Thoughts on genre, language, grammar, and other
rhetorical and linguistic norms
rhetorical and linguistic norms
It’s not just apologies that need rules for doing them well.
Last year at this time, I wrote about the fact that Thanksgiving is the only holiday with a verb in it, that tells us how to celebrate it. Give thanks.
W. J. Cameron: "Thanksgiving, after all, is a word of action."
I shared some of the ideas others had suggested for giving thanks at the holiday celebration—taking turns around the table, writing down one thing you’re thankful for and sharing them, and other thankful demonstrations that would fit perfectly in a Hallmark Christmas movie (I’m a sucker for a good heart-warming Hallmark Christmas movie).
I also wrote about how thankful I was for the help I’d been getting as I recovered from shoulder surgery (a huge thanks again to all those great people, who would have fit well into that Hallmark movie where the townspeople step up to help the independent woman who insists on going it alone! Update: my athletic injury is completely healed after six months of physical therapy—thanks Andrea, my super physical therapist!)
Less fitting in the Hallmark movie (unless said by the evil corporate drone or the self-involved boyfriend who’s about to be dumped) is the “humble brag” that’s a thank you for seeing how awesome I am!
“Thank you to all the students who wrote such nice things on their evaluations. You help keep me going.”
“Thanks to all the colleagues who wrote support letters for my big award. I wouldn’t have received it without you”
“Big shout out to Susie, our wonderful travel agent, who planned such an incredible two week trip through Italy”
Before I get sucked into all the generic markers of a Hallmark Christmas movie (surely a topic for another post soon), I want to focus on the simpler version of thanks that I wrote about—the every day “thanks” we say to people we encounter all day long, maybe sometimes without really meaning it.
Thanks again to Deepak Singh for his article in the Atlantic about the differences between saying thanks in the US and in India.
I have been living in the United States for more than a decade, and I now say thank you about 50 times a day. Most of the time, I do it without thinking. I say thank you to the bus driver who takes me from point A to point B along with 20 other people. He usually can’t even hear me. I say thank you to the cashier at the coffee shop. I say thank you to the stranger who holds the door open for me at a restaurant. I say thank you to my wife and my 5-year-old daughter several times a day for various things: turning the volume of the television down or up, flicking the light switch on or off, asking me if I want to eat something or do something with them.” --Deepak Singh
Deepak Singh contrasted our everyday thanks to the deep meaningfulness of saying thank you in India, something you do only with sincerity and a desire to do something in return.
I’ve been trying to shift my casual “thanks” to a genuine “thank you,” and I think I’ve figured out a few “rules” for making the simple thanks register a bit more on the person thanked and have a bit more impact. I think of these as rules for thanking like Harriet Lerner’s rules for apologizing well (here’s her book and my posts on apologies).
Here were her rules for a good apology, from her column in Psychology Today "You Call THAT an Apology,":
So let me give it a try.
What makes a good everyday thank you:
Simple, right? "I really am sincerely thankful that you picked up that pen I dropped." "I genuinely thank you for pouring coffee for me." "I thank you for holding the door open for me when you saw how many bags I was carrying."
I’ve already been working on getting rid of the sarcastic thanks: “Thanks for letting the door slam in my face, pal.” And I’m getting better at skipping the thank you buts. No more “thanks for washing my cup but I wasn’t finished with it yet,” If I don’t like someone cleaning up after me or opening the door for me, I just don’t say thank you. I can say something else, but not an insincere “thanks.”
Being specific about the action doesn’t take many extra words. “Thanks for getting my pen!” “Thank you for the coffee.” But I find being specific usually goes along with the last requirement of a good everyday thank you—making a connection with the person you’re thanking. And that takes a little bit more effort.
Connecting with the person you’re thanking usually takes only eye contact. Looking the person in the eye as she hands your pen back when you say the genuine, “Thank you.” Pausing at the door long enough to look at the person holding it—or getting them to look up from their phone—before saying straight to their eyes, “Thank you!”
Adding some enthusiasm usually helps make that thank you more meaningful. We’re so used to tossing off “thanks” hither and yon that we can tell when someone is genuinely and with awareness thanking us for what we’ve done. So often just “Thank you!” with that exclamation mark spoken aloud makes a good everyday thanks.
Now be warned: just as Lerner says an apologizer shouldn’t expect forgiveness, a thanker shouldn’t expect a “you’re welcome.” Besides, you’re much more likely to get a “No problem.” And that’s part of my point here. It WAS a problem. You DID do something that I appreciate. Just let me thank you for it. (I know, I know, the “no problem” is just another way of completing the exchange, but I’m talking about having “thank you” have more of an impact on the person thanked).
So I like it when my sincere-specific-with-eye-contact-and-enthusiasm “thank you” gets a non-automatic, not-routine response of any kind. “You’re welcome,” said sincerely, is a good one. But don’t expect it. It’s just nice when it happens.
Why go to all the trouble? After all, it’s not really like an apology, where you have done something bad and need to acknowledge the hurt you’ve caused. But someone has done something good, even just a little thing, and it helps to acknowledge the pleasure the person has caused.
Our daily interactions are the ones that make a difference in our moods, our sense of connection with others, our social expectations and even our beliefs about the goodness (or badness) of people. Daily kindnesses can go a long way, and so can daily acknowledgment of those kindnesses. (I warned you I could be a bit sappy as well as independent. Cue the Hallmark movie music)
Since we already in America say thank you all the time, as Singh pointed out, let’s make it count.
So yes, I hope you can use Thanksgiving to give thanks to your families and friends and the people important to you.
And I hope we can use every day to give thanks to the strangers we encounter and the little acts of kindness in our shared inhabiting of the world.
Day to day, let’s give good thanks.
Happy thanksgiving. And thank you, dear readers, for reading to the end!