Magic Words

Among many English words I learned as a beginner, the polite expressions, such as thank you, excuse me and I’m sorry, are used most often in my life and are also the most well-known to Chinese; even my father who doesn’t speak a word of English would say “Saw-ly” or “Fan-Q” to my English-speaking friends.

Like the American children, as kids, we were taught to speak politely to others in China. But one thing struck me when I was in a restaurant in Pittsburgh, hearing an American mother saying to her five-year-old child, “Please, Marc. Could you please not to play with the food?” Having followed his mother’s instruction, the boy got a compliment of “Thank you! At a boy!”

I haven’t heard of a parent talking to a child so politely in China. Instead, there is usually an imperative tone attached to the speech of a teacher to students, of a boss to employees, of a government clerk to visitors or of a parent to a child. I’m not sure if the familiarity between family members simplifies the wording of politeness. My father seldom said please to my mother if he asked her to do something, nor did they say thanks to me if I helped them out. I was so used to the bare request in my family that on the contrary, I would feel awkward if my mother thanked me. “We’re family. You don’t need to thank me,” I used to say to her.

When I first arrived in America, I did not know what the phrase “ magic word” meant. But I did notice that please and thank you were omnipresent in various conversations around me. Until one day my American teacher who is a mother of three boys explained to me, “That’s what I taught my sons when they were little,” she said proudly.

Yes, words like please, thank you and the others work magically in our daily social contacts. The person who says it conveys a message of courtesy; the one who receives it will feel delighted to be appreciated. I understand now why my companion complains that I am rude when I asks him to remove the chair without saying please. I learn my lesson. I carry the magic words every day, saying them to people I know or to those I don’t know. Several times thank you just slips out of my mouth without my thinking about it. But even though it may be an incorrect response, it lightens the day of the others, doesn’t it?


Filed under: Prose, Songyi Zhang's America