On the street the other day, I overheard a woman talking earnestly on the phone as she walked a few feet away from me. I couldn't help listening (in fairness, if you're talking on the street, your conversation is probably fair game for my ears). "I don't know what I'll do," she said. "But I am so grateful to you for talking to me about it. Thank you so much for the time you've given me, I really appreciate it."
Wow, I thought, as our paths diverged. Now THAT is how you do a thank you.
Many criticisms have been lobbed at our too-fast, too-rude, not-grateful-enough society, and some of them are well-deserved. These days, if someone does a selfless thing for you, perhaps you dig deep into your soul and fave one of their tweets or throw them a Facebook like. Sure, it's probably accurate to assume people are saying thank you less than they used to — certainly, there seem to be a set of people who don't put much stock in it. These people are probably the same ones who don't bother to hold the door for the person behind them, or who pause on the subway steps or in the middle of a sidewalk to look at their phones, never bothering to notice they are inconveniencing a lot of other people. They don't notice, or maybe they just don't care. These people have existed since the beginning of time and they are the Recklessly Unconscientious. They will never say thank you, because in their narcissism, they've never noticed that they should think about anyone else.
But a lot more of us were brought up in a culture of gratitude. We do appreciate when people do things for us, and we mean to say thank you. Sometimes in the hectic pace, we just forget. Or maybe we don't know the proper etiquette, exactly. We fear being too earnest, too cloying, too in-your-face.
When I was a child, I was trained to send thank you notes to anyone who sent me a gift. And when I was searching for my first job, I'd send thank you cards to the people who interviewed me. The actual physical sending of a thank you note has become a matter of some debate now. A few years back I interviewed someone who sent me a thank you card, but I never got it; it was lost in the mailroom. Meanwhile, all the other candidates sent email thank yous, and I wondered why this one seemingly very polite and attentive person had forgotten to say thanks or follow up. (Don't worry, it was all ultimately resolved in a flurry of thanks.)
Are you going to annoy someone who you've asked for help if you send them a quick email afterward detailing your thanks? No! Do you thank your delivery guy when he brings your food to your door? Yes. Do you thank the person who holds the door for you, even if you don't know them? Yep. Do you thank your butler when he makes you the perfect martini and delivers it to you on a gilded platter and then offers you a shiatsu massage? Indeed. Do you thank your boyfriend for buying dinner? Why wouldn't you? And he should thank you when you return the favor. Most of all, certainly, if someone takes time out of their day to advise you on a personal problem, to introduce you to someone who might help your career, to help you with your career themselves, to write a thoughtful email in response to a question you have put to them, to have their brain "picked" — if someone gives up any time at all for you — they deserve a sincere, specific thanks.
There is no one way to thank. A thank you can be digital or physical or verbal, a thank you can come with a gift or without one, a thank you can be a "thanks" or a "you're the best" or a multi-sentence appreciation mantra. Thank yous, it turns out, are kind of like pitches — adapt them for the person you're sending them to for the best result. In that vein, please accept my hearty thank you for reading this column. I know you have other things to read and do in your day, and your time spent with me (even if it's merely with my words, but actually, let's agree it's better for everyone this way) is appreciated.
All of this said, there are some thank yous that go too far. They seem disingenuous, or rote. Saying it too much tends to devalue its worth. If a friend buys you a drink, for example, you don't need to thank them for each ice cube. Sometimes we thank when we don't mean it, like in a meaningless email signoff, or passive-aggressive thanking. Those forms of gratitude are never advised, unless you're extremely funny and can make a sardonic thank you a laugh-out-loud joke. (I am not that person.) And since women are traditionally culturally expected to be thrilled and grateful for the slightest kindnesses thrown our way, we may be the excessive thankers. Maybe sometimes we should thank a little bit less. More than anything, we should thank consciously, kind of the same way that Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin approached their uncoupling. (Thanks, you two, for the gift of that special parlance.)
But, if you really don't want to say thank you, if you consider the phrase nothing more than two useless words better left to previous generations of the considerate, that's totally fine. Just don't ask anyone to do anything for you, ever. The rest of us will thank you profusely.