Practical Communication

Is Please Still the “Magic Word?”

Please—a simple word that shouldn’t require a reminder. Our mothers demanded it when we were children. “What’s the magic word?” “What do we say when we want someone to pass the broccoli?” “No thanks,” perhaps. As we get older, move out on our own, and no longer rely on our mothers to keep us in line, many of us stop using the word “please” and rather imply it.

–From “Practical Communication: 25 Tips, Tools, and Techniques for Getting Along and Getting Things Done”


For some reason, as we grow older, many of us forget to use the common courtesies that were amongst the first words we were taught as children. One of the first to go seems to be “please.” For some reason, we just stop saying it. This isn’t to say we make a conscious decision to stop being polite, but we stop using the word and start  implying it instead—with a pleasant facial expression, or a slight raise in pitch. For the most part, we get away with it because others don’t demand it.

However, if the facial expression or tone is lacking, or the communication is written (whether electronic or on good, old-fashioned paper) what we intend as a request could come across as a rather rude demand.

While in line yesterday at a location that will remain nameless, the clerk behind the counter apparently wanted those of us in line to move three feet to our left, in order to align ourselves with the sign above his head. Why it mattered, I don’t know, but moving a few feet wasn’t really a problem. What people took offense to was the way we were “asked.”

“Everyone needs to move over to the other side of that pillar.”

A simple request, but one than resulted in a bit of a backlash from my patient friends in line. “Why?” “What difference does it make?” Could be heard muttered from the group. Those not ready to verbally rebel, did so nonverbally by not moving.

A simple please (along with a more pleasant tone and a smile) would have greatly improved the request, and I believe, the compliance.

The missing “please” is even more common, and troubling, in written form. When we put a request in writing without saying “please,” what is intended as a request,  “Can you send me the weekly report?”, is often interpreted by the recipient as a demand, “CAN YOU SEND ME THE REPORT!”


Because when we receive written communication, we’re only getting part of the sender’s message. Unsatisfied with such a small bit of communication, we “fill in” the missing 93 percent by imagining the tone and/or facial expression of the sender.

If we like the person and believe them to have good intentions, we hear the kind voice and smiling face of a friend. If we don’t like the person or think their motives are negative, we hear the demanding voice and see the scowling face of a bullying dictator.

Which would you rather be?

We should all try to take every opportunity to say “please” in person and in writing.

If you need to, set a goal for saying “please” at least five times each day. By the end of a week, you’ll be well on your way to turning politeness into a renewed habit.

Your friends, coworkers, employees, and customers will appreciate it.

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