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.”