Why you should care
Overuse dilutes power.
Trying to make yourself understood? From the minds of OZY, the kings and queens of clear communication, comes Crossed Wires, a series of immodest solutions for all of your communicative problems.
Thank you while we place you on hold. Thank you for choosing American Airlines. Thank you for taking out the trash … the third time I told you to. Thank you for saying thank you.
Every man is an island, surrounded by a sea of thank-yous. The phrase is supposed to express gratitude, but between the proliferation of #blessed and the curt “thx” and the way-overused “thank you so much,” it’s become an empty gesture, obligatory script filler, a husk. So here’s what I propose: “Thanks” should be used less frequently than the phrase “Wow, that Vine really made me think.”
For those who disagree, consider the meme “Thanks, Obama!” wherein Internet trolls sarcastically thank the president for problems like the country’s national debt. Only a word with such a weak connection to its dictionary definition could be used to mean the exact opposite. Sometimes “thank you” is rather more insidious, a humane gloss on gross power. In China, for instance, “thank you” sends a message to its recipient about his or her subservience, according to anthropologists. You needn’t look that far afield, either: Think of the boss who plops a pile of scut work on your desk and says, “Thanks!” It might be delivered with cheer or not, but it probably won’t come with a promotion.
Let me be clear: I am all for gratitude. Gratitude is sublime. But a simple thank you is just not “very demanding,” says Emiliana Simon-Thomas of the Greater Good Science Center, a research institute devoted to compassion and altruism based (where else?) in Berkeley, California. A better way to express gratitude is to call out what the other person did and acknowledge the benefits, she says. From where I’m standing, acknowledging a favor with a compliment would work too: e.g., “Great job, roommates” rather than “Thanks for remembering to take out the trash, you filthy animals.”
In the long run, though, the fix is more subtle and difficult: to make a society where gratitude and graceful interdependence is woven throughout. That sounds abstract, but consider how “thank you” works in India: It’s “reserved for huge favors,” says Deepak Singh, who grew up in Lucknow. If he’d said thank you every time his parents did something kind for him, well, he’d have had to say it all the time. When Singh, who now lives in the U.S., visits family in India, he sometimes slips into American ways, thanking family for dinner, say, and their faces, he says, “sour.”
Transitioning to a thank-you-less society would be difficult. The social norm is firm in America that “thank you” is necessary for small favors. Everything from TED Talks to children’s programs force thank yous into being the expectation. But the transition should be made — to compliments, gift giving and more thoughtful ways of expressing gratitude than those two trite words.
Or whatever. Just keep thanking someone with a thumbs-up emoji …
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