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I'm not a native English speaker, so maybe there are something I don't pay attention to, today I said 'Can you do ....?' and he said 'Say please'. Does that mean what I said is impolite?

I'm confused, can you help me?

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    Yes. Some people don't hear softening phrases like Can you, If you would, Say..., Oh, listen as markers of politeness. Only "Please." Commented Nov 7, 2022 at 13:04
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    "Say please" was hammered into many kids by their parents.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Nov 7, 2022 at 13:28
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    It can also be used playfully between friends.
    – fev
    Commented Nov 7, 2022 at 13:31
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    The person you were talking you was either teasing you (which to be successful would require your being familiar with the use of say please in raising children) or deliberately obtuse. There is nothing wrong with what you said.
    – jsw29
    Commented Nov 7, 2022 at 15:19
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    If you want to play along, you can respond to your friend with "pretty please, with sugar on top." Some people prefer to put "a cherry" on top of their pretty pleases instead.
    – Brandin
    Commented Nov 10, 2022 at 15:43

3 Answers 3

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"Say please" is often used when teaching a child politeness. Some may extend that to teaching non-native speakers as well. "Can you do ..." does not have the same meaning as "Please ..."

A few time this has happened to me: Someone asked me "Would you like to ..." and I answered truthfully "No". Only later, when the incident was past, I realized they meant to say "Please ...", to which I would have answered "Yes".

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    Can you, perhaps, does not have quite the same meaning as please, but it is far from obvious which one is more polite; the perception of politeness in the use of such words depends more on the tone of voice and accompanying facial expressions than on the words themselves.
    – jsw29
    Commented Nov 7, 2022 at 15:05
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    @jsw29 yes, even "please" can be used as a rude command or demand, if the tone is right.
    – Esther
    Commented Nov 7, 2022 at 17:08
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"Say 'please'" is something you say to a child after they've asked for something, to remind them to say it politely, in the same way you would tell them "Don't talk with your mouth full" or "Say 'excuse me' after you burb" or "Cover your mouth when you cough".

In case it wasn't clear to you as a non-native speaker, this isn't a set phrase "say please", it's an instruction to say the word please, "Say 'please'".

For someone to have said this to you means the person was treating you like a child, either because that person is a jerk, or because they felt you were being rude to them and this was their way of telling you that you that. Even then, it wasn't very mature of them.

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Yes, what you said was impolite

Or, at least, this person perceived you were.

However, the impoliteness is cultural rather than linguistic - different versions of English don’t use “please” the same way.

In British and Australian English almost every request for action must be accompanied by “please”. Exceptions include imperatives (e.g. “Stop!”), or within a longer conversation such as between colleagues working on the same task.

American English reserves “please” for when the action requested rises above an ill-defined threshold of magnitude: “Can you drop me at the station?” versus “Can you drive me to Cincinnati, please?”. Both would get a “please” in England or Australia.

For example, Americans typically don’t say “please” when ordering food; Australians and Britishers always do. Each is being culturally polite.

However, just to complicate things, saying “please” to an American where they would not use it can also be impolite - it implies that you thought that they might refuse your trivial request; implying that they are impolite.

“Say please”

The “say please” correction is itself insulting or, at least, demeaning. Its a way of correcting a child, not an adult, particularly not an adult with English as a second language.

I couldn’t count the number of times I’ve said “Say please”, “Please?”, or “What’s the magic word?” to my children as they were growing up. I would never say it to an adult; well, maybe my adult children.

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