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Last night, while strolling back from enjoying an evening at #BrewEdYork, I decided to stop for a bite to eat. While waiting for my food to arrive (two chicken fillets and chips with spicy mayo for those interested in after-alcohol dining experiences), a group of four children entered the dining establishment.

This raised a few eyebrows amongst the patrons queuing for their miscellaneous meals and elicited a few comments from two young ladies regarding appropriate bedtimes towards the young man who approached the counter and ordered some food. He was 50p short of the price of his food but mistakenly thought he was asked for 15p (an easy mistake to make). After speaking to the rest of the group, he returned to the counter with 15p. To speed things along, I covered the rest of the shortfall. He turned and thanked me, offering to get the money from his friends (or maybe family), which I declined.

On receiving his food, he again said thank you but noticed that he didn’t have a tub of spicy mayo (good choice by the way) that he had asked for. He asked for it to be added, but because he didn’t say please was scolded by the same two young ladies who had commented on the lateness of the hour. The followed a short exchange, with some interesting language, where he expressed what he thought of their views on his manners before he turned to leave, once again thanking me for the money and offering me a piece of chicken, which I declined.

Which got me thinking as I meandered home enjoying my own wonderful repaste. Why do so many people misunderstand how to use please and thank you?

“Please” and “thank you” are designed to signal favour requested as distinct from a demand for something owed. 

In the scenario above, where food is being sold, the opening of “May I have…” is perfectly acceptable, there is no favour being requested it is a transaction between two people doing business. No bargaining, no haggling, just a straight forward exchange. Once the money has exchanged hands, the person who has paid is owed the food that they have paid for. Because he hadn’t received everything that he has asked for as part of the transaction, there was no need for a “please”. The “thank you” was an acknowledgement that the compliance was appreciated and that the speaker is grateful.

In other words, the boy in the chicken shop behaved perfectly correctly and did not need to be reprimanded for his manners at all.

I bring this situation up because it reflects situations that happen in school. I once witnessed a visiting school leader reprimand a teacher who was partway through giving an instruction to a child. The visitor interrupted with a sharp “Please!” when it hadn’t been included at the start of the sentence. To their credit, the teacher ignored the interruption and finished their instruction with a thank you, which was entirely appropriate.

As a teacher in a class, you are rarely making requests of your students. You have expectations, you should be assuming compliance not requesting it. The assumed close, a sales technique, is a very powerful tool and doesn’t use the word “please”. The problem with please is that as a request it can be denied. By using please you are giving children an opportunity to refuse.

“Please stop talking and pay attention” is far less effective than “Thank you for finishing your conversations and looking this way.” The trust in the students that this statement implies, combined with the clarity of the expectation, often results in immediate action without protest. It leaves no room for argument.

This technique can be developed further without a please or thank you at all. If you want an action to happen in the future, such as arranging for a meeting with a pupil, then framing it in a way that assumes the action has already been agreed to is far more powerful than using please, it is also less confrontational.

See me at the end of the day! is loaded with a threat or menace, while “Please see me at the end of the day.” lacks conviction that it will happen. Simply stating it as “When you come and see me at the end of the day, make sure to be there as soon as you can so we can both get home as early as possible.” You could add “thank you” at the end if you wish. You are encouraging a positive response and making it much more likely to happen, thus avoiding escalation and the likelihood of further sanctions being needed.

Bill Rogers (if you haven’t heard of him – google him now), asserts that the language we use in behaviour management is key to getting things done the way that you want them done. Please make sure that you fully understand the true meaning of the words “please” and “thank you”. Using the right words at the right time has so much power, a power you would be foolish to ignore.

Thank you for reading this, share it with someone you know who doesn’t understand what “please” and “thank you” mean.