Please is not the magic word

LOS ANGELES — By the time most kids start school, they already know that “please” is a magic word. Just by uttering that one polite word, many believe you can get whatever you ask for – poof, like magic! However, new research reveals that “please” isn’t quite the all-powerful word kids have been led to believe. UCLA sociologists say that people actually say “please” much less frequently than you might expect. When they do use it, they’re deploying the “power of please” with a very specific social strategy.

The study, published in the journal Social Psychology Quarterly, found that people mainly say “please” when they think someone will likely refuse their request. It’s a little linguistic trick to try sweetening the deal. Simply put, in modern society, people break out “please” when they expect a “no.”

“Any generic rule – like saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ – doesn’t take into account the specific situation, and may not always indicate respect or politeness,” says Andrew Chalfoun, a UCLA graduate student who led the study, in a media release. “It may also not be very effective.”

To investigate when and why people decide to use “please,” the researchers analyzed 17 hours of recorded video showing casual, everyday interactions between families, friends, and co-workers. Out of over a thousand requests observed in the videos, people only said “please” 69 times – just seven percent of the time.

So what happened? Did people just forget their manners the other 93 percent of the time? It turns out that most of the time, people used “please” when they thought they would have to overcome an obstacle to get what they wanted.

woman begging saying please
When people do use the word, they’re deploying the “power of please” with a very specific social strategy. (Photo by mahbubhasan2550 from Pixabay)

In about half of those “please” cases, it was because the person already refused a similar request in the past. For example, a woman broke out the “please” when asking her husband to sit down for dinner, after he ignored her previous dinner calls.

For a third of the “pleases,” the person was already busy doing something else incompatible with the request. For example, a man said “please” when asking his wife to make soup stock, knowing she was busy washing baby bottles at the time.

“In the wrong context, saying ‘please’ may run the risk of sounding pushy or dubious about another’s willingness to help,” Chalfoun explains.

If you think this is something that adults learn to do long after their first lessons with “please” and “thank you” as kids — think again! The researchers were surprised to find that children were just as strategic with “please” as adults. A teenager in the study hit her mom with a “please” when asking for a dress because her mom had shot down a similar request before. Her mom’s response? “We’ve been through this before.”

While “please” may not be the surefire universal politeness hack parents teach kids, the study revealed it can definitely help defeat another “no” from family and friends.

So, should we stop teaching kids to say “please” as a universal rule of politeness? Not necessarily, according to Chalfoun. However, there’s more nuance to it than a one-size-fits-all magic word.

“Every community has explicit norms that define what counts as polite or respectful conduct, for example as taught to children or someone new to the community,” the researcher concludes. “We’re interested in understanding whether those norms are in fact followed in everyday life or there are other, more tacit norms that better explain people’s conduct.”

The study authors hope their study provides a more accurate understanding of how politeness actually plays out in the real world, beyond just simplistic rules. While “please” may not have magical powers, using it strategically with loved ones certainly can’t hurt in getting what you want.

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