Please And Thank You.

This post is inspired by an exchange of comments between two of my regular readers Cheerful Monk and Ursula on my post on Care Giving.

“CM : I have to admit, I would be working on teaching him to say “please” and “thank you”. Just for starters. I’ve always been interested in behavior modification so it would be interesting to try.

Ur : Jean, teaching someone saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ amounts to nothing if the person saying it doesn’t mean it from the heart. Manners are not the same as sincerity.”

And Ursula, you know my propensity to quote, which bugs you, has once again come to be my Muse. Don’t get bugged, just read this extract from this very interesting book “Debt: The First 5000 Years.” by David Graeber.

“Saying “please” and “thank you” is not a universal custom –
there are societies such, as the Inuit, where it is not the case. In fact it first
took hold in Western society during the commercial revolution of the sixteenth and
seventeenth centuries as evidence of the democratization of society – our desire
to view everyone as equals. Before that, saying please and thank you was a way
to show deference to a lord or master. “Thank you” derives from “think,” it originally
meant, “I will remember what you did for me” – and “please” is short for “if you
please,” “if it pleases you to do this”:

“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 as the Inuit hunter made clear, 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.

“Perhaps this is not so in every case. Imagine we are on a crowded bus, looking
for a seat. A fellow passenger moves her bag aside to clear one; we smile, or nod,
or make some other little gesture of acknowl–edgment. Or perhaps we actually say
‘Thank you.’ Such a gesture is simply a recognition of common humanity, we are
acknowledging that the woman who had been blocking the seat is not a mere physical
obstacle but a human being, and that we feel genuine gratitude toward someone we
will likely never see again. None of this is generally true when one asks someone
across the table to ‘please pass the salt,’ or when the postman thanks you for signing
for a delivery. We think of these simultaneously as meaningless formalities and
as the very moral basis of society. Their apparent unimportance can be measured
by the fact that almost no one would refuse, on principle, to say ‘please’ or ‘thank
you’ in just about any situation – even those who might find it almost impossible
to say ‘I’m sorry’ or ‘I apologize.’

“In fact, the English ‘please’ is short for ‘if you please,’ ‘if it pleases you
to do this’ – it is the same in most European languages (French si il vous plait,
Spanish por favor). Its literal meaning is ‘you are under no obligation to do this.’
‘Hand me the salt. Not that I am saying that you have to!’ This is not true; there
is a social obligation, and it would be almost impossible not to comply. But etiquette
largely consists of the exchange of polite fictions (to use less polite language,
lies). When you ask someone to pass the salt, you are also giving them an order;
by attaching the word ‘please,’ you are saying that it is not an order. But, in
fact, it is.

“In English, ‘thank you’ derives from ‘think,’ it originally meant, ‘I will remember
what you did for me’ – which is usually not true either – but in other languages
(the Portuguese obrigado is a good example) the standard term follows the form
of the English ‘much obliged’ – it actually does means ‘I am in your debt.’ The
French merci is even more graphic: it derives from ‘mercy,’ as in begging for mercy;
by saying it you are symbolically placing yourself in your bene–factor’s power –
since a debtor is, after all, a criminal. Saying ‘you’re welcome,’ or ‘it’s nothing’
(French de rien, Spanish de nada) – the latter has at least the advantage of often
being literally true – is a way of reassuring the one to whom one has passed the
salt that you are not actually inscribing a debit in your imaginary moral account
book. So is saying ‘my pleasure’ – you are saying, ‘No, actually, it’s a credit,
not a debit – you did me a favor because in asking me to pass the salt, you gave
me the opportunity to do something I found rewarding in itself!’ …

“All of this is a relatively recent innovation. The habit of always saying ‘please’
and ‘thank you’ first began to take hold during the commercial revolution of the
sixteenth and seventeenth centuries – among those very middle classes who were
largely responsible for it. 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.”
– (emphasis mine)

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