Could you please…? Thank you. … Oh, I’m sorry… How are you? … I’m fine.
I’ve noticed something that I, and many others, do quite a bit- we use words without intending the actual meaning of the word, or without even knowing the actual meaning of the word.
I’ll start with the word please. I, like many others, have been taught that we must say please as a matter of etiquette when requesting something, and sometimes even when commanding something. From what I have come to understand (and others may have a different spin on this), the use of the word ‘please’ is a shortening of the phrase ‘if it would please you.’ So, the word please has changed into something often used to obligate the recipient to submit to the request/command. This is a complete reversal from the concession-like nature of the original meaning- that a person need only feel obligated to do what pleases them.
The next important word(s?) whose meaning is all-too-often neglected is thank you. Thank is etymologically related to think- as in ‘I am conscious of the meaning and value of what you have done’. However, these days, many simply speak the word without pausing mentally to actually appreciate what exactly they are thankful of and its meaning and value. Thank yous have become another empty social ritual.
Another, less used but equally important, word is sorry. Countless times as a child, and even as an adult, I have spoken the word because custom and etiquette demanded it in certain situations. However, I couldn’t count how many times I have spoken it without actually meaning it (at least not at the time it was uttered). From what I have come to understand (again, someone may disagree), the word sorry is another shortening of a phrase. In the original sense, sorry meant that the speaker was sore- was hurting and felt bad- that they had wronged someone, as in ‘I’m sore that I’ve hurt you.’
I have noticed that even some phrases that are commonly spoken are used without any meaning. How many times have I heard (or myself) used the question ‘how are you?’ as a quick greeting, or in passing. I have often myself, and I’ve seen others, kept walking after asking the question of someone I encountered while out. If I am really interested in hearing how someone is doing, I will stop moving and listen to their response. Otherwise, it is just lip service- It’s like I’ll ask the question to keep up appearances of interest, but really you’re not worth the time it would take to hear your response.
This leads me to the next bit of empty communication. If someone has asked me how I am doing, and I am able, doesn’t it make sense to invest the bit of time it takes to tell them? If they’ve asked, then, on face value, they are interested in how things are with me. Am I so uninterested in them that they don’t warrant a sincere response? ‘Fine’ and ‘Good’ are largely meaningless as responses. When I ask my friend how they are doing, it is because I know a thing or two about their life, and I’m interested in how those things collectively and individually are going for them.
As I write this, I wonder if somewhere along the way, as the use of these words and phrases was drilled into me by parent, teacher, and culture, could the actual lesson to be conveyed have been lost? Perhaps the lesson a child is meant to be taught is not that they should use these words, but what it means to use them. Indeed, that lesson is one I intend to try to teach myself.
‘Small talk’ and using my manners don’t need to be meaningless.