I believe that the spoken forms of courtesy are the grease that lets our creaky social machinery, as well as our badly joined—as in a cabinet whose drawers and hinges aren’t quite aligned—personal senses of self-respect and shared obligation, function within tolerable limits. Speaking those little, objectless sentence fragments like “please” and “thank you,” as our mothers taught us, is what keeps us all from screaming, leaping, and tearing at each other’s throats.
In the same way, those almost pointless physical courtesies, like making eye contact with the people you just met, to show that you are both an interesting person and willing to communicate in depth, or offering your empty hand, to show that it doesn’t hide a weapon—or, in some cultures, offering a short bow, to expose your neck as a sign of trust—are all ways that we signal not just our common humanity and a benign spirit but also our willingness to take risks in meeting strangers and new acquaintances halfway.
Almost all such polite phrases in common usage are archaic forms, spoken relics with the sharp edges and the grammatical functions worn off.
“Please,” for example, is a much-shortened form of “may it please you.” That is, with the thought fully spoken: “Do this for me only if it would give you pleasure to accommodate my request.” You see an echo of this in the French form: “s’il vous plait,” or literally “if it pleases you.” The French verb plaisir, which has its root in the Latin placere, means not just being pleasant but also enjoying or finding satisfaction. This is a fairly gracious way of thinking and acting. This little verbal elision says, “I know that you have freedom of action and can make choices in how you do things. My request is probably going to be a burden on you in some fashion, and I don’t want to cause you any trouble. So consider complying only if it would give you pleasure or satisfaction.”
In modern usage, at least in American society, “please” has become some sort of code word for an intended enhancement, like adding “really” or “very” to a descriptive adjective. The word “please” has acquired the effect of saying, “I’m serious about this.” So, from someone trapped in a locked room: “Let me out! Please let me out!” This goes back to the childhood escalation of entreaty: please, followed by pretty please, and ending pretty please with sugar on top.
In the formula “may it please you,” the verb is in the subjunctive mood. This is an element of grammar that almost nobody teaches anymore, which means that students may have a hard time recognizing and using it, although it still sticks in the ear and in the mind, and it represents something we all more or less understand.
We all learn about the three basic tenses in English: past (something happened), present (something is happening), and future (something will happen). But these tenses also have their completed or perfect and their uncompleted, progressive, or imperfect forms: the perfect implies something that happened once and is now over and done, while the imperfect implies something that has happened before and may still be happening and recurring. In addition, we can work the changes of past, present, and future as verb forms from the viewpoint of one of the non-present tenses. You can use English to indicate something that happened in the past from the viewpoint of the past tense itself—such as, “I had gone to the store”—or something that is in the past from the perspective of the future tense—“I will have gone to the store.”
All of these tenses—which you learn in depth when you study the grammar of English root languages like Latin and Greek—are in the indicative mood, which deals with actions that really did, do, or will occur. But English and most other languages also have the subjunctive mood, describing what we hope or expect but are not certain will occur, or an occurrence about which we want to express some doubt. “May it please you,” in the example above, is a wish that honoring the request will be pleasing to you, not a statement that the request will automatically be pleasing. In the same way, when a person says, “God bless you,” it is not a statement of fact, that God actually does bless you, or a command in the imperative mood, “God, bless this person” (which is on the same plane as “Dog, sit!”). Instead, we are saying “[May] God bless you”—which is a hope, a wish, and an offering of benediction that the well-wisher is not in a position to grant him- or herself but that is for the Supreme Being to provide.1
When we say “Thank you,” things are a little more straightforward. Here the elision is simple, just dropping off the subject of a complete sentence: “I thank you.” No subjunctive need apply: you are offering actual thanks, an acknowledgement of a benefit received, and perhaps an obligation to return the favor in the future. This is that bit where we graciously entertain a risk: we are saying that we do accept the obligation to one day respond in kind. As adult individuals able to stand on our own two feet, we are shy about receiving gifts and favors. The usual word is “gratis,” meaning “free,” which goes back to the Latin gratia, meaning favor or kindness. To receive a favor or a free gift puts one in a lowered position, because only children, servants, and slaves expect to receive something for nothing. So we express thanks, with the implied obligation to return the favor, which puts us back in a position of social equality with the giver.
The response of the giver used to be, in American and in most English-speaking societies, “You are welcome.” This phrase has its roots in the words of a householder or host greeting visitors: “You are well come,” meaning it is good that you have come; your arrival is appreciated; and by extension, my house and my hospitality are at your disposal. You can see the sense of this in the opening song by the Master of Ceremonies in Cabaret: “Willkommen! Bienvenue! Welcome! Fremder, étranger, stranger. Glücklich zu sehen. Je suis enchanté. Happy to see you. Bleibe, reste, stay.” That is, to tell a person thanking you that they are welcome is to return and thereby nullify the obligation. “No, this was mine to give, and no obligation is created.” This is a pleasantly gracious turn of phrase.
But more and more in American usage I hear—and receive for my spoken thanks—the phrase, “No problem.” The underlying message here is quite different: “Providing this gift or favor, or doing this service for you, did not inconvenience me. Serving you has not been a problem for me.” Perhaps, if we want to be kind, we can interpret the message as: “I recognize that I am here to serve you. That is my purpose—and therefore not troubling to me.” But still, there is a reversal of message and a diminishment of intent here. Not “I grant you freely without obligation, as a host offering hospitality,” but “Your implied demand for service has not inconvenienced me.” Or “Your being in a position to receive a favor—as a small child or servant—might have inconvenienced me, but I want to let you know that it didn’t and I reject the notion that I had any obligation to give you a gift or provide you a service in the first place.”
Thank you and You’re welcome are a yin-yang pairing, the simultaneous creation and removal of a feeling of obligation, engendered by an originating act of kindness. The reply of No problem denies the intention that original act. In this way, it feels like a rejection of politeness rather than an expression of it. Perhaps I’m being over-sensitive, but to hear “No problem” when I try to thank someone leaves a faint taste of disdain in my mouth and in my mind.2
1. The clue that a speaker is using the subjunctive is a verb conjugation would normally sound and feel wrong. For example, the third person (he, she, it) conjugation of please is “pleases,” as in “It pleases me to see you.” But “If it please you” leaves the matter in some doubt or to be hoped. Similarly, when you see “helping” verbs like “may,” “would,” or “should,” you are often dealing with the subjunctive.
2. But cultural tastes differ. In two languages and cultures that are widely separated by geography and affinity, the Spanish use “De nada” and the Russian “Nichevo” to say the same overt thing as the English phrase “You’re welcome.” Both the Spanish and the Russian translate as “It’s nothing”—as does the French “Pas de quoi”—which is pretty close in semantic content to “No problem.” But I still find the English “You’re welcome” more gracious.