The word ‘please’ is falling on hard times

Saying please is used only seven percent of the time - Newsreel
New research shows that 'please' is not the magic word we were led to believe. | Photo: iStock

The word “please”, which children are taught is the key to politeness and respectful requests, has fallen on hard times.

People are now using it infrequently and generally when they are trying to influence the likelihood of rejection.

New research from UCLA found that out of more than a thousand “request attempts” please was used only 69 times, or seven percent.

In cases where it was used, it was mostly linked to “perceived subordination, need for deference, difference in gender or the relative size of a request”.

“In about half of the instances when someone asked for something with ‘please’, it was because the person they were addressing had already indicated they were unwilling to act as requested or had previously refused,” the study report said.

“For example, a woman used ‘please’ when asking her spouse to sit down at the dinner table after repeated requests went ignored.

“In another third of cases, the person was engaged in an activity incompatible with what was being asked (like being in the middle of something else). For example, a man used ‘please’ when asking his spouse to make soup stock, knowing she was busy washing baby bottles.”

The study, published in Social Psychology Quarterly, said please was not the “magic word” that children might have been led to believe or an “all-purpose marker of politeness”.

Andrew Chalfoun, a graduate sociology student and lead author of the study, said saying please could be harmful in some situations.

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

“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. It may also not be very effective.”

For the study, Chalfoun and UCLA sociologists Giovanni Rossi and Tanya Stivers used 17 hours of video footage of family members, friends and coworkers in informal, naturally occurring conversations.

The conversations took place during everyday activities across a range of settings such as meals, board games, haircuts and food preparation.

The researchers found children said please as often as adults, and in similar situations.

More details are on the UCLA website.