so I checked these numbers against the comparable 1990s data in the Corpus of Historical American English (COHA), and it looked about the same. So: the terms are ranked the same in both dialects, with bedding most common and bed()linen least common--but there's less use of these terms in general in the American corpus (which either means that there's less talk of these things in the sources that the American corpus has used or that Americans are more apt to say more specific words like sheets or covers when they can. The time that would be required to determine which of those possibilities (if either) is right would require me to pay myself a (probably orig. AmE) helluva lot of overtime for this blog, and I can't afford that much nothing.

But there is a twist in the tale that that table tells, and it's to be found in the asterisk.  In the 'bed sizes' post, I wrote bed linens (plural) and commenter Picky asked about whether this plural was American. I hadn't noticed this before, but yes, it is. COCA has nearly five times as many bed linens as bed linen, whereas BNC has less than a handful of plural ones. 

per 100m words AmE BrE
bed()linen 7 105
bed()linens 34 2

These terms can include pillow cases as well as the bigger pieces, but I'm already spending too much time and space on this, so I'm deciding right now to promise everything to do with pillows in another post, just to make sure that I go to bed again before my (BrE) holiday/(AmE) vacation ends.* I'm going to focus here on the most transatlantically confusing bed coverings: the duvet and the comforter.

The original 'bed size' post was written because of a question that Purple Claire had asked on Twitter, but before that question, she had asked another: "What's duvet cover in American English? I think they think duvet cover is the whole thing, incl the eiderdown..." Let me tell you my personal experience of duvets, as an American who grew up in a very cold part of America in the 1960s-80s.

When I was little, we had (orig. AmE) bedspreads. These were not filled, but were often (at that time/in my realm of experience) chenille or candlewick. People with more crafty families than mine might have homemade quilts, which have padding, but not fluffy filling.

Then, when I was 10 or so, comforters became popular in my world. We bought them at Sears and mine had a pink gingham pattern on it. It was filled with some sort of polyester filling and could be put into a washing machine. But we wouldn't put it into the machine anymore often than we put our bedspreads in (i.e. not very often) because they were always separated from our skin by a flat sheet.  The OED defines this US sense of comforter as 'a quilted coverlet'. The things I would call comforter are quilted to keep the filling from dropping to one end, but they not what I would call quilts, or even coverlets, since I'd not apply those words to anything so thick and squishy. (But it's perfectly possible--though hard to tell from OED quotations--that comforter has been applied to less squishy things in the past...or present even.) The Wikipedia entry for comforter calls it 'a type of blanket', but that is similarly odd to me. Blankets, in my world, don't have filling.

I don't think I came across duvets until I was in my 20s and travel(l)ing away from my home country. I've seen comforter translated as 'American for duvet', but that's not quite right.  A duvet is made to be covered by something else--they are like pillows in that way.  (Duvets are also traditionally filled with down, but that's not always the case now. I think I had come across the term eiderdown for such a thing while I still lived in the US--but just the term, in the context of reading about something European. I'd not experienced the thing.)  When I first slept in hotels that used duvets in the way they are intended,  I was put off by not having a top sheet. I didn't fully understand that the cover on the duvet would have been changed for each guest. It took me quite a while to get used to the feeling of sleeping with a duvet and without a top sheet, as one doesn't get the same sense of being 'tucked in'. It's what I like now, though. While I think it's probably easier for one's partner to steal the covers when using a duvet and no top sheet, one doesn't get one's feet tangled up in the tucked-but-tugged sheet when that happens.

So, returning to PurpleClaire's search for duvet covers in the US, one of the places she looked was, and it does look to me there like what they're calling a duvet cover set does involve a cover for a duvet. (At first I thought--and this may be true elsewhere--that she was finding people who used duvet cover pleonastically--a duvet for covering your bed, rather than a cover for your duvet). What is weird on the Target site, from a UK perspective, is that the 'duvet cover set' includes the duvet. In Europe/the UK, you'd not get the duvet with the set, as (a) you might want to change your colo(u)r scheme before you need a new duvet and (b) you might have more than one duvet for different times of the year.

(Somebody's intending to comment that duvets are called doonas in Australian English. There might not be as much joy in doing so now that I've said it.)

Which brings us to tog. Nowhere in the Target description do we find this word. But check out the (UK) Marks & Spencer categories for duvets:

Duvets in categories: '4.5 tog & below, 7.5 tog to 10.5 tog, 13.5 tog and above, All seasons'

To give the Collins Dictionary definition:
a.  a unit of thermal resistance used to measure the power of insulation of a fabric, garment, quilt, etc. The tog-value of an article is equal to ten times the temperature difference between its two faces, in degrees Celsius, when the flow of heat across it is equal to one watt per m2

While I knew that we don't see this word in AmE, I was surprised not to find it in the online versions of the American Heritage or Merriam-Webster dictionaries (other, unrelated tog entries were there)--as I would have thought that maybe skiers or someone would have needed it. The OED says that this sense of tog (derived, they seem to suggest, from the 'clothing' sense of tog) is 'modelled on the earlier U.S. term clo'.  Merriam-Webster says only that clo is an abbreviation of clothing--I can't find it in other dictionaries, but Wikipedia says that the "standard amount of insulation required to keep a resting person warm in a windless room at 70 °F (21.1 °C) is equal to one clo." At any rate, no one seems to be using it to sell duvets or comforters.

I have a feeling there's something else I meant to mention here and forgot about.** But this is long enough, don't you think? I reserve the right to add whatever I forgot tomorrow morning, after I've spent the night talking to my bed linen(s) again. Pillows must wait for another post--not necessarily the next one.  I might wait for insomnia to start leaving me alone, so that the topic will not seem so cruel.

Before I go, some Other Business:
  • For the Olympic season, I wrote a little piece for Emphasis Writing's e-bulletin on '10 Differences between US and UK English'. (Many of the topics I discuss there can be found elsewhere, in more detail, on this blog too.)
  • I'm speaking at BrightonSEO Conference on 14 September. That's SEO, as in Search Engine Optimization, which I know approximately nothing about, but they seem like a fun bunch to subject to my rants. I'm afraid it's fully booked, but if you have any funny US/UK search engine tales you want to share with me, feel free to email me--I love new material!
  • I'm also taking my How Americans Saved the English Language talk to a new audience on 9 October: Brighton Skeptics [sic!] in the Pub. If you're in the area and haven't already heard all those jokes, then do join us at the Caroline of Brunswick, 8pm.

* I failed. This is being posted 10 days after I returned to the UK.
** (Postscript) The things I forgot and many more are discussed in the comments--some good ones there, have/take a look.

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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)