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Say you are in a nice restaurant and, at the table next you, a gentleman lights up the most offensive cigar you ever smelled.

You mention it to the manager and then the manager goes up to the gentleman and says "Sir, I'm going to have to ask you to put out your cigar." rather than "Sir, please put out your cigar."

It seems the second statement is the preferred way to say it (e.g. no passive voice, contractions, not wordy).

However, I hear the first statement more often.

Why would you put all those words in front? Does it come out less offensive that way?

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Since when, is using the passive voice not grammatical? – kiamlaluno Aug 29 '11 at 5:46
@kiamlaluno What he means is that in most situations, active voice is preferred. – Jeremy Aug 29 '11 at 5:48
"It is preferred" is different from "grammatically speaking […] is the proper way." – kiamlaluno Aug 29 '11 at 5:50
+1 for a nice question we can encounter daily basis. – Tarik Aug 29 '11 at 10:37
@kiamlaluno edited – ray023 Aug 30 '11 at 13:45
up vote 26 down vote accepted

I'm sure you suspect the answer: The preferred phrasing is more subservient and less demanding (a role many waiters at fancy restaurants are encouraged to play) even though they mean the same thing.

Sir, I'm going to have to ask you to put out your cigar.

The previous sentence carries a few implications. One might expand it to:

Sir, I would never ask this if it was up to me, but those damn rules they make me follow FORCE ME to ask that you please put out your cigar. I don't blame you, of course.

That is, it's implied that the person asking isn't personally bothered by your cigar; he's just forced to ask you to stop by company policy.

In a less fancy resturant, one might say:

Sorry, but we don't allow smoking in here.

This is the same exact idea. "It's not up to me; it's company policy, sorry!"
It may seem silly (and it is, in some sense), but it probably does help the customer not feel like an idiot!

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I couldn't have explained it better! Plus one. – Gigili Jun 8 '12 at 15:06

This has to do with what is called Politeness.

It's the same phenomenon that happens in those signs that say "Thank you for not smoking." which is very different from "No smoking." The meaning is the same, but the way the command is uttered is very different, and its effect on people is different as well.

All of this is linked to indirectness: in some cultures, indirectness is associated with politeness (such as ours). You perform something, like an order in your case, but indirectly. "I'm going to have to ask you to put out your cigar, sir" is more indirect than saying "Sir, please put out your cigar."

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No one likes to be told what to do, so the "thank you" prefix is an incentive to lead people to make their own decision to follow the rules. It helps avoid conflict. – mskfisher Aug 29 '11 at 14:51
Yes, that was more or less the meaning of my answer. :) – Alenanno Aug 29 '11 at 14:52
Why the downvote? It'd be nice to know what was considered incorrect. – Alenanno Aug 29 '11 at 15:31
And so Wikipedia teaches us how to be polite :) – Kit Aug 29 '11 at 17:34
@Kit It's not wikipedia actually, that is just an easy link to read about it, but the material is much much more than that! :) – Alenanno Aug 29 '11 at 23:46

It's a trick for redirecting responsibility.

If you say "I'm going to have to ask you to do X", then you are disclaiming responsibility for X. You are pretending that some impersonal outside force is requiring you to make the request (why, exactly, do you have to request something, and who is making you do it?).

If, however, you use "Please do X", then you are taking direct responsibility for the request; it is unambiguously coming from you, and nobody else.

The reason this would be considered more polite in English is because people do not like being told what to do, and if you are pretending that someone or something else requires you to ask, then you are simultaneously (A) not actually responsible for the request, and so the person can't be angry with you and (B) suggesting that you, too, are being required to do things that you don't want to do, and so you are a target of sympathy.

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This is a perfect answer. You've better explained the overall phenomenon than I have in my answer. – Jeremy Aug 29 '11 at 22:27
@Jeremy: since it's not going to get either 16 votes or the accept flag, feel free to borrow it. ;-) – jprete Aug 29 '11 at 22:32

"I'm going to have to ask you" is a usage in itself. It means it's not in the interest of the person asking but for the common interest or common good.

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If used in the last decade, prefixes of indirection such as this may allude to fictional character Bill Lumbergh from the film Office Space.

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