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The Awkward “Please”

Adam wrote to me about the use of the word please in his company. A word that is supposed to warm up a message is making him question people's motives.

Adam shared these examples, which I have disguised slightly. He is wondering whether they seem manipulative. What do you think?

  1. What do think of my suggestion, please?
  2. Do you think we should sign the two-year contract, please?
  3. David, thanks for your recommendation. Please schedule a meeting with Lei and me to discuss it.
  4. Randi, can you cover the front desk during the meeting, please?
  5. Who was the last person to use the conference room, please?

The only example that sounds natural is Number 3. In the other sentences, tacking on a please is awkward at best. At worst, it comes across as either whiny or impatient–or in Number 5, a bit ominous. Those impressions are all unfortunate, especially if the writer used please simply to be polite rather than pushy.

These revisions accomplish the same goal without awkwardness:

  1. Please let me know what you think of my suggestion. Thanks!
    OR–I'd love to know what you think of my suggestion.
    OR–Have you had a chance to consider my suggestion? I would enjoy knowing what you think of it.
  2. Do you think we should sign the two-year contract?
    OR–What is your opinion of the two-year contract?
    OR–Please let me know whether you recommend the two-year contract.
  3. [I thought the example was fine as is. Here is a less directive version:]
    David, thanks for your recommendation. Would you please schedule a meeting with Lei and me to discuss it?
  4. Randi, can you please cover the front desk during the meeting?

Number 5 should probably be scrapped altogether. In many companies, it's easy to find out who used the conference room most recently. But if it is not easy, this approach may be more honest, depending on circumstances:

I don't know who used the conference room last, so I need to remind everyone that we do not have daily janitorial service. That's why it's important to leave the conference room clean for the next group that wants to use it.

I agree with Adam that these pleases are not effective. So what can he do? He might try saying–not writing–something like this to the writers in question.

When the word please is tacked on to a message, I'm not sure how to read it. Sometimes it feels–to me–like an exclamation or frustration. What do you intend when you add please to a question?

With that opening remark, he can work toward helping his coworker or coworkers be more successful–and polite.

I live in the upper lefthand corner of the continental United States, and I may be linguistically biased on this question. I welcome your comments, please.

Just kidding about the please.

Syntax Training

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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

8 comments on “The Awkward “Please””

  • The way of using “please”, in my view, actually is a reflection of the organizaitonal culture in a company.

  • Over 30 years ago while obtaining my B.B.A. and M.B.A. business degrees I took two Business Writing courses.

    Thirty five years and thousands of business communications and reports later I’m here to testify those proved to be among my most valuable classes. Every business should have a CCO (Chief Communications Officer) on staff.

    Just one example: I recall a challenging task that everyone said was impossible to accomplish. The task was to write Business Prospectuses (written by Lawyers for Lawyers’) in plain English for consumer use. Having taken multiple business law and tax classes and majoring in accounting and finance I could related to those professions. And fortunately my business English writing teacher had taught me how to translated legalese into plain English. The project resulted in a major success, thanks to what I had learned 15 years earlier.

    Lynn, we live in a world of instant messaging, lingo, buzz words and industry jargon. Your work to create more efficient and effective business communications is a noble profession. I just learned of your blog and now have it in my favorites list. Your blog provides valuable education. Thank you for your fantastic work.


  • Shane, thanks for your view. And what do you think that use of “please” says about the organizational culture? Does it say something meaningful? Or is “please” just an unconscious habit?

  • Hi, BMWright. Thanks for your story and validation. I am very grateful for your words of praise.

    I am happy to address you as BMWright if that is your preference, but if you would prefer another name, just let me know.

    I look forward to your comments.

  • I work with a lot of non-native speakers of English. On the one hand, they need to know that politeness is essential in business environments. “Pass the file” is not going to endear them to colleagues.

    On the other hand, not knowing where to put the “please” can also make the speaker sound as if he / she’s nagging: “Can you please pass the file?”

    Using other structures (“could you…” or “What do you think of…”) as you suggested in your post are excellent compromises.

  • Clare, thanks for that important point. I work with international writers too, and I find a common issue for them is how to come across without sounding pushy or too tentative.

  • Thank you so much for explaining this. I have recently been criticized rather harshly by my boss and I really didn’t understand why. English is not my first language and I understand now that while I thought I was being polite I may have sounded differently to my work colleagues… 🙁 I was told that when I say please at the end of a sentence I sound sarcastic and thus people don’t know how to react and get upset…

Comments are closed.