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.

A silhouette of a person in the distance by a wall
Nobody wants to be 'them'

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.


Be honest about reviews.

A computer screen showing the home page of a review site
Don't thank for feedback

Read this typical exchange from a reviews site:

Your Customer: The service was terrible and the portion size meagre. We will never go back to this restaurant again.

Business Owner (You): Thank you for your feedback. We’re sorry you didn’t enjoy your meal and will do everything we can to improve on this if you decide to visit us again. Thank you for your custom.

Now, be honest. You aren’t grateful for their feedback. You won’t give them anything if they do return. You don’t want them to return. In fact, you’re probably thinking you know who the customer is and disliked them as soon as they turned up.

Don’t think that this doesn’t show in your response. Saying thank you does not cover this feeling. And the customer will not read your response and feel better about you because you said thank you.

Now read this:

Your Customer: The service was terrible and the portion size meagre. We will never go back to this restaurant again.

Business Owner (You): It’s a shame that you didn’t enjoy your time with us. We’re happy when our customers are happy and luckily, we rarely hear any feedback like yours as most of our customers have a great time. We have noted your comments though in case we have any further dissatisfied customers in the future and need to make any changes. In the meantime, hopefully you will find other venues that better suit your requirements.

You might think this sounds too harsh. You may worry it makes you sound arrogant. But where does it say that a business owner needs to be obsequious?

Of course, this supposes that most of your customers are satisfied but, even if not, this feedback is not something you are thankful for. Even if your service is shit, the chances are that you know this and don’t have gratitude for the comment.

This response still acknowledges the customer’s feedback – which is a good thing – and it doesn’t become overly defensive or display any anger towards the customer. It shows the feedback has value, but it doesn’t rely on a polite thank you to imply a gratitude that you don’t have.


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.”


Start using the right thank you right now.

A hand reaches out
The grateful thank you

Even though we throw thank yous around willy-nilly – or possibly because we do – a polite thank you has little impact on anyone. That doesn’t mean we shouldn't use it – being polite doesn't cause any harm – but we need to stop confusing it with a grateful thank you. If you want to communicate real gratitude – whether to build relationships with customers or to reward and motivate staff – the words themselves are not enough.

The next time you write a thank you, here is a quick way to check it is truly grateful:

  1. ASK yourself for what it is you are showing gratitude

  2. ADD those words after your thank you

  3. READ back the total sentence

  4. If it still sounds like something that really warrants gratitude, include the whole detail and the receiver will feel it

  5. If it doesn’t, it will probably sound silly or sarcastic. In which case, remove the thank you completely and I guarantee its absence won’t cause any harm

Example 1:

Your email explains the new process for booking holiday at work. You want to sign off your email with Thanks

  1. ASK – Showing gratitude for them following this new process

  2. ADD – Thanks for following this process in the future

  3. READ – It’s presumptuous to thank people for something they haven’t yet done. It also sounds clunky. Remove it. Or replace with ‘it would be great if you could follow this process in the future’

Example 2:

You get an email saying the work you needed will be done at the time you requested it. You want to reply with Thanks:

  1. ASK – Thanking them for doing what you asked them to do

  2. ADD – Thanks for doing what I asked

  3. READ – It’s unnecessary. Have they had to move other commitments to meet your deadline? If so, thank them for that. Otherwise, no thank you.

If you want to regain the value that is possible when you communicate gratitude, get out of the habit of automatically signing off your emails with a Thank you, a Thanks, a Cheers, or worst of all, a 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 want to keep it in because it is polite. In written form, this is not true.

You may argue that it really is a grateful thanks because you are thanking the reader for reading the email you sent. There are only two reasons this could be true; either they are doing you a favour by reading the email when they have no time spare, or the content of the email is worthless.

If it is the former, then ASK, ADD, READ. If it makes sense, include that reason in your thanks. If it is the latter, don’t send the email at all.

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.


1 Extra Word writes copy and develops content that humanises businesses to thank, help, reward — and generally flirt with — their customers, prospects and employees.
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