Mr. Please

Mr. Please was born of my work, my parenting and my father.

In 1991 I met Marilyn Goldstein, Newsday columnist, at a meeting of the Public Relations Professionals of Long Island (PRPLI).  She spoke about her unique column at that time featuring Long Island’s eccentrics; that’s what I called us who wound up in her collection.  At the end of the meeting I stepped up to meet her and pitch a subject for her work, me.  I was among a sizeable group of PR professionals who wished to make her acquaintance and offer her subjects for this project or perhaps others.

I told her that for some time I had been proposing, wherever I could, the use of the word “please” in signage.  I was particularly interested in the signs that had been added to the Island’s highways, the INFORM system.  Couldn’t signs say, “Please Drive Safely”, “Please Buckle Up” and the like.  I had tried all sorts of places, the INFORM sign committee, even writing the Governor.  I believed then, as I do now, that repetition is a formidable teacher; if people see the word “please” everywhere they turn they will learn to use it.  And soon, thank you and other politeness will follow.

She liked my story and was soon sitting in my den with my entire family.  I showed her the many pages of correspondence and dead ends.  She asked my kids if their dad often talked about politeness, particularly the use of “please”.  I recall some rolling eyes.  I could be tiresome in my consistency on this matter.  Marilyn’s column, “Please Read This, Thank You,” appeared in Newsday on August 9, 1991.  It was here that I was dubbed “Long Island’s Mr. Please.”  Of course, that soon became my license plate.

The proof of our success is my daughter’s insistence that her daughter learns and uses the word.  In fact, all of my children are what I would call polite.

My father was an unusual man who had his way of doing things.  Manners were critical to him.  A telephone conversation with him might go this way:

Dad:  Hello

My friend:  Is Kenny there?

Dad:  Excuse me, that’s “Hello Mr. Marion, is Kenny there?”

He wasn’t angry but he was firm. And then he hung up.

Those were the days and among adults I was very well mannered.  The parents of play dates were always Mr. so and so or Mrs. so and so.  My parents’ guests were treated respectfully as were all other adults with whom I had contact.  The only adults I remember referring to by their first names were the doorman staff at 222 and the men behind the counter at the candy store/soda fountain I visited daily.  Irving and his father-in-law Joe were fixtures in my life for many years, eventually employing me for a brief period.  (I can still make a mean chocolate egg cream.)

So, as I wrote in the published column that follows (The Newsday Magazine 11/29/1987), “more pleases, thank you”.  As you read, please note that unfortunately not much has changed.

licenseplate

The first time I saw it I was astonished at the use of the polite form. The sign said, “No Dogs, Please.” When I thought about the “magic word” I try to teach my children, I realized how unusual it was to see it outside of books and how rarely we hear it as well.

On the bus it says, “Stand behind the white line.” On the street sign it says, “Leash, gutter and clean up after your dog.” On the road it says, “Pay toll ahead.” Over and over I mulled the signs of our times and couldn’t find one other from recent memory that said, “Please.”

At the bank the sign says, “Line forms here,” not “Please form the line here.” We have just stopped thinking of politeness. At the supermarket the express lane says, “10 items of less,” not “10 items or less, please.” Everywhere I turn I see the opportunity for “please,” but I could see very few little “pleases” in conspicuous places.

“Please don’t walk on the grass” would be seen by thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, if placed in newly seeded lawns each fall. “Please exit by rear door” would confront millions of bus riders. “Please pay toll ahead” would not make the expense any more palatable, but it might improve our manners.

In the restaurant parking lot we find the sign “Parking for Customers ONLY.” What kind of response might “Customers only, please” get, even if the fine print still read, “Violators to be towed away at owners’ expense”?

Commands are important under some circumstances. “Please stop” is inappropriate for the red hexagons found at dangerous and not so dangerous intersections throughout America.

The command is common in advertising, and possibly necessary. “Smoke” brand X, “Buy” brand Y, “Read” Z magazine are all ways of getting our attention. And these commands undeniably get positive responses from many. But I have always found myself to be more responsive to neighborly good manners; pleases and thank yous in establishments of all kinds result in neighborly patronage and repeat business.

The economy of words in “Quiet Hospital Zone” amounts to six letters when please is omitted. But “Quiet Please, Hospital” is only two letters longer and a lot more pleasant.

Then there is “Notice – All visitors must obtain pass at principal’s office,” which goes on to cite the section of local law that applies. This one is of particular interest because the “bad guys” aren’t going to observe the rules, so why not make a sign for the “good guys” and the children who go by it every day? “Visitors – Please stop in office to obtain pass.”

We have grown accustomed to this treatment, the lack of pleases. Perhaps our willingness to submit to this attack on the sensibilities is a result of our fast-paced existence that thrives on brevity and overlooks bad manners.

As for me, I would sincerely appreciate more pleases, thank you.

 

7 thoughts on “Mr. Please

  1. I remember when you were doing this. It’s my memory that this wasn’t just about politeness, nice as that is, but a half step or so more: civility as a mark of the kind of society we might aspire to live in, & showing personal respect for the other individual. My first thought now was that this was your thing, something you did (& do) feel passionately about. But I am glad to be reminded how this is also so much your dad’s way of being.

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  2. It is too bad that nothing changes. I, too, have gotten comments concerning my children’s use of “please” and “thank you”. This has always been important to me, too. Well written, Ken, as usual.

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      1. I am indeed getting these in my email, & indeed did make a reply comment to this installment. Why am I being asked repeatedly if I’m a follower or not, or if I’m getting these notices or not?

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  3. While I think it is important to teach children manners, and for adults to employ good manners themselves when engaging in social discourse, I am starting to suspect that the “adolescent you” may have had a bit of the smarmy Eddie Haskell in him. Regarding signage that alerts or reminds one of the rules and laws that are in effect, I think that couching them in terms of “please” and “thank you” makes them appear to be mere requests, to be optional, whereas they are meant to be serious admonitions. I might ask a dog walker to “please clean up after” a dog, but that is more because I have no personal authority to enforce the law and I fear a bad reaction (even, possibly, violence.) Signs are not meant to be personal appeals; they are meant to inform those who read them of the law and rules, in no uncertain terms. Regardless of intent, the addition of words like “please” will only weaken the message and diminish their already limited effectiveness.

    I, too, was taught “good telephone manners,” some of which have been obviated by caller I.D. However, I sometimes still admonish callers to identify themselves when calling me, rather than immediately demanding to know who has answered the phone. It always surprises me when a doctor, who is approximately my age and sometimes follows up my appointment with a call from a number in her office that is not already in my phone’s “directory,” does not initially identify herself when I answer the phone. (Because I get so many “junk” calls, I am often brusque – you might call it rude – when I receive a call from an unrecognized number. Once she identifies herself, I explain and apologize, but it would save so much time – her time, really, since I am not the busier one – if she would simply identify herself at the outset in accordance with the manners I was taught as a child.)

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