I’m back from the USA. I don’t know if I’m rested or exhausted, but I do know that I’m a bit chastened, from a courtesy point of view.
The Americans are a naturally courteous people. I was struck by their respectful forms of address (Sir, Ma’am) and in particular by their automatic use of you’re welcome in reply to any thank you.
I started teaching English in Milan at a Berlitz school many years ago. Berlitz is an American institution, and I would have to drill such structures as ‘you’re welcome’. I did so, because I am a faultlessly diligent employee, but I would then tell students that we never actually said it, because I am also an honest one.
But I was wrong. We may not say it, but the Americans most certainly do. A few days ago I held a door open for someone (the English are not wholly lacking in social graces) and as she passed through she said thank you; and since I merely smiled in reply, she said it for me, a little tartly. You’re welcome.
Of course these are formulaic locutions, something akin to the formal forms of address in many other languages, and perhaps making up for them to some extent. Americans can also be much more direct than the (southern) English, who are not so much polite as capable of circumlocution. And within the US there are degrees of politeness associated with different areas – New Yorkers can be pretty sharp, southerners elaborately courteous.
Politeness in any language, when it comes down to it, is a matter of knowing the rules. I was told by an Italian friend that her mother would be furious if she thanked her for her dinner; and that excessive use of grazie, in a bar, say, was an indication that you were preserving the distance between you and the barman, and didn’t want him to get familiar. It might come over as standoffish.
You think you will learn, and perhaps you do, but these things are deep-rooted. Your courteous response is instinctive, and instinct is difficult to override. As I was sitting on the airport bus at LAX a man sat down next to me and said thank you with great gravity as I moved my bag to accommodate him; and all I could muster after two weeks musing on the subject was a shameful ‘salright.