Are you confusing thanks with gratitude?
The Polite Thank You
The British say thank you more than anyone else in the world. We are both famed and mocked for our politeness.
Which is nice.
Or it would be if we meant it.
We say thank you to project our best selves. It is a badge that shows our membership of polite society. It separates us from those nefarious others. It says we aren’t hoodlums, twitter warriors or the unemployed.
The prevalence of thank you has rendered the sentiment meaningless. We may think it shows gratitude, but this is rarely the case.
We thank people simply to acknowledge their existence. We thank the bus driver and the waiter. We thank the door opener and the person who lets us go before them.
We thank for blessing our sneezes. We thank for delivering bad news. We thank, prematurely, for reading our emails.
These polite thank yous may show we have manners. They have little to do with gratitude.
A polite thank you is automatic. It is a space-filler. A period to end a sentence. A subconscious reflex action. You may be judged for its absence. But you will not be praised for its vapid presence.
The Demotivating Thank You
If you ever seek advice on managing people, or on dealing with customers, you will read endless tomes on the virtues of saying thank you.
“A thanked team is a motivated team."
“A thanked customer is an appreciated customer.”
So, we do that. We do just that.
We thank people for doing their job. Or because we assume they will. We thank people for showing up. We thank people for trying. We thank people for failing. We thank people for giving us negative feedback.
If we don't, we feel we are bad managers or bad business owners. We feel we will leave our teams unhappy and our customers unloved.
It is an unnecessary and unwarranted fear.
Nobody is motivated by a polite thank you. As individuals, we don’t feel better about ourselves just by being thanked. At best, an empty thank you just flies over our heads. At worst, a thank you without depth sounds disingenuous.
Add to this, the British tendency towards sarcasm, and a hollow, unnecessary thank you can make you sound snide. Having the absolute opposite effect to the one you intended.
The Automatic Thank You
A major cause of the devaluing of thank you is the growth of email. 'Thank you' is to email what 'over and out' is to the army radio and 'goodbye' is to the telephone. Imagine ending a phone call with thank you. It would be very odd. Unless of course you were actually thanking the person on the other end of the line for something.
Yet that is what many of us do with emails. For your thanks to show gratitude, you need to stop signing off emails with Thank you, Thanks, Cheers, or worst of all, Tx.
If it is part of your auto-signature, remove it. The fact that it is auto generated says it all really.
This is no more than the polite thanks for door-opening or bus driving. But in its written form, it becomes an unnecessary full stop.
You may argue that you are thanking the reader for reading your email. If that's because you see no value in the content, why have you sent it?
If it's because the recipient is very busy or you are asking a particular favour, acknowledge this reason with your thank you.
This shouldn't always be the case. So you shouldn't always be signing off with a thank you.
The Thankful Thank You
In no way am I saying that we shouldn't use thank you. Being polite doesn't harm anyone. But we need to stop confusing it with a grateful thank you.
The next time you write a thank you, check it is truly grateful with ASK, ADD, READ:
ASK: For what are you grateful.
ADD: Those words after your thank you.
READ: The new complete sentence.
If this complete sentence still sounds like something that warrants gratitude, use it in its totality. The recipient will recognise the gratitude as intended.
If it doesn’t, it will probably sound odd. At best silly, at worst, sarcastic. So, remove the thank you completely. I guarantee its absence won’t cause any harm.
You send an email explaining the new process employees must use to book annual leave.
Before you sign off and press send...
ASK: For what are you grateful? Hmm... For following this new process?
ADD: Thank you for following this new process...when you book annual leave...in future.
READ: The complete sentence is presumptuous. It is dependent on future actions. If there is no impact of this behaviour change, there is no benefit for which to show your gratitude.
You can only thank someone for doing something positive. To retain a thank you in this situation, you would need to make this benefit clear. For example, if the process change would reduce admin costs by x%, explain this in your body copy. Then the thanks can be 'for helping the business save money.'
Otherwise remove it completely. Use a softer sign-off such as "it would be great if you could follow this process in future."
You receive an email from a colleague in another department. They are telling you that the work you requested will be with you at the end of the day, as you also requested.
Before you hit the auto-response 'Thanks'...
ASK: For what are you grateful? Hmm...For doing what you asked? For saying you will get it at the time you requested?
ADD: Thank you for confirming you will deliver no more than I asked, and no earlier than needed.
READ: It is impossible not to read this as passive-aggressive. Their email to you is no more than an update or confirmation. You can be grateful when you do receive the work, assuming it is as expected of course. No thank you is necessary yet.
It can feel odd to not send a reply to this sort of email. We have programmed ourselves to send them and to expect them. But they are hollow. They are the thank you emails that create the virtual landfill clogging inboxes and wasting time in offices around the world every day.
If you take any of this on board and separate your thanks from your thanks, your thanks will be so much more powerful and effective when you use them.
And people will thank you for that.