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Wherefore Art Thou, Please and Thank You?

August 3, 2015

I was standing in line at the coffee shop one day last week, listening-but-not-really-listening as the young(ish) man in front of me placed his order while I patiently waited my turn. The scenario went something like this:

“I’ll have a large decaf, one cream, one sugar,” he said.

The server poured his coffee and passed it to him; before she could ring it up, he said, “Oh, and a sugar doughnut too.”

The server put the doughnut in a bag and handed it over. As she punched in the amounts on the cash register, he pointed to the display case and said, “And give me six of those oatmeal cookies. And a couple extra napkins.”

The server put the cookies in a separate bag and added some napkins. “Anything else?” she asked.

“Yeah, a bottle of water. It’s hot out there.”

She put the water beside his coffee, rang it in, and told him the total. He gave her a twenty dollar bill and waited for his change, but said nothing further.

“Next,” the server called when he’d turned and gone.

I approached the counter. “A small coffee, one cream and a sweetener on the side please.”

The server looked up at me with a surprised expression on her face. “You’re the first person today who’s used the magic word,” she told me. “I’d almost forgotten what it sounds like.”

MagicWordThe magic word. That’s what my mother used to call ‘please’. If you asked for something and didn’t tack on a ‘please’, she’d say, “What’s the magic word?” It was a given in our house that if you wanted something you always – ALWAYS – said ‘please’ (and ‘thank you’ afterwards – the two always went hand-in-hand).  I used the same approach with my own boys. I wanted them to grow up well-mannered, respectful, and grateful for whatever they were given. ‘Please’ and ‘thank you’ were an integral part of their upbringing (and I still have some of the very polite letters they wrote to their grandmother when they were little to prove that it worked … for a while, anyway).

As I thanked the lady behind the counter, paid for my coffee, and left, I thought back to the previous customer’s ‘conversation’ with the server. He’d asked for five things and hadn’t uttered the word ‘please’ even once!  And from what she’d said, he wasn’t the only one who’d forgotten ‘the magic word’ that morning. Perplexed (since ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ are such a regular part of my vocabulary), I decided to do a little research to see if this was an isolated incident, a generational one (heaven knows, the ‘younger’ generations seem to have an exaggerated sense of entitlement), or a much bigger problem (i.e., an overall decline in civility caused [perhaps] by our technology-driven society, our lack of patience and respect for others, or some sort of  intolerance for the age-old tenets of common courtesy).

Over the next week, I ‘eavesdropped’ on conversations wherever I went – coffee shops, restaurants, offices, retail stores, grocery stores, the pharmacy. I asked friends and former colleagues (mostly community college teachers who have students of all ages in their classrooms) to keep an ear out for the ‘magic word’ and report back to me on how often (and under what circumstances) it was used. What I discovered both astounded and saddened me. It seems the ‘magic word’ has all but disappeared from general conversation and is used only rarely (and then almost exclusively by those over the age of about 60) when asking for something, seeking a favour, or just generally interacting with others in a give-and-take situation.

PleaseI heard lots of requests prefaced with phrases like “Can I have …” and “Could you give/get me …” and “I want …” and “If you wouldn’t mind …” and “I was hoping you’d …”, but very few of them included the word ‘please’. It was as if the people asking felt that being ‘polite’ wasn’t necessary, given the obvious importance (to them) of whatever it was they were seeking. Even in situations where someone was clearly asking for a favour (i.e., where good old common sense would dictate that a polite appeal would be far more likely to have the desired effect), it was missing (for example, in this email sent from a college student to his professor [and – no – I’m not making this up]: “Can you double check my midterm mark? I’m pretty sure you made a mistake. I know I did better than the grade you posted. I need a good mark in this class if I’m going to graduate. Get back to me ASAP. OK?”)

ThankYouAt the same time (and in the same or slightly different scenarios), I rarely heard the phrase ‘thank you’ uttered either. When I asked a small group of 30-somethings (who were sitting at a table next to me in a restaurant; I approached them saying I was conducting research) why they hadn’t said ‘thank you’ when their meals were delivered to their table, or when someone passed them something during dinner, I was shocked to be told that “Saying thank you is old fashioned”. When I then asked if they said ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ to friends or parents when asking for and/or being given favours, gifts or money, etc., one girl said (and the others tended to agree), “If someone that’s close to you gives you something – like a birthday present or at Christmas, or even for a wedding or whatever – you shouldn’t have to say ‘thank you’. They should just know you appreciate it.” (When I finally managed to recover from the shock of this statement, I said, “That’s not the point. It’s just good manners to express it.” Most of them looked at me like I was suggesting they self-flagellate in front of the gift-giver!)

There are thousands of blog posts and articles online about the disappearance of these two words (and other demonstrations of politeness) from our language, our social interactions and our general behaviour. Some blame technology, others stress, still others a reduction in basic civility all around. I suspect some parents simply don’t stress ‘polite behaviour’ anymore (is this another thing they think should be taught in schools, but isn’t?!?!?)  It worries me that I see it everywhere I go (and, hard as this is for me to admit, have even noticed that my own boys often ‘forget’ to include ‘please’ when asking for something, or to say ‘thank you’ for gifts, favours bestowed, etc.) I suspect this is a trend brought about by the more ‘casual’ communication protocols most people now depend on, but I’m disappointed (and distressed) that it’s so pervasive (and I suspect it’s only going to get worse).  And if we lose our civility, what will separate us from all the other ‘animals’ out there? It’s a sad state of affairs!

I, however, am going to persevere. I will continue to use ‘the magic word’ (‘please’), and its counterpart (‘thank you’) in my interactions with the people around me. I will set a good example and show my gratitude for what others provide for me –  because I am, after all, on … the other side of 55.


NOTE: Please feel free to comment on this post. Thank you for reading it! (See, that wasn’t so hard, was it!?!?!?)

  1. Margie permalink
    August 4, 2015 2:04 pm

    Good post, Margo. My nephews little son asked me for something recently. I said, ‘What’s the magic word?” He had no idea. ‘Please’ isn’t in his vocabulary. It is now – when he is with me, anyhow!

    • August 5, 2015 7:39 am

      It would be interesting to figure out when and where (and WHY) – between our generation and theirs – these words disappeared from our everyday language. I plan on ensuring my granddaughter (once she can talk) understands their importance and learns their power.

  2. August 3, 2015 6:06 pm

    A very good reminder. I have caught myself forgetting to say “please” lately (though I always say “thank you”). I wonder if I am inadvertently mirroring in my speech what I hear around me (not that I can or should blame others for my own lapses in civility). Thank you!

    • August 3, 2015 6:12 pm

      It’s frightening how we pick up on ‘cues’ from others and follow them without thinking. I fear that’s why so many of our ‘good manners’ have simply disappeared!

  3. August 3, 2015 4:59 pm

    I so totally agree with you. I make a point of saying please and thank you where appropriate because I was also raised on the magic word. And it makes me feel good to see the reaction (surprise) on the face of those receiving it…you can actually see that you’ve brightened their day. Another sign of our lack of civility is never receiving a written Thank You for wedding or shower gifts. To me there’s no excuse for that… but that’s another post.

    • August 3, 2015 5:27 pm

      Oh, don’t get me started on the ‘no written thank yous’ for wedding and shower gifts! It’s an appalling trend (especially if the gift was opened when the giver wasn’t present – so there wasn’t even a VERBAL thank you provided). I know of a mother who actually bought wedding present thank you cards, wrote the addresses on the envelopes, purchased the postage, and then sat with her daughter and dictated what she should say on each (the girl – in her mid 20s – was less than enthused about the whole process). I’ve been to both wedding and baby showers in the last few years where I’ve put a great deal of effort into choosing, wrapping, and delivering the gifts, only to be given a quick ‘Thanks’ or … nothing at all in return. Honestly, it sometimes makes me wonder why I bothered in the first place! I hesitate to even suggest this, but even an email would be better than nothing!

      • August 5, 2015 11:44 am

        Yes, yes, yes….you may spend hundreds of dollars going to the wedding and giving a gift, and never, ever get a thank you. Then down the road when a baby comes along, they manage to scrap together the time and postage to send an announcement. What’s one to do?

      • August 5, 2015 1:27 pm

        And what about the new ‘expectation’ that the wedding gift should be worth ‘at least’ the value of the meal served at the reception? Where do these expectations (gimme gimme gimme) come from? I’m appalled!

  4. August 3, 2015 3:04 pm

    Thank you for this interesting post! I was beginning to wonder, myself, what had happened to ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ these days. How sad that it should be thought ‘old fashioned’ to be polite.

    • August 3, 2015 3:21 pm

      One of the young girls I spoke with said ‘I think it’s pathetic that some people give you stuff just so they can hear you say ‘thank you’. If they really just wanted to be generous they shouldn’t expect a big deal to be made of it.’ YIKES!

      • August 5, 2015 11:47 am

        OMG, if that’s the mentality of the younger generation, then this world is going down the toilet fast!

      • August 5, 2015 1:27 pm

        I think we’re already half way there!

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