Peter K. sends linguist Lynne Murphy’s post about the difference between the way Americans use the etiquette word “please,” and the way the British do. Murphy, an American living and working in the UK, says that the British often complain that Americans simply will not say “please” when making a request. She writes:

 Of course, it’s not true that every British person always says please when they order food, but I definitely hear more pleases here. (On my visit to the US in July, I continued to add pleases after my brothers’ restaurant orders, mostly in whispers to myself, just because it was driving me crazy.)

So, how can it be that Americans think of themselves as  polite when they fail to extend this common courtesy word?

Part of the story is touched upon in my TEDx talk. 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. So instead of thinking of it as telling waiters what to do (here I’m quoting myself from Emphasis Writing’s e-bulletin):

Americans regard ordering as providing the waiter with the information he needs to do his job.On the other hand,

The British say please when ordering food in restaurants because they view the action as a personal request to the waiter.

This is interesting to me. I wonder what implications this has for the difference between the etiquette we from the US South practice, versus that from people in other parts of the country. As a general matter, we are far more etiquette-conscious in the South. Since I’ve been back in south Louisiana, I am routinely amazed, and gratified, by how courteous people are, especially in service situations. Lots of “yes sir,” “no ma’am,” “thank you, sir,” and so forth. Not every single person is like this, but the level of courtesy is dramatically higher than what I’d gotten used to while away.

In fact, it’s so different here that it’s not hard to imagine newcomers from other regions of the US thinking it’s some kind of put-on (it’s not; it’s really, really not). More commonly, I’ve had Northerners tell me that it unnerves them for reasons that are essentially egalitarian. They can’t stand people saying “sir” and “ma’am.” A professor I know somewhat at a Northeastern university asked me how he should handle the fact that a black Southern student in his class insisted on calling him “sir.” I told him, if memory serves, that I failed to see what the problem is — that he should just let the kid be polite. The kid doesn’t mean to insult you; in fact, for him to do otherwise would be insulting (that is, he would feel as if he were being grossly disrespectful to his professor, whom he has been raised to see as a social superior by reason of his rank; to address him as “sir” is a sign of respect for his position).

I suspect the Northerner could not deal with the anti-egalitarian elements in the young man’s behavior. That, and the fact that this student was black and the professor was white made it even more emotionally difficult for the professor.

This is really an emotional issue for a lot of people, none of whom intend harm. I can’t tell you how unnerving it is to me to hear children refer to adults by their first name. It happened all the time when I lived up North, and of course I had no right to expect children raised in a culture in which this is the norm to conform to Southern standards. Still, it was hard for me to take, because the thought that society ought to be run according to an egalitarian sensibility that levelled distinctions between the old and the young was repulsive to someone raised as I was.