Scientists find saying ‘please’ is more strategic than polite

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By kindergarten, most children learn that saying “please” is the polite way to ask for something.

This magic word is thought to show courtesy and respect, turning demands into polite requests.

However, a new study from UCLA suggests that “please” is not always used as a general marker of politeness.

Instead, it is a strategic tool used in specific situations to manage potential conflicts or obstacles.

The study, published in Social Psychology Quarterly, was conducted by sociologists from UCLA.

It reveals that people use “please” much less often than expected and mostly when they anticipate a “no” response.

Whether it’s asking to pass the butter or for a ride to the airport, people say “please” when they think the other person might be unwilling to help, either because they have already shown resistance or are busy with something else.

The findings suggest that instead of teaching children a one-size-fits-all rule about politeness, it might be more effective to teach them to be sensitive to specific situations.

“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,” said Andrew Chalfoun, a UCLA graduate student and lead author of the study. “It may also not be very effective.”

In some situations, saying “please” could even be counterproductive. “In the wrong context, saying ‘please’ may sound pushy or uncertain about the other’s willingness to help,” Chalfoun added.

For their study, Chalfoun and fellow UCLA sociologists Giovanni Rossi and Tanya Stivers analyzed 17 hours of video-recorded conversations among family members, friends, and coworkers. These recordings captured naturally occurring, informal interactions in various settings, such as homes, workplaces, and outdoor areas. The participants were diverse in terms of race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic backgrounds, and they spoke British and American English. The study did not include business transactions or written and phone requests.

From more than a thousand requests observed, “please” was used only 69 times, or 7% of the time. It was mostly used when there was an expected obstacle, not due to perceived subordination, need for deference, difference in gender, or the relative size of the request.

In about half of the instances, “please” was used because the person being asked had already shown they were unwilling or had previously refused the request. For example, a woman used “please” when asking her spouse to sit at the dinner table after repeated requests were ignored. In another third of the cases, the person being asked was busy with another task. For instance, a man said “please” when asking his spouse to make soup stock, knowing she was busy washing baby bottles.

Interestingly, children use “please” as often as adults and in similar situations. In one observed video, a teenager used “please” to ask her mother to buy a dress, expecting a refusal because a similar request had been rejected before.

“Every community has norms that define what counts as polite conduct,” Chalfoun explained. “We’re interested in understanding whether those norms are followed in everyday life or if there are other, more subtle norms at play.”

By studying real-life interactions, the researchers hope to provide better models for understanding the dynamics of social behavior.