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29 October 2014
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What makes you sound polite?
I really overuse the word 'sorry', mostly instead of a 'pardon' (which I can't stand - it sounds so affected). Women definitely use it more than men - often without good reason! Hana
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Page 2 of 3
Being polite
Saying sorry

by Philippa Law

What's the magic word?

Please is a very special word. It gets you a second helping of pudding, lets you stay up past your bedtime and, if you're lucky, charms aunties into supplementing your pocket money.Or at least, that's what your parents would have you believe. The truth is somewhat more complicated - although 'please' can make you appear beautifully polite, there are also times when saying please sounds impatient, demanding or rude.In requests, 'please' only occurs when the speaker can reasonably expect the other person to agree. If the request is really small ("Can you pass the scissors, please?") or if the other person is socially obliged to do what you tell them ("Class 2A, please stop fidgeting!") then you're likely to use 'please'.On occasions when you can't assume the other person will do what you say, perhaps if you're talking to a superior, or you're asking for a really big favour, you're likely to find a softened, indirect way of making a request, but without using the word 'please'. "I'm sorry to be such a pain, but might you have a moment to look through this document?"There are two ways of looking at this difference. Since 'please' is only used in requests when the imposition is very slight, maybe it's just a token acknowledgement of your gratitude - after all, you don't need to work hard on being polite to get someone to pass you the scissors.Another viewpoint is that because you only say 'please' when you're expecting the other person to comply, saying 'please' makes it more like a command than a request. It means you're expecting the other person to comply, when, socially, they may not be required to at all. So, in many situations, to say "Could you lend me a fiver please," would be much less polite than saying "Could you lend me a fiver?"Anne Wichmann at the University of Central Lancashire points out that a speaker's intonation is important in telling you how far they're willing to negotiate: "Please can be seen as a courteous acknowledgement of a debt of some kind within a licensed range of rights and obligations. Its prosodic realisation in speech can both reinforce and limit the degree of obligation being expressed."So it's not as easy as always saying 'please'...

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