No one is more insufferable than he who lacks basic courtesy.

-Bryant H. McGill

Courtesy is as much a mark of a gentleman as courage.

-Theodore Roosevelt


On my facebook page, The Gentle Life, I recently asked the question, "What is the rudest behavior you see on a regular basis?" One fan responded with the following:

Failing to say "May I please have" when ordering something from a server at a restaurant, coffee shop, bar, bank, or anywhere else where you are requesting service. "I need a double cheeseburger and a large fry". "Give me two bud lights". "Yeah....lemme get a single, tall, half calf mocha with whip".

What a brilliant observation.

It is absolutely true that people no longer say "may I, please" with any frequency. I myself am guilty of speaking in such a casual nature. And only when brought to my attention by the aforementioned reader did I even realize that I had been doing it.

Perhaps the best way to approach this topic, is to first understand from where the formal request "may I, please" originated. I don't need to go so far back as to the Latin roots to discuss this, but to look at the phrase, we certainly need to understand that "may I, please" is a shortened version of a much longer request.

Traditionally, when requesting an item or a service from another person, you would acknowledge that you were asking them for their aid. You would look at the person, and since you were about to implore a favor of them, say "May I, if it pleases you, have a small amount of ether and a vial of laudanum." You, in this simple sentence, are not only asking permission of the vendor to make the request, but also informing them that if it is something they don't want to do, then they don't have to do it.

What a wonderful concept! Being a gentleman when requesting something!

Sir, I realize that I am about to ask a favor of you. And I also realize that in doing so I may be putting you out in one way or another. So, if it is ok with you, I would very much like to request a pound of saltwater taffy.

Well, that's a bit long winded, but you can begin to see how, in polite society, a person can request something of another and still be courteous. "If it pleases you" the phrase that we have boiled down to the rather easy and casual "please" is equivalent to saying, "if it's not too much trouble." There are many permutations of this expression. There are many ways to make a request. And there are many ways to do this politely. But the entirety of the above statement can be condesned to a simple "Please." What a powerful word that is.

But for some reason, we have decided to change our methods from that of a respectful acknowledgement of a favor to a much more demanding exposition of what we presume is rightfully ours.

"Let me have a..." "Give me a..." "I'll take a..." "I want a..."

This is just awful when you start to think about it. If you remove these phrases from your local Starbucks and instead picture a 5 year old saying them in a whiny voice, you can begin to understand how inappropriate it is. "Let me have deserrrrrrrt!" Truly, can you think of a more inappropriate way for an adult to ask for something? Why do we feel it is ok to demand things from people? Is it because we are paying for goods? Is it that because we are spending money, that we somehow have come to the conclusion that we are then obtaining something that is rightfully ours? Maybe this is the case. But regardless of what has driven us to this point, we are collectively so rude that it seems to have become the norm.

"Can I get a..."

We have not only removed the phrase "if it pleases you" but we have also entered into the world of being grammatically incorrect. "Can I" is not a request for permission. "Can I" is a request for information. All one must do is think back to grade school.

"Mrs. Hepplewhite, can I go to the bathroom?" "I don't know, Lullabelle, can you?"

As far back as our single digit years, we have had people informing us that "Can I" is incorrect. And yet, if you spend ten minutes standing at a busy bar, you will hear that phrase over and over and over again.

Here's a general rule of thumb with regards to grammar:

If it has ever been a rap lyric, odds are it is poor grammar.

We have become incredibly adept at expressing our wants and needs and have managed to deny the knowledge that we are, in fact, asking for a favor. Of course, the argument can be made that if I am paying for something, then yes it is mine. But to this I would remind you, that you are in the establishment as a guest. You are welcome in this place of business solely because the proprietor allows it. And it is well within the rights of said proprietor to have you removed.

These people who are serving us, be they waiters. baristas, bartenders, or pretzel cart operators, deserve our respect. You don't need to admire them, you don't even have to like them, but you do have to acknowledge that they are doing you a solid, and as such, you should be grateful they are willing to do so.

So next time you request something from someone, look them in the eye, and say "May I, please..." It doesn't matter if it is your mom asking how you want your eggs. There is never any excuse for being disrespectful to someone who's doing you a favor.

And let Jay-Z keep "can I get a..."

Do I need to talk about "thank you?"

Until next time, be a gentleman.