Visit theallusionist.org/please to read about or hear this episode.
This is the Allusionist, in which I, Helen Zaltzman, help language complete a 1,500-piece jigsaw puzzle of John Constable’s Hay Wain because, even though we both secretly think it’s boring, we do so enjoy each other’s company.
Coming up in today's show is a matter which I suspect will differ from country to country, and even within countries - so I'd be interested to hear how it works where you are.
But first, a little word history, sponsored by Bombas, makers of game-changing socks. Bombas spent two years developing the build of their socks to ensure that the construction, fit and quality are worthy of your precious feet. So there are no seams to chafe against your heels and toes; your socks don't fall down; the sole’s a little thicker, for durability and comfort. And, encircling the foot there’s a honeycomb pattern, which I thought was just because the Bombas logo is a bee - but it’s not just decorative, it provides extra support for your little trotters; if you have stupid bendy hypermobile feet as I do, this is an absolute boon.
Bombas socks are available for adults and kids in a range of colourways. My current sock status: neon yellow.
Go get yourself some new socks, and save 20%: visit bombas.com/allusionist and enter the offer 'allusionist' in the checkout code space.
And thanks to Bombas, here’s the etymology of ‘etiquette’. It’s a French word, and meant a label or ticket. In fact etiquette and ticket both evolved from an older French word ‘estiquette’, from a very old root meaning ‘stick’. Estiquettes are thought to have been little tickets stuck to the wall - possibly at first they were written instructions for soldiers at their lodgings. But then, according to the American etiquette maven Emily Post, etiquettes were put up in King Louis XIV’s garden at Versailles, warning courtiers to keep off the lawn, and shortly paper etiquettes were issued with all sorts of rules for genteel conduct. The word landed in the English language around the middle of the 18th century, when the Enlightenment period was in full swing in Europe, during which, amongst significant developments in politics and science and culture, there was a big trend for trying to elevate oneself by following ever more precise and complex codes of behaviour. It’s around the same time that the word ‘polite’ shifted from its original meaning of ‘polished’ to its current well-mannered one.
Just before we get stuck in to today’s main event, I wanted to tell you some exciting Radiotopia news: we're having our first ever live show, on 4th May 2016, at the theatre at Ace Hotel in Los Angeles. Most of the Radiotopia shows will be there, performing new stories, from 99% Invisible to Criminal to the Kitchen Sisters to Memory Palace and more.
I’ll be there, will you be there? Get your tickets at radiotopia.fm/ace.
On with the show.
HZ: I am asked a lot why a word is used differently in the US versus Britain, and the usual answer is “Because there’s an ocean between us.” Geographical distance leads to distinct evolution - hence some 80% of Australian wildlife being unique to Australia.
Growing up in England reading American books and watching American films and TV, I deduced that 'pants', 'biscuit', 'chips' and 'fanny' don’t mean the same in the US as they did at home. But I thought I was on familiar ground with the word ‘please’. Technically ‘please’ does mean the same thing in both places, but I had absolutely no idea it is deployed quite differently on our respective sides of the Atlantic.
Until the piñata of my ignorance was smashed open by linguist Lynne Murphy, who has been researching ‘please’.
LYNNE MURPHY: Several people have observed that the British say ‘please’ twice as much as Americans do. But they generally hadn’t looked at if there was a reason for that, other than assuming the British are more polite - more particularly, the English are more polite than Americans. So we wanted to go in and look at when British and American people are using ‘please’, and see if it’s just that Americans don’t bother so much, or are they using the word for different jobs?
HZ: Lynne is an American who has been living in England for the past several years.
LM: It’s not that one group is more polite than the other, it’s just that they've got different rules, and if you follow the rules the right way, you’ll get along.
HZ: It seems like a possible divide. It’s bigger than the ocean.
LM: When I first moved here, people would say to me things like, “Oh, in America, you don’t say ‘please’,” and I’d say, “Pardon me, we certainly do!” My mother drilled it into me that you have to say the magic word, before you can have anything. But after people said this to me a few times, I started to notice that when I went out to dinner with my English friends, if I ordered first, I’d just say “I’ll have the diavola pizza” or whatever, and my friends would all say, “Can I please have…?” Then when my family would come to visit, they’d order things at restaurants, and I’d have to say ‘please’ at the end of each order, because I’d become so conscious that it was missing in American speech in the English context.
HZ: We really did a number on you.
LM: But as we looked at it more closely - I wrote about this on my blog, and a lot of people wrote in and gave their feelings about it, and the theme of the posts by British people was, “If you don’t say ‘please’, you sound bossy,” and the theme of the American commenters was, “If you say ‘please’, you sound bossy.”
HZ: Please excuse me while I struggle to come to terms with this. I'm not a rarity among English people for using ‘please’ almost as much as punctuation - "Please could you pass the salt?" "Yes, I’d love a cup of tea, please." "Please may I proofread that ransom note before you send it?" I’ve been habitually sprinkling my speech with ‘please’ to appear deferential, when all the time to Americans it was coming across as bossy? And patronising.
LM: As we looked into this a bit further, people would say things like, "’Please’ is what a child would have to say to an adult.”
HZ: [childish voice] “Please can I go to the toilet?”
LM: Or "’Please’ is what an adult would say to a child.”
HZ: “Please stop poking mummy in the eye.” And Lynne says the English tendency to use ‘please’ at the start of a request is not the done thing in the USA.
LM: It sounds very condescending. Or - it could go either way. In American, since ‘please’ is marking power distance, it could be marking either upward or downward direction of power. So if I’m ordering from you in a restaurant and I say, “Please may I have this?” it could sound like I’m a bit bossy. Or, the way I tend to interpret it is, a secretary I work with uses it a lot, and I tend to interpret it as her debasing herself to me - “Please could we meet on Wednesday?” It reminds me of Oliver!...
Clip from Oliver!:
OLIVER TWIST: Please sir, I want some more.
MR BUMBLE: WHAT?
OLIVER TWIST: Please sir, I want some...more?
MR BUMBLE: MORE??
LM: So it sounds very much like the person is uncertain of their right to ask. Whereas in an American restaurant situation, the people involved assume what I’m doing when I order a pizza is I’m providing the waiter with the information they need to do their job. “I’ll have the pizza”; it sounds more bossy in England, but in America it’s not seen as a personal request to another person.
HZ: How am I ever going to master these invisible rules? For reinforcement, here’s the linguist Rachele De Felice, who has been working with Lynne Murphy on the research into ‘please’.
RACHELE DE FELICE: It’s basically about what the different groups of people translate ‘please’ as in their heads; you know, there’s the translation of ‘please’ as “I am asking you something; this is just a little flag that I am asking you something.” And there’s the translation of ‘please’ as, “I am being a polite person, asking you something.” And they’re quite different things.
LM: One of the American sets of academics who looked at ‘please’ constantly referred to ‘please’ as a word of pleading, and that’s just not how it’s used in British English. In British English, you use ‘please’ if it’s a small request, “Hello waiter, may I have a pizza?” But you wouldn’t use ‘please’, you’d use something more indirect, if you were asking for something big.
RDF: When I’m asking you, “Can I borrow your pen?” - do I have to be polite, do I have to flag that it’s a request? But if I am asking you, “Can I borrow your car for a cross-country holiday?” - that’s a really big deal, and I don’t want to do just a token gesture of politeness, I want to be really, really friendly and appreciative, and make it clear I know what I’m asking you is a big deal. So I want to make sure that “Can I borrow your car?” and “Can I borrow your pen?” don’t sound the same, don’t use the same structures, so you can tell I’m aware of this huge thing that I’m asking you to do.
HZ: Therefore is it a problem that we Brits will fling ‘please’ out willy-nilly? We’ll lather things with ‘please’, so then there isn’t the language to distinguish between the loan of a pen and the loan of a car.
LM: I think you do distinguish them, because then you don’t say ‘please’, then you don’t say “Please may I borrow your car?” You say, “I know this is a really big thing to ask, and I’d really really appreciate it - please say ‘no' if you don’t want to do this, but could I possibly ever -
RDF: - if it’s not too much trouble -
LM: - borrow your car?
HZ: By that point, the person you're asking is like, “Whatever it is, the answer is YES, as long as you get to the end of the sentence before I die of old age.”
LM: But for Americans, if you’re asking for something big, that’s when you need the ‘please’. Or if there’s a big power difference. Of course, Americans are very into making it feel like there aren’t power differences in relationships amongst adults. So when you’re talking to children, you get ‘please’ because there’s a power difference. When you’re talking to your boss, you might want to have a ‘please’; but in an American context, you might not, because then you’d seem too subservient.
HZ: Let me just jot this down in my big book of Transatlantic etiquette: in Britain, ‘please’ would be used to dismantle a hierarchy, while in the USA, the same job would be done by the absence of ‘please’.
In British English, there’s also a tendency to stick ‘please’ onto phrases that aren’t even requests.
RDF: “Please feel free to contact me,” “Please let me know if I can help in any way.” Whereas the American writers don’t do that. That’s one way of noticing that ‘please’ is a routine thing, rather than a flag that says, “I’m asking something big of you; I need to be super-polite.”
LM: Another example of that is putting ‘please’ on expressions of politeness: “Please accept my thanks,” “Please accept my congratulations,” and the ‘please’ - you’re not asking them a favour.
HZ: You could just say, “Congratulations.”
LM: You could just say “Congratulations." But you gotta put a please in there.
HZ: But why can’t people just say “Congratulations”? Why do they have to put a ‘please’ in there?
LM: Part of it is, the longer you make something, the more polite it sounds.
HZ: And yet, you’re kind of rudely taking up more of someone’s time. This is very complicated. So can you suggest any rules that people can abide by so they’re not going to cause offence on either side of the Atlantic, inadvertently?
RDF: I guess a straightforward one is, if you’re an American in Britain, and you normally wouldn’t use ‘please’, stick a ‘please’ in it. And vice versa: if you go across to America and you’re British and you would normally put a ‘please’ there, take the ‘please’ off - though that’s oversimplifying, obviously.
LM: I think it goes better one way than the other. So Americans coming to Britain: say ‘please’, say ‘thank you’, say ‘sorry’ as much as you can possibly fit into your sentences.
HZ: Yes. If you’re coming to England, say 'sorry' at every available opportunity. If someone drops a brick on your foot, say sorry to them for having the temerity to possess a foot which obstructed the fall of their brick.
LM: I do call that the passive-aggressive sorry. I used to work in a charity shop in England, and I would notice that people would run into me when I was stacking books on the shelves, and they wouldn’t say ‘sorry’ to me unless I said ‘sorry’ first. It was like ‘sorry’ is the signal that I’d noticed that they’d done something wrong, so I had to say ‘sorry’ to get them to say ‘sorry’.
HZ: Rachele is Italian, but she’s lived in the USA, and Germany, and for the majority of the past 15 years she has been in England.
RDF: I still, after 15, 16 years, don’t say 'sorry' or 'thank you' or 'please' at the right time, apparently; I still ask for things in the wrong way. So I think unless you’re born into it, you can never fully acquire, because it’s such unspoken rules.
HZ: So even if you wanted to change, we probably couldn’t.
RDF: No, no… But we still like you!
HZ: That’s because I’m so polite-seeming. But it’s all a facade.
RDF: We wouldn’t tell you to your face if we didn’t like you.
HZ: Because it’s not real politeness, is it?
LM: It depends what you mean by politeness. If what you mean by politeness is going through the motions, to smooth social interaction, then that’s as real as politeness gets. If what you mean is a sincere desire to be kind to somebody else, then maybe we need to call that something different, like friendliness or kindness or something like that.
HZ: And remember, we've only been talking about two forms of English. Not every language even has a ‘please’, so it's not an innate requirement of linguistic communication.
LM: So it is an unnatural thing to do. Anything that’s social is unnatural in some way; but, for instance, the Scandinavian languages don’t really have ‘please’, so when I’m speaking Swedish I just end up saying ‘thank you’ constantly, because I’m aware I need to be doing something polite - or I feel like I need to be doing something polite. So I just presumptuously stick ‘thank you’s in where other languages would have ‘please’.
HZ: How do they cope?
LM: Oh, they say other things, like “Would you be so kind?” Things like that. Or they just sound bossier. But that’s considered to be honest and straightforward, rather than bossy.
HZ: Whereas, stereotypically, we Brits avoid being honest and straightforward. Everything has to go through at least two rounds of obfuscation. Exchanging words with other humans is an elaborate dance.
LM: It is all about economics, in social interactions you give a bit, you take a bit, you have to give a bit more back.
HZ: Lynne writes a great blog about differences between American and British English, it’s called Separated by a Common Language. I’ll link to it, and her and Rachele’s Twitter accounts, at theallusionist.org/please.
This episode was brought to you by The Great Courses Plus. You strike me as a bunch of people who like learning, so start rummaging in the Great Courses Plus online library of thousands of video lectures in lots of fascinating topics – history, linguistics, music, science, philosophy, and many more. I’ve just started the course How To Play Chess, because somehow I’ve never learned to play chess - but if the ruthlessness with which I play Connect 4 is any indication, I think chess might be my game. I’m not match fit yet, but I’m enjoying learning about the history - and particularly the way the instructor, the American International Master Jeremy Silman, talks about the pieces. ‘The queen is the ultimate long range weapon’. ‘In a very unladylike fashion, she’ll rend the enemy limb from limb.’
You can learn chess along with me, or stream any of the Great Courses Plus lectures, for FREE, for 30 days. Visit thegreatcoursesplus.com/Allusion to get started. I don’t know about you, but to me it feels like a rare treat just to sit down and deliberately learn something again. You can still do it, brain! thegreatcoursesplus.com/Allusion!
The Allusionist is a proud member of Radiotopia from PRX, and it’s an exciting time in our little audio family. There’s the aforementioned live show at the Ace hotel in Los Angeles on 4th May, tickets are going fast so get yours now. And also we’re still taking submissions for Podquest, our search for exciting ideas and voices and hopefully a new member of the collective. If you have a great idea for a podcast, and you want Radiotopia’s financial, emotional and technical support to make it, visit radiotopia.fm/podquest to find out how to enter.
Radiotopia is possible thanks to you generous listeners, the Knight Foundation and Mailchimp. Mailchimp’s randomly selected word from the dictionary today is…
linstock, noun, a long pole used to hold a match to fire a cannon.
Try using it in an email today.
This episode was produced by me, Helen Zaltzman. Big thanks to Rachele De Felice and Lynne Murphy, and to Martin Austwick for the music. Please find me at facebook.com/allusionistshow and twitter.com/allusionistshow, and at theallusionist.org.