Goodbye, “Please” and “Thank You”

April 30th, 2012 by Andrea Bennett

Should we be concerned about disappearing pleasantries?

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

A recent National Public Radio story by columnist Linton Weeks examined the disappearance of some of the first words you were probably taught – “please” and “thank you.” Are we becoming ruder, or are patterns of speech merely updating for changing times?

Lisa Gache, co-founder of the Los Angeles-based Beverly Hills Manners, told Weeks that the erosion of courteous language has to do with “the predilection toward all things casual in our society today” and that casual conversation, dress and behavior have “hijacked” practically every aspect of people’s daily lives.

Other polite phrases are also disappearing, Weeks says. “You’re welcome” has been replaced by “sure,” “no problem,” “you bet” or “enjoy.”

Peter Post, Emily Post’s great-grandson and a director of The Emily Post Institute, takes issue with the demise of “you’re welcome,” too. In a Boston Globe piece, Post says, “’Thank you’ is an expression of appreciation one person offers another. To respond ‘No problem’ is to shrug off this acknowledgment as really being undeserved.” By responding with a simple “you’re welcome,” Post says, a person acknowledges the thanks and shows appreciation for the person giving it.

Whatever polite vocabulary you believe is waning, Augusta, GA, psychiatrist Gregory E. Smith asserts in the NPR story that the fading pleasantries are a sign we’re becoming ruder as a society. “Saying please and thank you, asking permission, offering unsolicited help, and following up on solutions to problems are no longer as important,” he says. A grocery checkout person will now “blandly bag your item, swipe your debit card, hand you your receipt, all while having a conversation on her cellphone. Amazing. Outrageous,” he says. And, Weeks, writes, research backs up his observations. In 2011, 76 percent of people surveyed by Rasmussen Reports said Americans are becoming less civil.

But could it be that it’s simply the words we’re using that are changing? Weeks quotes another Post great-grandchild, Cindy Post Senning, who says, “The principles of respect, consideration and honesty are universal and timeless.” But manners – as well as how they’re articulated – do change. For example, she says, it is important to greet people when you see them, though the form of greeting has morphed over time. “How do you do,” for instance, became “Hello, how are you?” which changed into “Hello, how are things,” or “How’s it going?” As a result of the change in language, she says today it would sound stilted and even disrespectful to say “How do you do?” depending on the tone you might use. As for substituting “no problem” for “you’re welcome,” Senning prefers the latter, but “if the appreciation is expressed in a genuine manner, I do not see its use as a loss of courtesy.” 

Which camp are you in? Are people getting ruder, or is language – not its underlying sentiment – just evolving?