Basic manners are so drilled into us as children. We’re taught when and where to say please and thank you hundreds of time a day. The result being that the words become automatic.
We don’t think about them, or about what they mean a lot of the time. We just tack them onto requests or replies. Because to not do so feels like an act of transgression.
WHEN IT’S NOT THERE
Not hearing the thank you you’re expecting always jars. Its lack makes a phrase sound naked, unfinished, aggressive, even. I guess that reaction is what perpetuates the manners of our culture – as horrified, embarrassed parents everywhere take their own turn drilling these society-pleasers into confused small children.
“Why do I have to say please and thank you all the time?” my son often asks.
Why? Because it sounds rude if you don’t.
These kinds of mundane, habitual thank yous – as intrinsic as they are to our culture’s code of etiquette – tend to rob the phrase of its meaning.
But given thoughtfully, with real feeling and intention, a thank you is a very powerful gift. And I have had a couple of reminders of this recently.
My kids have just finished the last two thank-you cards from Christmas. It’s taken a looong time and lots of encouragement to get to this point. Lots of frustrated crossings out, dismay at long names and words like ‘chocolate’ and ‘aunty’ that couldn’t be spelled intuitively.
I started out coaxing and encouraging. Then my tactics deteriorated into veiled threats about what might happen next Christmas if they didn’t send thank yous after this one. The words made me cringe as I said them. I was turning their thank yous into even more of a chore, something to be got over with quickly. A payback with the wrong motives.
Then I told them the story of their thank-you cards. I asked them to imagine the people we were writing to, finding their cards on the doormat, opening them up and reading their lovely messages. We thought about these people, whom they love very much, smiling at their cards. We thought about how their thank yous were a gift they were giving back in return.
And the obligation turned into something less arduous. The task was a little less of a chore. Rather than just a reluctantly scribbled message, relatives got drawings and colour and multiple kisses.
THE GIFT OF THANK YOU
And I remembered how thanking the kids for helping and making a big deal out of it often seems to have more effect than nagging ever did.
I don’t need to nag Sidney to make his bed every morning anymore. The day that he did it unasked and received a surprised, sincere thank you in return was the day he took ownership of that chore.
And when Nell first brought her empty plate to the sink after dinner rather than abandoning it on the kitchen table, and I said a huge thank you – a hug you tight, kiss your head, really mean it type of thank you – it stuck. And now she does it after every meal.
My thank you for that act is something she wants to receive again and again.
It’s a powerful thing, a thank you – a transformative, heart-swelling, lovely gift – when you do it right.