The Wrong Kind of Thank You

Stop saying Thank You when you really mean F**k You

A typewriter with paper that has different language versions of thank you typed on it
The Wrong Kind of Thank You

The British are famed - and mocked - for being polite. According to research published by the Royal Society Open Science in 2018, the British say thank you more than anyone else in the world. And the British Council’s etiquette guide advises non-English speakers that you can never say thank you too many times.


Both the research and guide refer to social situations. However, as more and more employers see thanking people as shorthand for staff appreciation, it would be a fair assumption that thank you is even more prevalent in the workplace.


How many times do you either write, or say a variant of thanks on an average work day? If you're not sure, a good starting point would be to count the number of emails you send each day. And double it.


Now ask yourself honestly, how many of those times did you genuinely mean thank you? And how many were you really thinking f**k you?


You may not think this abundance of thanking is a problem. It’s just being polite, after all. But this autopilot usage is denigrating your ability to show real gratitude. And the likelihood is that you probably haven’t even noticed.


You’re relying on the wrong kind of thank you.

 

The nefarious others

We live in a time where we talk more and more about the nefarious 'others' – the jab jumpers, the mask refusers, the Twitter warriors – those who don't follow the rules that conform to accepted norms.


Eager to appear part of 'us', not 'them', we rely on semiotics that show we are the models of society, behaving as decent folk should.


Saying thank you is one of the oldest of these signifiers. Remembering your Ps (pleases) and Qs (thankyous) shows you have been brought up well. Saying thank you doesn’t just create a perception of you, it also says something about your parents’ success or failure at parenthood.


Many parents are so desperate to instill this into their child's lexicon that you see them punishing their offspring for forgetting to use it, or for not using it quickly enough. It has always seemed somewhat contradictory that we encourage polite behaviour with the threat of violence.


So, we thank everyone to show we are polite. Overall, this is a good thing. It’s a way of ending a conversation. It underscores the finality to an exchange. What it isn’t, and what it is often mistaken for, is a sign of gratitude. What it has lost is the original sentiment behind giving thanks, a humble appreciation for an act that has in some way helped you.


We have forgotten this. When we want to show gratitude to colleagues or customers, we mistake the polite thanks for the grateful thanks and the effect is hollow. The polite thanks fills space. It communicates nothing without meaning behind it.

 

Don't confuse manners with gratitude

We think we are showing gratitude when we thank people, but we rarely are. Think about some of the things you thank people for. If you are honest with yourself, you will see that often, though the act done may have been pleasant, or not awful anyway, it was hardly deserving of gratitude.


We thank people to acknowledge their existence, to show we are aware of the space they fill in our world. We thank the bus driver; we thank the waiter. For doing their jobs. We thank the door opener; we thank the person who let us go before them. For being polite.


We thank the one who has blessed us after sneezing. Because we want to return the platitude. We thank the person delivering the bad news. For speaking or writing.


These are all polite thanks. They show we have manners, but they don’t communicate gratitude. The polite thanks is automatic, it’s a space-filler, a Pavlov's dog style reflex action. It is a full-stop at the end of a sentence. As such, it is expected behaviour. It has no impact by being there, but its absence is noted, and you will be judged by the absence, not the inclusion.


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 just for doing their job. 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 truth behind the thanks

The prevalence – some may say, overuse – of the polite thank you is a Western thing. In Britain, and possibly even more so in the US, if a conversation has not been punctuated with a thanks, a thank you, or even a cheers for a couple of minutes, the atmosphere changes, a tension created by the unusual absence.


In much of China and India for example, thank you is not something that is said lightly. There, if you thank somebody for passing the salt, your hosts would likely be bewildered, possibly even offended by the imbalance. A thank you is said to somebody who has helped you when you truly needed assistance, not when they carried out a basic task.


According to Deepak Singh, writing in The Atlantic, using the polite thank you in India would make many people feel “you’re violating your intimacy with them and creating formality and distance that shouldn’t exist”.


And in Dreaming in Chinese, Deborah Fallows writes that space-fillers like ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ are seen as putting distance between you and your hosts, acting like “a kind of buffer or space that says, in effect, that we need some formality between us here.”

 



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