Runcible Blog

"What do you say?" "Peeeeas."

I'm not going to say "please." I don't say the word, and I wouldn't recommend saying it, either. Too often I hear people automatically saying "please"; the thoughtlessness of that habit just becomes grating to hear after a while. I usually hear the word when someone is ordering food: "I'll have a blah-blah sandwich, please. With ketchup, please. Yes, please." Enough of that! The server isn't going to withhold the food if the customer doesn't say please.

Yes, I know that it's supposed to be basic manners and courtesy, but when manners become rote repetition, what meaning do they have? The way I see it, there's no need to add politeness modifiers onto a request. Just be clear about what you want from someone, and then it's the other person's decision whether to go along with your request. If somebody needs a flowery word like "please" to sweeten the deal, well then, screw 'em. First it's "please," then it's money, and then what? It's a slippery slope of relinquishing your free will!

Well, maybe not. The point is not to speak out of habit. Even though I don't say "please," I try to say "thank you" when it's appropriate. You just made me a burrito? Thank you. You sold me a widget? Thank you. But you've really got to mean it when you say it. The truth is, I don't say "thank you" nearly enough as I should. People help me all the time, despite not saying "please," yet I'm not thoughtful enough to appreciate their compassion. Perhaps "thank you" isn't necessary, as long as I somehow appreciate someone's compassion. The trick, I suppose, is being thankful without letting "thank you" lose meaning.

The funny thing is that even though I don't say "please" in normal conversation, I try to say it in Japanese during Judo practice. Apparently, there's a tradition of saying "お願いします。" (onegaishimasu) before sparring with somebody of a higher rank. onegaishimasu is roughly, "please," but it's more complicated because it's used in different contexts, and it's more formal. In Judo, it means something like "please teach me" or "I hope our time together goes well." It makes sense that a lower-ranked judoka might have to make a polite request to a black belt in order to train with him (at least in Japan's class-conscious culture). Although I basically never hear it at the dojo, there's a particular black belt who said it to me before sparring, and after I looked up the meaning, I started saying it. It seems like a really great thing to say: onegaishimasu and bow, then let's beat each other up! It means, "I pray to you" to teach me, by throwing me on the ground. And since I don't know Japanese, it's hard to say onegai shimasu flippantly. I've got to think about it before saying it. If I say it, I've got to mean it. "I beg you to teach me!" — yes, even the lowly beginner who doesn't know anything. "Please teach me!"

I'm sure that if I lived in Japan I would get used to saying all sorts of wacky things depending on what kind of person I was speaking to, and frankly, I'm glad that we don't take politeness to the extreme that other countries do. But our weakness is that we invented a simple word to express a huge range of emotions, from "ketchup, please" to "please stop stabbing me!". The word's simplicity, and our training in politeness, make us less authentic. Politeness becomes a cheap façade, while we forget to be genuinely appreciative. I say, forget about "please."