Friday, January 21, 2011

The Most Confusing Word in the English Language

It's an important word. It's. The. Magic. Word. It's Please. And it's confusing because of all of the rules surrounding it. I was trying to imagine how I would explain "please" to a child, if I were trying to explain the intricacies all at once.

Here are the Rules of Please I came up with, as I would tell a child:
  1. It's a word you absolutely must say if you are asking for something, if there is any chance of your request being granted.
  2. It's not enough to say please. You have to say it nicely.
  3. It's not enough to say it nicely, sometimes you just can't have what you are asking for anyway. Read: an adult is not required to grant a request, even if accompanied by a please.
  4. If you don't remember to say it when you first request something, an adult will almost certainly remind you to say please, usually in the form of a quiz. It won't necessarily be the adult to whom you have made the request. It can be any adult within earshot.
  5. "Please" is always the correct answer to the following questions: What do you say? What's the magic word? How do you ask?
  6. Adults do not have to say please to you when they ask you for things.
  7. If if an adult does not say please to you and you remind him, in the form of a quiz or otherwise, you will probably be scolded.
  8. When an adult does say please to you, it means you have to do what they are asking.
  9. Adults do not have to say please to each other when they ask for things.
  10. As soon as you learn to speak (or maybe even before that), you will be expected to remember these rules and properly apply them in every situation.
So basically, if you are a child asking an adult for something, saying please is a necessary but not sufficient condition for getting what you want. If you are an adult asking a child for something, then saying please is sufficient but not necessary. If you are an adult asking another adult, it is neither necessary nor sufficient. AND even though for the first two years of your life, it was enough just to scream, cry, or call out in order to get something you needed, now that you have spoken your first word (and it wasn't "please"), you have to remember this social convention every time you need something.

Wow, it is even more confusing now that I just spelled it all out. Rules 1-9 are confusing enough, but I'm the most confused by rule #10. I don't know why we insist on children saying please as soon as they start talking. This would be analogous to us expecting kids to hold the door open for people behind them, as soon as they started walking. But we don't expect that. We understand that young children don't have the  level of awareness it takes to remember to hold doors open for others. And instead of appreciating that we no longer have to distinguish between various forms of "WAAAAH!" to figure out what our child is asking for, we remind them that even though they are telling us exactly what they need, they aren't doing it right. Well I'm not doing it anymore. So even if it comes out "MOM I WANT SOME SPICY CHIPS!" or even just "SPICY CHIPS!" I can quietly be grateful that I know exactly what my child is asking for, instead of being upset that there was no please attached.

I don't really understand what the big deal is about please anyway. Some ways it is used actually make a request sound snottier. Some adults I know never say please, some say it excessively. I am friends with both  kinds of people, and it doesn't make much of a difference to me. If you think please is such a great word, try using it more and expecting it less. Maybe our children will grow up to be a people who say always say please, and maybe not.

So the next time a child asks you for something, please give this a try: just happily grant the request, and see how nice it feels. Try to remember how confusing it is for a child to properly use social conventions. Try to remember how you felt as a kid, or even think about how you would feel as an adult if you asked a friend for something and she held it back until you said the "magic word". And another thing, please stop calling it the magic word. There is nothing magical about it and calling it that makes "magic" the second most confusing word in the English language.


  1. I am struggling with explaining "bad words" to my boys. They don't understand why they are "bad". Neither do I. They are just words.
    I try to tell them that it upsets some people to hear some words, so we should not use them in front of other people. I feel silly saying that. I let them say them whenever they want. I don't freak out. It takes the strength out of the word.

  2. I can probably be categorized as an excessive "please" user. I don't ask for the magic word any more because the answer usually ends up being, "Miska, Mouska, Mickey Mouse!" Ha.

  3. @Melissa: I'm pretty sure Louise would answer "Bippity Boppity Boo" a la Cinderella's fairy godmother.

  4. And yet, there is something about adding the word "please" to a request that indicates an extra moment of thought about how my request affects the person from whom I'm requesting something.

    Sometimes it is a silent "please" - for example, "May I have a tangerine?" seems to already have the "please" in it, while "I want a tangerine!" (especially with the exclamation) does not.

    The "please" is the consciousness that there may not be enough tangerines, or they may be reserved for our picnic later today, or there may be some reason why I can't just grab it or insist on it. It's a consciousness that many of the things I do affect others, and I want harmony between us.

    It seems to me that adults are constantly harping on the word because it is a blunt, simplistic way to teach children that we all need to take a moment to become aware of the needs of others.

    When those same adults don't say please themselves, or give orders to children (with or without the "please"), they are hypocrites.

  5. @Erica, I totally agree that "please" can be a nice thing to say. I think when anyone says please without expectations of definitely getting a request granted, then it is perfectly acceptable.

    It's the insistence on please, the harping on it, and the misuse of it (to mean: "do it or else"). that all take away the niceness of it for me. I don't like it when adults make children feel bad for not remembering to say please.

    I can show awareness of my child's needs by getting them what they need, whether or not they say please. And by accepting "no" for an answer when I ask them to "please" do something. I am hoping that my kids will learn that it feels good when someone says please nicely to them, and that might make them feel like saying it to other people, whenever they are ready to understand that concept.

    Thanks for the comment! I welcome further discussion.:)

  6. I love this post, but most especially because of your example of a child asking for "SPICY CHIPS!" My youngest is in love with Red Hot Blues chips and often asks for them -- he calls them "spicy chips" -- and he often requests them exactly the way you wrote. :)

    I've definitely struggled with my preconceived ideas about being "polite", so I appreciate reading your thoughts on this. I don't require a "please" anymore, but sometimes if I feel like the request sounds especially loud or demanding, I'll say, "I like being spoken to in a kind way." In other words, I put it on myself -- that it's *my* preference for when I'm asked for things to be asked nicely.

  7. @Anonymous, That is so funny. My kids LOVE spicy chips too. My son (who just turned 2) calls them "picy." We eat them every day.

    Politeness is a big issue for me because I think it is a symptom of a larger issue where the needs of children are not as important as those of adults, and that expectations on the abilities of children are way too high.

    Thanks for reading!

  8. This was a great post!

    Saying please can be akin to begging. I want my kids to feel empowered to ask for what they need or tell people in their life their needs and I don't want them to get the message that they should beg. If my child says to me "I want some spicy chips" that doesn't automatically mean my child is ordering me to deliver. If I then require them to say please, I am essentially making them beg to get spicy chips. Maybe they were just verbally expressing that they suddenly had a need for spicy chips. If my child says "Mom, get me spicy chips!" I can have a conversation with them about how that makes me feel. Requiring them to simply "say the magic word" teaches nothing about mutual respect.

  9. @Sarah, That is a great way to put it. It is like making your kids beg to require a please. It doesn't teach politeness, in my opinion, it teaches manipulation. There is no magic needed for my kids. I like to help them get what they want/need. :)

  10. I used to be a waitress, and I remember a family who often used to come in. The kids were all well behaved (meaning they stayed in the chairs, not running around the restaurant - which is super dangerous, and not screaming or anything - you know, behaving like anyone else in the restaurant). Anyhow, one of them asked me for an orange juice (I think he said "I'll have an orange juice, please") and when I brought it over, the mom pipes in and says "Say thank you!" so when the kid did she says: "Look people in the eye when you're speaking to them" and made him thank me again, looking into my eyes. It was a really strange situation and I felt like telling her to lay off. I mean, the kid was more polite than most adults I serve!

  11. @JenBetweenDots, I find it so awkward when parents do that. I just want to stop them and tell them IT'S OK, and that they are humiliating their child. The expectations are way too high.

  12. I agree with Sarah. I've recently found myself almost disgusted with the word please. Why should my children have to "plead" for something they need (a drink)or pass a quiz while an adult can just say "Go get me some milk." to the same children they just admonished?

    To be fair I have "told" my kids to do things and even then I'll get back a "I don't feel like doing that now." It's hard for me to accept but I do (usually, esp. if I'm just being lazy). Sometimes I say "I need this done now, please." but generally it's more of a "could you?" statement.

    Sometimes they say please, sometimes they don't. As long as they aren't outright rude about it (exception for the 2 year old) and even when they are I just let them know they could be nicer about it.

  13. @this person, Thanks for chiming in. I love to hear other people feel the same way!

  14. You nailed it. I have never asked my children to say please. My two year old says it all the time but not all the times that people would "want" him to. It's organic because he hears me say it, he says it. Modeling is the best way. I understand how abrasive "I want water" sounds but "can you say please" sounds worse!

    With my five year old I say, "It seems like you want water. What would be a great way to get some?"

    "Well i could get some myself or ask nicely."

    The more kids do for themselves the more capable they become and the less they have to ask for things "properly" from parents.

  15. @Jennifer, Thank you! I agree, and I think "How do you ask?" is even worse too. I can't imagine anyone ever saying that to an adult. I trust they will figure out that it feels better when people ask them nicely for things, and they will do it too. And actually, they are already asking very nicely for things most of the time, at ages 2 and 4. It's only when they are tired or hungry or already upset that they forget, and those are hardly the best times to try teaching lessons about politeness. I just take care of their needs and then they are fine.

  16. Number 6. I am not asking for my child to do something, I am telling him. Asking implies a choice. Do not touch the hot stove. Please don't touch the hot stove. Should we really give our kids a choice in all things?

  17. @Anonymous, I certainly did not imply that we should "give children a choice in all things." I would explain to my child why he wouldn't want to touch the hot stove. I wouldn't ask him "please don't do that" because it's not something he's doing as a favor to me. That's about his safety. With #6, I was more talking about when adults ask kids for favors. Thanks for the comment.

  18. Hm, this gives me something to think about

    While I will ask my daughter to phrase things nicely and say please, I try to do the same to her. I ask her to say please and I ask nicely for most things (however I'm not going to say "Please get out of the road there's a car coming," there's a time for being polite but when it's a safety matter manners are less important than staying alive)

    It all comes down to respect. I treat my child with respect (most the time... everyone has their temper moments) and usually she treats me and others around us with respect as well.

    I've noticed, however, that her dad does not treat her as respectfully and she in turn is more likely to be rude or mean back to him. Recently it has been by telling him to go away, she doesn't like him. Makes me a bit sad to see.

  19. @Cindy, Glad it's making you think. I think we can inspire our children to treat us respectfully without demanding it.

  20. Okay, this is so right. I feel a little guilty. Last night me and my younger cousin were at a resteraunt. She told me to get her a spoon. I told her to say please. She did and I got it for her. When I came back, she said thank you without me telling her. And I have to admit, when I force someone to say something nice to me, it makes me feel pretty bad. But in the case of my cousin saying something nice without me asking made me feel good. I've realized that it's worth that good feeling to let your kid learn to say nice things on your own. It makes you feel better than if you forced them.

  21. As children my sister and I were never taught "manners" the conventional way. Our mother never made us say "please" or "thank you." We observed people "being polite" and realized this was what was expected of us. And yet to my two year old, I've fallen into the same pattern of asking "What do you say?" I guess I feel that if I don't teach him manners he might not learn then, but I need to give him more credit. Thank you for a great article! Definitely has made me rethink how I do things.