New Study: This Polite Phrase May Soon Be a Thing of the Past

Updated: Jun. 12, 2024

It turns out that saying "please" isn't as common—or polite—as you think. Here's what the experts say.

“Say the magic word!” As children, we’re taught that the polite thing to do is always to say “please.” In fact, it’s one of the top etiquette rules we learn growing up. Today’s babies are even taught it using sign language. But how often do you really say “please” in everyday conversation? Whatever your guess, it’s likely too high—way too high.

New research published in Social Psychology Quarterly found that people use the word “please” when making a request a dismal 7% of the time. Yes, you read that right. Even more interesting: These findings were about the same across age, gender and social status.

“We definitely were surprised by the results—everyone was,” says Tanya Stivers, PhD, a professor of sociology at UCLA and one of the authors of the 2024 study. “Having such a low number feels counterintuitive.” So what’s the deal with the magic word? Are we all making massive etiquette mistakes? We talked to Stivers about her research on politeness to find out.

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About the expert

  • Tanya Stivers, PhD, is a professor of sociology at UCLA. She has been studying how people use language for more than 20 years and has authored more than 50 books and papers on the subject, including this study. She is a sought-after speaker and lecturer, teaching people around the world how to communicate better.

Saying “please” is rare

Using conversation analysis, the study investigated when and where people use “please” in everyday requests. Not only do people use “please” less than 10% of the time when making requests, but they also tend to use it most when they expect a “no” response is forthcoming.

One of the more interesting things about this phenomenon, Stivers says, is that research has found that requests phrased with “please” are no more likely to work than other polite requests—and sometimes they even backfire. Why? Because the word “please” is being used as a way to convince or coerce the other person into agreeing with a request they might not otherwise be inclined to do—to “override their unwillingness.” This small talk etiquette mistake can leave the person being asked feeling a little icky.

Is saying “please” actually rude?

It doesn’t have to be, but the study found that more often than not, this polite habit is being used in pushy situations. “We found that using ‘please’ often indicates that you’re requesting something you kinda shouldn’t be,” Stivers says. “People tend to use ‘please’ when they know there might be a problem with their request.”

So when are people most likely to use “please” in request-making situations? Here’s what the study found:

  • When asking someone to stop doing what they’re doing and do what the asker wants instead (such as interrupting a colleague at work to ask for help with your project).
  • When making a request they think the other person isn’t going to like or will push back against (such as your child asking for more candy after you’ve already said no).

Is this a result of societal changes?

Before you clutch your pearls and wonder about the state of society these days, Stivers says that research shows similarly low numbers of using “please” going all the way back to the ’70s.

And if your first reaction to hearing this was, OK, so other people might not say “please,” but I say it all the time, it turns out that people have pretty terrible memories of what exactly they’ve said, Stivers says. Chances are, you likely follow the same standard as everyone else. But that’s not a bad thing.

“What people are really trying to say by insisting that they say ‘please’ often is that they are polite people,” she says. “And you probably are. Just because you’re not saying ‘please,’ it doesn’t mean you’re not being polite. There are so many other phrases we use when making requests that show politeness.”

This includes things like, “Would you mind …?” “Would it be OK …?” and “How about …?”

Should children still learn “please”?

“I think it’s so interesting that we socialize children to do this thing that we as adults don’t do and will socialize out of them as they get older,” Stivers says. (For reference, about 12% of requests made by children used the word “please.”)

But teaching kids to say please isn’t bad—teaching children polite manners is always a win. Just make sure you’re including other polite phrases as well.

And this should go without saying, but you should never tell another adult to say “please.” I run into this often with a family member who insists I use the word “please” when I ask for something, even if I already phrased it in a polite way. Instead of making me more compliant, it makes me want to punch them. (Don’t worry, I don’t. That intrusive thought stays in my head.)

“When you correct another adult, telling them to ‘say please,’ you’re treating them like a child, and it comes across as patronizing,” Stivers says.

Can saying “please” still be polite?

This Polite Phrase May Soon Be A Thing Of The Past Requests That Dont Use Please Gettyimages, Getty Images

Technically, yes, as long as you don’t overuse it. Be aware that sometimes using “please” can come across as pushy or intrusive. “There are so many nice ways to ask for something that don’t have those other connotations,” Stivers says. “If someone is trying to be more polite, I would recommend adding other polite phrases first, before adding in more ‘pleases.'”

Examples of polite requests that don’t use “please”:

  • Would you mind helping me with the dishes?
  • I’d love it if you could drive me to the airport. Would you be available?
  • How about we finish this project, then grab lunch together to celebrate?
  • I’d be so grateful if you could help me with the groceries.
  • Mind giving me a quick hand with this?

Bottom line: Not saying “please” doesn’t mean that you’re being impolite. And saying “please” doesn’t ensure that you are being polite. The most important part of having good etiquette is treating the other person with kindness and respect, both in word and deed.

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