Why we say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’

Why do we say “please” and “thank you”? On Brain Pickings, Maria Popova cites anthropologist David Graeber’s “illuminating” Debt: The First 5,000 Years.

Consider the custom, in American society, of constantly saying “please” and “thank you.” To do so is often treated as basic morality: we are constantly chiding children for forgetting to do it, just as the moral guardians of our society — teachers and ministers, for instance — do to everybody else. We often assume that the habit is universal, but … it is not. Like so many of our everyday courtesies, it is a kind of democratization of what was once a habit of feudal deference: the insistence on treating absolutely everyone the way that one used only to have to treat a lord or similar hierarchical superior.

The habit of always saying “please” and “thank you” began to take hold among the middle classes during the commercial revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries, writes Graeber.

It is the language of bureaus, shops, and offices, and over the course of the last five hundred years it has spread across the world along with them. It is also merely one token of a much larger philosophy, a set of assumptions of what humans are and what they owe one another, that have by now become so deeply ingrained that we cannot see them.

“Please” comes from “if you please,” as in “if it pleases you to do this,” writes Graeber. “Thank you” derives from “think,” as in “I will remember what you did for me.”

When my daughter was young, I’d pretend that I couldn’t hear any request not prefaced by “please.” She’d say, “Please pass the milk, mommy dearest, best mother in the world.” (I’d made the mistake of telling her about Mommy Dearest, though I’m pleased to say she has not yet written a tell-all memoir of her childhood.) I’d say, “Why, certainly. It’s a pleasure to pass the milk to a courteous daughter.”

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  1. From Stranger in a Strange Land …

    “English is capable of defining sentiments that the human nervous system is quite incapable of experiencing.”

    -Heinlein, I believe discussing the notion of gratitude.

    Just last week at the grocery store, the checker exhorted me to have an awesome weekend. But what if I didn’t want one?

  2. Richard Aubrey says:

    I asked a Japanese kid whose father owned a restaurant in Tokyo how they addressed the customers.
    They said, “customer” when addressing them.
    In the west, we use honorifics,many stemming from ancient titles. Senor, signor, sir sieur. Mein herr. Mister, monsieur, monsignor, etc.

  3. Elizabeth says:

    It never ceases to amaze me that so few of the under 30 crowd say please or thank you – especially store clerks. At least the person who tells you to have a really awesome day is trying to attain a measure of civility. I taught dd to always use please and thank you, but few of her contemporaries do.

  4. Linda Seebach says:

    I spent a year teaching in Shanghai, when my son was 15, but there was also a teacher from Canada in our building, with two younger daughters. He and I both had people express bemusement that we said “please” and “thank you” to our children.

    The Chinese “please” is “I request of you” and the “thank you” is “XIE-xie” but I don’t know what the character means (or whether it had that meaning traditionally)