My grandmother lived by a list of rules that often only she understood - for example she felt saying 'please' and 'thank you' meant very different things and it was not necessary to say both for the same action. She wasn't able to explain details of the dos and don'ts but I remember she often softened requests with other words.
"Pass me that book, dear". - "Thank you".
"Please clean that up." - "Now, isn't that better?"
She didn't think it was necessary to say 'thank you' to someone who was being paid for what they were doing, such as delivery men or waiters, and this horrified my mother who was all about making people feel comfortable.
While working with exchange students some years ago I came across different customs regarding politeness. One student from Finland told me their language had no words for 'please' and 'thank you' - but another explained that 'kiitos' is used for both.
A Canadian student complained that Australians overdo 'thank you'. She thought it should only be for nice things, like when receiving a gift. In her words "I handed the girl a bag of trash and she said thank you? You don't say thank you for trash."
In Italian the word Prego stands for please. It actually means I beg, or I pray, but in context it is used as - certainly, sorry, pardon, excuse me, you're welcome, don't mention it, no problem, it's alright. And, when someone says 'Grazi', or thank you, the response is ... 'prego'. So many things sound romantic in Italian.
An old fashioned word, probably understood by my grandmother, is etiquette. This describes a code of behaviour expected by a particular society. Even if it was not technically accurate, etiquette demanded people at least appeared to meet a certain standard. From the 1500s to the 1900s etiquette was a school subject in most English speaking countries and people were judged on their good manners. Today there is an element of meaningless to some of these rituals.
One ritual is the handshake, originally a gesture of peace, because the weapon hands are held tightly. Polite language, "How do you do," "How are you?" developed to create an sense of respect and peace, even if people were talking through clenched teeth.
In English 'please' is short for 'if you please', or 'if it pleases you to do this', as does the French 'si il vous plait' and the Spanish 'por favor'.
When we ask someone to 'Pass the butter, please', we are saying - 'Pass the butter to me, even though I am not saying you must, it is a social obligation'. Of course this can't be refused, even though it is not an order.
The English 'please' is used to add politeness to a request. It is used at the end of a sentence, after a comma.
May I borrow your pen, please?
Could you wait for me, please?
And, 'please' is used in the phrase 'Yes, please', to confirm an offer.
Would you like more ice cream? - Yes, please.
We also use 'please' to add a polite note to a single order or instruction, and then it comes at the beginning.
Please sit down.
Please be quite.
We do not use 'please' when giving a firm order or a list of instructions.
Stop that right now.
Stop that right now.
Put the gun down and step away.
And 'please' is not used as a response to 'thank you'. Other expressions are used instead.
Thank you. - You're welcome.
Thank you. - It was my pleasure.
We use 'thank you' when a compliment is given.
You look lovely today. - Thank you.
Your sponge cake was delicious. - Thank you.
Offers can be accepted and refused with 'thank you'.
Can I get you a cold drink? - Yes, thank you.
Will you come for a swim? - No, thank you. I don't have time.
In English 'thank you' comes from the word 'think'. It originally meant 'In my mind I will remember what you did for me' (in order to pay you back).
The Portuguese 'obrigado' means 'much obliged' or 'I am obliged to you' or 'I am in your debt'.
The French 'merci' comes from 'mercy', as in begging for mercy because you are (symbolically) in your benefactor's power because a debtor is a criminal.
The Chinese have various ways of saying 'thank you' for a gift or a favour but not for a compliment as their desire for humility forces them to politely deflect compliments. A forced humility can be seen in our culture at times, but is often translated as 'fishing for more compliments'.
The next stage of response is - 'You're welcome' or 'It's nothing' or 'It's my pleasure'. In French it is 'de rien' and in Spanish 'de nada'. This is a reassurance that there is no debt, in fact it is often a credit position.
So the simple request at the dinner table can be a coded message.
"Would you pass the butter, please?" (Pass the butter to me if it pleases you to do that as while this is not an order, it is a social obligation.)
"Certainly". The butter is passed. (The favour is done.)
"Thank you". (I will remember that you did this for me and I am now in your debt.)
"You're welcome". (You are not in my debt as you have provided me with the opportunity of doing something that pleased me.)
But we can't write this off as being outdated because over 500 years these niceties have become signals that form part of our relationships. "Please' and 'Thank you' can still signal the difference between a requested favour and a demand for something owed.
Many people feel we should err on the side of overuse because the boundaries are vague and different values mean not saying the polite words can be misinterpreted. Others say that overuse, or incorrect use causes confusion.
Today, saying 'thank you' can be a great motivational tool - as a show of respect, appreciation and also encouragement.
We'd all agree it is very good to say "Thank you" when presented with flowers or a box of Belgium chocolates, and it doubles as a reward for the giver, and, if we have asked someone to pass us the bag of rubbish (trash), as appreciation or compensation for doing an unpleasant job, but, should we say "Thank you" when a friend repays money that has been owing for some time and causing great inconvenience? We do, but I think my grandmother would say no to that one.