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Meg's school in Cambridge

During our Year of Living Englishly, my eight-year-old daughter Meg and I were caught (yet again) in one of the many cultural differences between how things are done in US and the UK.

We were being shown around an independent (read: private) school in Cambridge by an absolutely lovely admissions director (called the “Registrar”), one of the very nicest people we met during our year in England.

The sports field

The sports field and the 125-year-old beech tree.

Meg had passed the entrance exam and been accepted, so all we had to do was take a tour of the school, the classrooms, and the sports field that was used for cricket, rounders, and football–and meet her new teachers.

“This is the new girl, Meg,” the Registrar said as she introduced my daughter to one of her teachers-to-be.

She said a few more things, then: “Meg is American.  She will say ‘thank you,’ but don’t expect her to say ‘please.'”

Meg in her "school kit."

Meg in her “school kit.”

WHAT???  Don’t expect my daughter to say “please” because she’s American???  Please!

I DRILLED “please” into my three children!  The director of their Boston preschool told me that my kids were the politest children she’d ever had in her school. (You could have knocked me over with a feather on that one because they certainly weren’t like that at home!)

I was raised by English parents, partly in America  and partly in England, and the word “please” was never far from my lips.  I have, true story, heard my mother actually use the word “please” three times in one sentence when asking a waiter in England, “Please could I please have the salmon, if you would please be so kind.”  She will deny it, but it’s true.

But my daughter Meg not saying “please”???  Wow.

But nine months later we returned to the US, and OMG!  The Registrar was right! Not about Meg per se, but definitely about American culture.

Everywhere I went I heard, “I’ll have the steak,” “I’ll take the salad,” and even, “Give me the lasagna.” Never a “please,” although often, when the item came, a “thank you” ensued.

So, are Americans just rude, or is there more to it?  Clearly, I needed to investigate.

Lynne Murray, an American linguist who works as a Reader at the University of Sussex in England, has an interesting “take” on this subject, and even did a TEDx talk on it.  She says,

“American interactions are generally aimed at creating/maintaining a sense of equality among the participants. My reading of what we’re doing when we don’t say please is that we don’t really want to point out that we are making requests in these situations–to do so would be to acknowledge that the customer is in a more ‘powerful’ or ‘statusful’ position than the waiter.”

She goes on to say,

“Ben Trawick-Smith discussed this on his Dialect Blog:  while ‘thank you‘ is still important to civilized discourse, I find that ‘please‘ has almost the opposite effect in American English. It can make a question sound urgent, blunt, and even downright rude.” 

What do you think?  Is it rude to say “please,” or is it rude not to say “please”?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this cultural divide.  Please respond. Respond.  Please.  Or not. Thank you!

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