Stop focussing on Ps and Qs
If you have children, which approach do you favour when they forget to say thank you?
Condescension. Works well no matter the underlying emotional state. Happiness, sadness or suicidal ideation. All are masked by the nauseatingly sing-song, and only semi-rhetorical, "What do you say?".
Echoing. Commonly heard in schools, the approach requires you to over-enunciate every syllable of "Thank. You. Uncle. Arnie". Then wait for it to be repeated back to Uncle Arnie, note for note, and just as devoid of feeling.
Formality. Especially popular on birthdays and Christmases. This requires most of the money any one person has gifted to be spent on a card and postage containing written thanks for said money.
For most people I imagine it is probably a mixture. Different horses for different courses and all. Maybe make a mental note next time little Johnny takes a proffered pound coin from an elderly relative and stuffs it into the pocket of his Hollister hoodie, without a word.
Keep doing that and you can make a tally. Every time you say one or the other, you can equate it to the chip-chip-chipping away you are doing to Johnny's level of emotional intelligence and his understanding of empathy.
One day, maybe 20 or 30 years from now, you can look at little Johnny - probably calling him big Johnny by then - and see him bitterly resenting his lonely and empty life. And you can sit back and think, "I helped create that, I did."
Ok, maybe I am being a wee bit unfair.
But when is the last time you had to 'remind' your child to say thank you?
Saying or writing thank you – including, but not limited to, its brethren, thanks, cheers, ta, appreciated and the wordless simultaneous smile-and-nod-and-eye-raise – is something of a British tradition. It is as common as Eggs and Bacon, Roast Beef and Yorkshire puddings, and 5 pints of Stella and a fistfight.
To the British, remembering your Ps (pleases) and Qs (thankyous) is a way of showing you deserve your place on the moral high ground.
It shows we have been 'brung up good', as my dear old parents used to say. Dear people who were better at correcting the grammar of others than they were at using it themselves. Not saying thank you is not the same as pointing or grunting but, in many circles, its absence says something about the parents and their failure at parenthood.
This is why you still see many parents barking at their child to "SAY THANK YOU" with a tone of aggression that seems to juxtapose the display of manners they wish to encourage.
Allow me to illustrate with a particular memory from my own childhood that may resonate.
Thank you, driver
I used to get a bus home from school. This was back in the day when the streets were bleached so hard that those dirty paedophiles kept well away. And anyway, I always sat next to my best friend and bus buddy Brian, so nobody was ever going to dare approach TWO nine-year-old boys, were they?
Societal naivete aside, it was a well-worn routine that was valued for its regularity. I would meet Brian at the bus stop – our friendship based less on common interests or classes and more to do with the fact that our Mums were mates, and that he lived next-door-but-one – we would nod, grunt, ‘all right’ and hope we got the front seat at the raised section at the back of the bus. We would then sit in silence until we reached our stop, jumped off the bus and raced to our respective doors, yelling ‘see you tomorrow’.
One day, Brian was running late.
He had been asked to stay behind by Mrs Sullivan, a teacher who played a very special part in my childhood as you can find out here. Mrs Sullivan often had to ask Brian to stay behind to discuss a problem. This time it was his spelling. Or his handwriting. Or his PE kit. Or his farting. It’s a detail I don’t recall.
When the bus arrived, there was no sign of Brian. Had this been 20 years later, I would have just sent him a text. Or a Snap. But it wasn’t. So, I didn't.
Instead, I checked the seconds flicking by on my Casio watch. I banged my feet on the pavement. I arched my eyebrows and groaned dramatically. I was yet to learn the futility of such actions.
The mélange that we took for a queue was slowly depleting. I was nearing the point of embarkation. That’s when Brian appeared at the school doors. Awkwardly walk-running, dishevelled, as he put more effort into looking fast than having speed.
I edged forward in half-steps - looking from him to the ever-shortening queue - until all too quickly I was at the bus door. My foot on the bottom step. Nobody behind me. No chance of a seat, let alone the favoured one.
Brian still had some way to go. Maybe 10 metres. Maybe a mile. Distance was relative. I knew it was going to be tight. But my childhood self was a sucker for positive thinking.
“Cermmonnnn” I pleaded at Brian. Half-on, half-off the bus. Pointlessly stretching my arm out behind me, as though this wasn't a bus, but the last remaining lifeboat leaving the sinking Titanic.
"Brian. My friend. Coming. Wait" I staccatoed to the driver.
He looked back, with vacant, cold eyes. Though that may have been just the distortion caused by the light on the plastic screen that protected him from God knows what.
“It’s 3.15. If he can’t be on time…”
His words melted into the swoosh of the doors shutting behind me. Brian stared at me from the pavement as the bus slowly pulled away.
Holding on to the bus rail, I stared back, helpless. The ball of emotions growing in the pit of my stomach were unrecognisable to a nine-year-old. Anger. Fear. Desperation. Panic. Nausea. Hunger. (It was that time between lunch and tea).
Feelings that were new to me. That I had no way of knowing how to process. (Apart from the hunger. For that, I ate the rest of a Club biscuit found in my lunch box.)
I was going to erupt. I needed an outlet. I needed vengeance.
Through dampening eyes I looked at the man responsible for this crime. The driver was uncaring, now whistling along to the tinny portable radio in his cabin. "Do you really want to hurt me?" sang Culture Club. Oh yes, Boy George, I really did.
An idea came to me. One so wicked, I let out an involuntary gasp of surprise at it entering my head. It was extreme. I knew if I was to do this and get found out, I risked having meal ‘privileges’ removed for the rest of the week. But at that moment, the red mist had fallen. I didn't care about the consequences.
It helped that I had just polished off the Club biscuit. Plus, it was a Thursday so not too much of the week was left for me to starve.
As the bus turned into the end of my road, I readied myself. Teeth gritted, I took a deep breath, and pulled my Puma schoolbag – don't judge, I had PE on a Thursday – tightly to my chest.
Swoosh. The doors opened.
Cha-chunk. They folded into the sides, and I took my place on the first step to disembark.
Bi-bi-beep, bi-bi-beep, bi-bi-beep, bi-bi-beep. As the doors were about to close, I made my attack.
From the pavement, I turned to stare directly at the driver through the warped Perspex. Survivor's Eye of the Tiger now coming from the transistor. Rocky 3. It seemed right.
Before the -oosh followed the sw- to sound the doors shutting, I opened my mouth.
“Thank you, driver..." I said, "…but I don’t mean it.”
The bus pulled away.
I don’t know if the drive heard me. I don’t think he had been looking at me. It was immaterial. He would have felt my wrath.
My breath was short. My armpits were dampness. My bladder was full. My revenge had been served.
The thought never entered my nine-year-old mind that I could not thank the bus driver. You had to thank bus drivers for doing the thing they were being paid to do. For driving the bus.
Not saying thank you wasn’t even on the long list of my revenge thoughts. And I think one or two of those thoughts included causing real, physical harm to him, his family and/or his pets.
The sense of imperative I had to give thanks was ingrained. Like breathing. The very worst thing I could do was to duly say thank you. But to show my ire by vocalising the lack of meaning behind it. Withdrawing the empty sentiment of the words.
I slept well that night.
We may laugh at my naïve, sweet, and somewhat stupid childhood self. We may say that children are much ruder these days. Every generation says the same about the one that follows.
The years have passed, and my parents no longer control my food intake. I am more independent in my thinking and can draw from a wider vocabulary of insults. But my conditioning means I would still be more likely to say thank you than use the more emotionally representative fuck you.
And I think many of you reading this would be too.
I suggest we are teaching our children the wrong thing. We are drilling into them some odd law about saying a word. Instead of teaching them about the spirit of gratitude, of appreciation, and of care for others.
It’s little wonder we go on in our lives, oblivious to this. And when we may think we are showing how grateful we are for the kindness of others, we are so often using The Wrong Kind of Thank You.