No one wants to be rude in their target language.  This post will explain how to use the three most important polite expressions you can learn to sound polite in English: please, thank you, and you’re welcome.  They’re simple and quick phrases, but understanding how and when to use them will make you sound more like a fluent speaker as well as helping you successfully navigate American culture.


Please

“Please” is such an important word in American culture that it’s usually one of the first words a child learns.  Nationwide, parents prompt their young children when they ask for something by asking “what do you say?”  Spoiler alert: the answer is “please.”

Americans tend to add this word to nearly any request we make. We use please regardless if we’re asking for something minor or something important. We use it in formal and informal situations and with all types of people — from our boss, to our friends, to our cab driver.

Using please is one of the biggest factors in whether people see you as a polite person or as a rude person.  No matter how friendly your tone is or how big your smile is, an American will probably still find it a little rude or abrupt if you ask for something without saying please.  No, it’s not logical.  No, it’s not fair.  But, it’s just how things work here.  Many languages use different pronouns or verb conjugations to indicate that they’re being extra polite.  We don’t have that in English, so “please” plays that role instead.

My husband is a non-native, but fluent, English speaker, but he will still say things like “can I get a soda?” to a waitress. Although it’s not as rude as saying “give me a soda,” it still sounds slightly rude to me (and quite possibly the waitress!).  An American would be more likely to say “can I get a soda, please?”  When my husband forgets his “please” I’ll often chime in with one out of habit.

I know that many people are nervous about speaking English because they’re worried about making a mistake.  However, most Americans will forgive you any grammatical mistake or incorrect word choice when asking us for something as long as you say please.  A smile and a “please” go a long way to smoothing many situations over.

My suggestion is to become very comfortable using please and to practice using it nearly anytime you make a request of a person. I know it may feel strange at first, and probably seems silly or stupid to add it to so many questions, but practice until it feels more natural.

  • I’d like a glass of water please. Please bring me a soda. 
  • Could you send me that report by the end of the day, please? Please reply to Susan’s email as soon as you can.
  • Could you please tell me how to get to the White House?  Can you tell me which subway line will take me to the museum, please?
  • Can you tell me how much this shirt is please?  Please, can you help me find this in my size?
  • Could you please repeat that? Please say that again; I didn’t understand you.

Note that please can be used at the beginning of the sentence, before the request, or at the very end of the sentence, after the request.

Thank You

“Thank you” is another key word to memorize and use frequently.  I think that this comes more naturally for most non-native speakers.  If you forget to say please when asking for something, you can usually redeem yourself by saying thank you at the appropriate time. However, it’s best to use please and thank you like bookends: “please” at the time you make the request and “thank you” when you receive the requested item or action.  It can also be used as a general way to express appreciation for someone.

Like “please,” Americans tend to overuse “thank you” as well.  It can lead to an awkwardly funny situation sometimes. For example, when I go to the grocery store, every time the cashier hands me a bag of groceries to put in my cart I say “thank you” (and she usually replies with “you’re welcome”).  On a big shopping trip, I could be saying “thank you” 10 or 12 times in a row.   This demonstrates how ingrained this habit is here.  In situations like this, the person probably wouldn’t think you were really rude if you didn’t say “thank you” for every item they handed you, but you should at least say it for the first and last thing they hand you, and one more time after you’ve paid and you’re leaving, in my opinion.

You should ALWAYS thank someone if they hold a door open for you, give up their seat for you on a bus or subway, hold an elevator open for you, move out of the way so you can get by them, or let you go ahead of them in a line — basically whenever someone does  a small favor that you didn’t ask them for.  Even though many of these acts are common courtesy (things you should do anyway if you’re a decent person), it is seen as really rude when you don’t acknowledge these types of behavior.  When in doubt, just say “thank you.”

There are a variety of ways to say thank you including: thank you, thanks, thank you a lot, thanks a lot, thank you so much, and thanks so much. Although there is no real difference between “thank you” and “thanks,” many people see “thanks” as a more informal option.  If I am writing an email to or speaking with my boss I tend to say “thank you” because it sounds more professional, in my opinion.  However with peers, I use “thanks” more frequently.   If someone has really helped you out, that’s when you can add “a lot” or “so much” to the phrase to emphasize that they really went above and beyond.

If you use “thanks a lot” please be very mindful of your tone.  That phrase can often be used sarcastically both in speech and in writing.  When saying it out loud, make sure to smile and use a cheerful and appreciative tone.  When writing, it often helps to use an exclamation point to show that you mean it positively.

  • Thanks so much for all of your help on this project.  I couldn’t have done it without you!
  • Thank you for always being such a good friend.  It means a lot to me.
  • Thank you! Have a great day! (perfect to use at a store or restaurant when you are leaving)
  • That was kind of you to hold the door for me; thank you.
  • Thanks a lot for the great meal you cooked tonight!

You’re Welcome

“You’re welcome” is the final step in the “please/thank you” cycle. When someone thanks you for something, the polite way to reply is “you’re welcome.”  This brings the interaction full circle and indicates that it’s finished.  There is nothing that either person has to say after “you’re welcome.”

Although most Americans were raised to always say “you’re welcome,” I think that people are using it less frequently, especially in email and on message boards.  When speaking to someone face-to-face, it’s still very common and polite to say “you’re welcome” after someone thanks you for something.  In emails and message board posts, it’s more optional.  Many people find it strange to send a completely separate message just to say “you’re welcome” — it adds unnecessary emails to already full inboxes and makes message board threads unwieldy.

In addition to the standard “you’re welcome,” you can also say “not a problem” or “no problem” or in some circumstances something like “I’m/I was happy to help” or “It’s/it was my pleasure.”  “Not/no problem” is generally seen as informal, so be mindful of who you use it with. Some people, don’t think that “no problem” is an appropriate response since it implies that your original request could have been a problem.

If someone thanks you for a specific action, such as “thank you for all your help,” that’s when you can reply with “I was happy to help!” or “it was my pleasure.”  Some people even shorten it to “my pleasure” or “happy to help.”  Use these shorter versions for more informal situations.

  • Thank you for all you help with this project!  You’re welcome; I was happy to help!
  • Thank you for giving me a ride to the store.  Not a problem!
  • I can’t thank you enough for helping me edit that document.  It was my pleasure.
  • Thank you for helping me with the meeting.  Happy to help! or My pleasure!

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