The English Pedant – Why is it so hard to say thank you?

Something most of us are taught as children is to say please and thank you. It’s a matter on which there can be no discussion, certainly  in the UK, and those of us brought up with it find it hard to understand why others don’t do it.

Even Americans, most of whom would consider themselves polite, will say to a bartender, “Gimme a Scotch,” while we wouldn’t dream of it. We’re the customer, so we’re in charge and if we want a Scotch, the guy would have to have a very good reason not to give it to us. And yet we will dress the request up with ingratiating words. “Could I have  Scotch please,” or “I’d like a Scotch, please.” Say “Gimme” in that way to a British bartender and you’re asking for trouble.

We can’t even say “I want,” because that is supposed to be rude. We have to say “I’d like”. In the UK there is a saying: I want doesn’t get. It’s hard to explain this to speakers of another language, for whom saying “I want…” is a simple statement of fact.

Some language students are grateful for this advice, while others are slightly offended that you should think so badly of them. But it has to be done.

It is even harder to convince them that when they decline an offer, they have to thank the offerer for thinking of it. Thus when someone asks, “Would you like a cup of tea?” they should say “No thank you.” To just say no is plain rude in our book, but not in theirs, and some will go along with it for a while, but stop doing it at some point. I have even been told, “You know I mean it politely, so do I have to do it every time? To you?”

Well I’m sorry (excessive British politeness there), but yes, you do.

At some point in the last 20 years, as formality has been steadily eroded, saying thank you has been left isolated, like a rock left exposed by the retreating tide. And it has made certain people uncomfortable, feeing like a sap for behaving in such an obsequious way.

This is particularly prevalent among 20-something British men, naturally programmed to show themselves as tough and not yet ready to accept that toughness is sometimes best expressed by humility.

These people can’t say “Thank you” for anything – not for ordinary things, anyway. They might summon the decency in the event of being saved from drowning, but in normal circumstances, no. And yet the voice of their mother is in their head. Be polite.

So what comes out is “Cheers”. This is the British greeting uttered when we are given an alcoholic drink. We raise the glass and say “Cheers”.

So the young man who can’t bring himself to use the proper words can say “Cheers’ without losing face, without showing weakness in front of his peers.

“Cheers for that,” he will say.

Don’t mention it, mate. Thank you for having the guts to say even that.

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