15

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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  • 2
    @kiamlaluno What he means is that in most situations, active voice is preferred.
    – Jeremy
    Aug 29, 2011 at 5:48
  • 4
    "It is preferred" is different from "grammatically speaking […] is the proper way."
    – apaderno
    Aug 29, 2011 at 5:50

5 Answers 5

30

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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13

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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7

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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4

"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.

2

Everyone thus far has addressed the reason being indirectness or redirecting responsibility, but that's actually the obvious part in my opinion. The part of the phrase I find the most curious is the future tense. "I have to ask you to X" would have the same effect, but the most common phrasing is actually "I'm GOING TO have to ask you to X". That's the part I've never quite understood the purpose of. Why phrase it as though you are about to ask something you're actually already asking of someone? I've occasionally responded to this with "So ask me", and it always confuses the person.

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  • Hello, welcome to EL&U! The part of this post that is a question should actually be posted as a separate question, with an explanation about why it is different than the one here, as the answer box is rather strictly reserved for answers here. Cheers!
    – Conrado
    Dec 9, 2020 at 14:21

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