I would forget to say please (slap). I would omit to say thank you (slap again).I would sometimes burst into a room whose door was closed without knocking (slap-slap). And thus I was taught what everyone in America of the late sixties and seventies, my formative years one might say, called "good manners" and "being polite."
After several million slaps, I actually started to get it.
Everything got easier after I finally learned this lesson. People listened to me more. My parents smiled more. I got a few more birthday and Christmas gifts. I heard people say - My what a GOOD boy. What a POLITE boy. This had been working for me until I left America. Then things started to get more complicated...
The idea of being polite was driven by the idea of showing respect for the person to whom you are talking. Not a respect like student to Maharishi or loyal subject to the Queen, but rather it was a base level of interchange in conversation which smoothed over rough edges. By saying please, thank you , and you're welcome, you demonstrate that you respect the other person enough to be aware of their sensibilities. It does not matter if I had to learn it by rote - the idea of civility and politeness also sunk in.
Then I arrived in Belgrade.
Politeness here is not unknown. The Serbian language contains all of the structures and forms for exceedingly polite conversation. But it is not used in the same way, at the same times, or with the same people as in American English. In familiar circles, with friends or family, the idea of politeness is treated with suspicion. It is seen as being fake or artificial, unnecessary and sometimes even offensive.
It is common enough to use the imperative tense without modifying your commands - Give me that! Close the door! Come here! In all of these examples, I would (mistakenly) say "please" by way of softening the command. The subtext is something like: "It-is-not-my-place-or-station-to-issue-orders-to-you-but-I-would-be-very-grateful-if-you-could-close-the-door. Please." More and more I begin to think that this reflects a certain insecurity in Anglo-Saxon native speakers. We are uncertain, perhaps, that our good intentions or feelings are understood. So we have to put words around them.
This is also representative of an economy of language which we do not have in English. In Serbian, we do not waste time with the amenities and niceties of the pleases and the thank yous. They are understood. They are implicit. Why say something that needs no saying? Maybe that is why we do not even modify our nouns in Serbian - no definite or indefinite articles, please, we have already said enough.
Habit being what it is, I continue to say thank you to everyone. The merchant, the waiter, the friend, the child, the doctor, and anyone with whom I end up talking. Even the cop giving me a parking ticket gets a polite thank you as I turn to speed away from him.
On other occasions, people have got angry with me (or at least what I perceive as anger when voices are raised) for insisting on my idea of politeness. I do not like people walking into my office unannounced - I need them to knock on the door. They don't of course.
And now to all of you who are about to tell me how useless it is for me to dedicate a whole column to this meaningless talk I have only one thing to say:
Thank you very much.