The Importance of Saying Thank You

This is about saying thank you: why we do it, the ways we do it, the cheapening of it, the deepening of it. And why, when you’re traveling, it’s one of the most important words to know in the local language.

Thank you. For travelers, it’s no wonder those words are among the first our guidebooks suggest we learn. With such a simple expression, satisfaction is affirmed, respect is underscored, roads of goodwill are paved and we are bound to one another just a little bit more than we otherwise might have been.
Thank you in different languages
We’ve written more generally of gratitude on this site, but in a number of recent circumstances I found myself reflecting a speck more on the oft-underrated thank you.

Just the other day, I was outside the center of Berlin trying to find an ATM to pay for a camera repair. I walked up to the information desk of a neighborhood chain supermarket solely focused on how best to pronounce in my clunky German: “I’m looking for a bankomat.”

The women at the information desk, as confused as they were by me – a misplaced foreigner in an unlikely part of Berlin — were quick to reply once they navigated my accent. They pointed and offered a few directions. I absorbed their response with great focus and walked away.

I didn’t say thank you. I was so wrapped up in myself that I forgot to say it. Not a terribly big deal, really. I imagine we’ve all found ourselves at one time or another so absorbed in the importance of what we’ve been doing that somehow thank you gets lost.

That strikes me as unfortunate.

Thank You: Why Do It?

Thank you holds an unusual position in any transaction. Think about it — by the time you speak it, you probably already have what you came for. A cynic could even say it’s water under the bridge.

So why say it?

To acknowledge someone for doing something for you, it’s the right thing to do. And while saying thank you doesn’t necessarily open doors, it may just leave them cracked wider for your next transaction. Thank you is also a small payment forward: in those cases where you may never see one another ever again, its echo leaves the door open just a little more for those behind you making the same request.

Thank You: When Do We Say It?

When do we say thank you? “Wow Captain Obvious, you’ve gone off the deep end,” you’re probably thinking. Bear with me.

One example occurs when we make a request, explicit or implicit, of someone doing his job. The person delivers and we say, “Thank you.” A good example is the information booth above. Take also for instance the waiter refilling your water glass. A top up not requested per se, but perhaps expected. “Thank you,” we say.

Sure it’s someone’s job, but does that make him any less deserving of gratitude for doing it and for making our lives just a little bit easier? If we don’t acknowledge our thanks, I’m thinking we lose a human moment, a human connection — those tiny little fragments of our humanity.

Handling thank you when someone we know gives us something — now that can be tricky.

Sometimes the thing we’re given comes in a box. Think gift. We say, “Thank you.”

In other cases, we take someone’s time or their space or they provide us some resource — material, emotional, or both.

I think of something as seemingly straightforward as a visit back home. Whether we stay with friends or family — and as much as they thank us for taking the time and money to visit them – we thank them for providing their time, their warmth, their home. We might imagine the enjoyment they derive from doing for others and for us, but we genuinely appreciate what they give. (In reality, they have lives too and are being put out — however little — in space, time, and spirit.)

The upshot? Even when they are expected, actions of goodwill ought to be acknowledged with gratitude. It’s easy to get caught up in the importance of everyday life and take this for granted, but I suspect it’s better if we don’t.

Thank You: A How To

There’s some gray area, but I suspect we all have a fairly good sense of knowing when we — and what we’ve done — have been appreciated. It comes from the tone, the body language, the eyes, the handshake, the embrace.

To the perfunctory end of the scale, consider one of those recorded voices thanking us for our call (when we know in truth that they love the business, but dread the call). When thank you becomes a thoughtless auto-response, we’ve begun to lose the narrative of gratitude.

Alternatively, what if we consciously and intentionally use thank you?

Even if it’s for something small, consider telling the person why you’re thanking him. Maybe it’s for the time he’s taken, maybe it’s for sharing his knowledge, maybe it’s because he’s extended himself materially and emotionally or maybe it’s for who he is. The greater the gratitude, the more specific and heartfelt it ought to be. (If for some reason you can’t voice it, at least give it some thought. Thinking on gratitude feels good – I guarantee it.)

The Traveler’s Thank You

On the road, all these lessons are no less relevant. Even if you can’t see through the fog of a new culture you are grappling with, even if you can’t speak a lick of the language, you can learn those words, deliver them meaningfully and deliver them often.

Thank you: It’s so little. It’s so big. It’s easy – and easy to forget, too.

To all who have given to us, hosted us, shared your world with us and are simply with us (yes, you our readers) — in so many ways, we wish to thank you, hopefully again.

You know who you are. And if you don’t, next time it’s on us to make sure you do.

 

Photo credit to Woodley Wonderworks at Flickr Creative Commons.

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Comments

  1. says

    Fantastically written and well-thought out post. Manners are a thing of the past and the simplest forms of polite turn into forgotten nuances.

    I was working front of house at a major, international hotel chain for a number of months and it was shocking how many people would come in, ask demanding questions and turn and leave. Yes, you’re welcome. No problem. We spoke for three minutes but obviously I wasn’t worth acknowledging on any other level.

    I hitch hike on an almost daily basis here in NZ. It’s incredibly easy and I’d almost consider it a reliable form of trasportation. I make sure to let each and every person who has picked me up know how much I appreciate the ride.

    As a traveler I have learned to be *less* independent as I often must rely on others for assistance. There are a lot of people out there who are willing to help and all we really need to give back (sometimes) is a little bit of recognition.

  2. says

    Nail on the head! I do often go so far as to send hand written thanks via snail mail in addition. Everyone likes to get mail and everyone appreciates knowing they made a difference or assisted in a positive way.

  3. says

    I wanted to thank you for your blog. It is really a pleasure and an inspiration. I am leaving in October for a round the world trip with my family and I will use many of your tips. Thank you!

  4. Don says

    What a beautiful message; simple yet so profound. Most likely we will never know the ripple effect of this seemingly little gesture that conveys not only gratitude and respect but an acknowledgment of personal worthiness to those to whom it is offered. The smiles these brief encounters generate need to be treasured because they are truly the mortar of human relationships. Your posts have been wonderful and enlightening. This one is the frosting. So to you guys – danke, muchas gracias, grazie mille, merci and thanks. And por favor, please and per favore (also important) keep these special observations coming.

  5. says

    @Jeremy: Thank you for a very thoughtful comment.

    I agree with you regarding manners as being perceived as things of the past. It’s unfortunate. But we can always choose to highlight it and maybe opt to behave in a way that bucks the trend.

    I’m sorry to hear about your experience at the hotel. I imagine scores of people could commiserate. However, I am glad to hear of your hitchhiking experiences. I’m sure every driver is glad to hear your gratitude.

    Interesting note about independent travel. Maybe, in the vein of Stephen Covey, we should consider it “interdependent” travel.

    @Micamyx: Nice to see you here. Thanks for stopping by.

    @Maria: How special handwritten snail mail letters have become. I’m sure those you are thanking are thrilled to receive them.

    So true that people not only enjoy being appreciated, but also knowing that they’ve made a contribution or a difference, however small.

    @Erik: It’s neck-and-neck: please and thank you.

    @Ileana: Thank you for the kind words. To hear “inspiration” — that makes my day. Have fun in the final days before your departure and be sure to let us know if you have any questions.

    @Henry: It does that, and more.

    @Sutapa: Thank you for being such a loyal and thoughtful reader. I hope you enjoy our blog as much as we enjoy your comments!

  6. says

    @Don: That’s the amazing thing about giving — sometimes we can see and feel its effects directly and other times we just have to trust that we are doing the right thing, generating the right sort of ripples.

    “…the mortar of human relationships” — Now that is truly special. Thank you.

  7. says

    Daniel, thank you for this beautiful reminder. It’s something that is so simple to add into our daily life and means so much – both to how we feel about ourselves and how the person receiving our expression of gratitude feels.

    I’ll often send out a handwritten note thanking someone for something they’ve done and they are often so surprised that they thank me for thanking them! :-)

  8. says

    Amen to this!

    God knows how much I’ve shared with people without some form of thank you in return and I also know sometimes, I’ve rushed through situations without properly saying thank you.

    I consciously strive to live each day with gratitude and to make sure those words are never far from my lips. In a meaningful way of course.

  9. says

    I have to agree %100 percent about the importance of those two words. And it really can be so easy to express your gratitude to someone. A simple thank you can really bring someone up on a bad day too.

    So I guess I should tell you thanks, I enjoy your blog, and the time you put into your posts. Thank you.

  10. Rob says

    When I was in NZ in January of this year I was in a store and bought some food and when the transaction was over I automatically said “Thank you”. The guy behind the counter was quick to come back with “Oh. You’re not American, are you (I’m dual, but grew up in Canada)”. He and his staff had observed over the years that Americans demand and take, while other nationalities typically ask and say thank you.

    I’ve no idea how common a perception this is, but there you go. Me, I always learn 4 words before traveling to a new country, in the language of that country. Please, Thank you, yes and no. I’ve found that if you stumble through your “no common language” interactions you make lots of friends by making sure to say Thank You to people in their language.

  11. says

    @Peggy: Good point: whether and how we express gratitude is a reflection of how we feel about ourselves.

    If I received a handwritten note of thanks, I’d be certain to thank the person. I know how long it takes to actually write a letter. Wow, how we’ve evolved.

    Thank you for such a thoughtful comment.

    @Lola: With the lives we all lead, it’s understandable that things slip. Ultimately, none of us is perfect so it boils down to one’s orientation. Maybe you miss a “thank you” here and there, but if you are ultimately grateful for what and who you have, you are in the right place.

    @Jameson: Yes! This is it! Simple words (or maybe even a smile) can turn someone’s day around. And when that happens, it’s a great feeling.

    Thank you for your thanks, especially for our time. (This was one of the more difficult posts to write, so I’m glad that the time we invested in it comes through.)

    Thank you for your comment and support.

    @Rob: Wow, that’s really interesting. (And to me, honestly quite sad and not especially unsurprising that that impression of Americans exists, however due or undue.) In a funny way, I find myself saying please, thank you, and being mindful of others even more just so I can make my contribution, however small, to reverse that impression.

    I couldn’t guess how common or uncommon an impression this is, but I bet it would make an enlightening study.

    As for those four words (please, thank you, yes, no) can indeed go a long way.

    Thank you for sharing your experience and taking the time to comment. I’m going to be thinking on this one.

  12. Agne says

    You write absolute truth! I do sometimes forget to say “thank you”, and afterwards I regret it, even blame myself for being selfish! It’s very very important to say “thank you” in many occasions, and I try to acknowledge this more often.
    Funny fact – I can say “thank you” in 14 different languages. I started collecting “thank you’s” while working as a watiress, and I still like to learn this wonderful phrase :) In my language there are even 2 different words for “thank you” :)

    Ačiū and dėkui :)

  13. says

    @Agne: I think we all forget sometimes. It’s natural. So which 14 languages do you know? By the way, I didn’t know Lithuanian used “dÄ—kui” too…that’s a common construct throughout Eastern Europe. Says a lot about communication in general when very basic words are common across languages.

    AčiÅ«…for your comment :)

  14. Agne says

    “DÄ—kui” and “AčiÅ«” are interjections in Lithuanian language. Though “dÄ—kui” can be made as a verb, and is used mainly in official and formal letters or speaches: “We thank You – Mes dÄ—kojame Jums”.

    I can say “thank you” in: 1. Lithuanian; 2. English; 3. Latvian; 4. Polish; 5. Russian; 6. Finnish; 7. Swedish; 8. Norwegian; 9. Danish; 10. Spanish; 11. Italian; 12. Portuguese; 13. Thai; 14. Japanese; 15. French; 16. German;

    Well, it makes 16, but some might say that Norwegian, Swedish and Danish is the same thing :)

    Agne

  15. says

    @Agne: Wow, that’s an impressive list. I imagine you’ve surprised a few customers with this.

    By the way, I’d call it 16 — even if Norwegian, Swedish and Danish are similar.

  16. Ray says

    I think I must also say my THANK YOU to you. This is such a fantastic post. We also say thank you, for everything that we are appreciative of. Thank you, such a simple word but means a lot to someone. Be thankful, that will do the magic.

  17. says

    I always find that when I’m done asking for help or asking my question, I ask the person’s name. When they reply, I thank them by starting with their name. This little personal touch can really add a lot to your gratitude.

  18. says

    I don’t think it’s enough to teach someone the manners of saying “thank you.” What’s more important is that people learn to be appreciative and carry that gratitude in their hearts. Honestly, I don’t say thank you enough because I probably take too much for granted. I am very kind and courteous and thankful and polite to people. However, that’s not the same as truly being thankful. That’s changing though.

    Honestly, I have one of the most polite little boys I have ever met. He says thank you for everything and you never have to tell him. His attitude and tone are so pleasant and says thank you for so many little things you sometimes laugh at the things he says thank you for. Then I am proud that I have a child that understands what it means to be thankful.

  19. says

    @Ray: Thank you.

    @Jordan: I like that. A personal touch like the use of someone’s name certainly cannot hurt.

    @Jeremy: I agree that saying “thank you” and even understanding the importance of gratitude is merely a tiny slice of a much larger pie that encompasses one’s character. Just this week I read a piece about the teaching of character in schools and it seems to suggest there are probably a couple dozen dimensions, including gratitude:
    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/18/magazine/what-if-the-secret-to-success-is-failure.html

    Sound like your little boy is well on his way. Congratulations to you.

  20. says

    Hi, new here but very much delighted of what I read.
    Congratulations, the topic hits a good point, being polite is part of the art of gaining people which gives you also gratitude. If you are able to appropriate the right attitude and show respect for people you meet you will definitely be rewarded as normally people when they feel appreciated they become friendly; one should be polite and respectful and make it a habit because it is a good habit!
    Thank you and Multumesc (Romanian language:))!

  21. says

    Wonderful post :) Personally I know that being polite really does get you a long way when you are traveling. even if you do not know the language, everyone knows the words ‘ thank you’ It makes a person day better and brings a smile! Its a good habit and I would like to say thank you for your great post :)

  22. says

    @LTN: Glad you could join us. Being grateful and demonstrating gratitude certainly has its benefits — whether or not one happens to be traveling.

    @Shamis: Thank you for your comment. Nice to see you here. Making someone’s day, bringing a smile certainly are rewards in themselves.

  23. Rob says

    For those collecting thank yous, I’m in croatia now and “thank you” is “Hvala”, pronounced “fala”, while kind of swallowing the “f”.. “please” or “you’re welcome” (depending on context) is “Molim”
    And people break out inn huge smiles if you say hvala, even if all your other interaction has been in English or German or whatever. They love that you try and succeed!

  24. says

    @Rob: I was thinking the other day of the places with distinct ways to say “thank you” and Croatia came to mind.

    By the way, thank you for highlighting a perfect example of the combined power of gratitude and respect for someone’s language and culture. Making the effort to speak is more than half the battle and is almost always appreciated.

  25. says

    Everything said above is so true. It is a wonderful article. Isn’t just those “little” things that make the day so worthwhile?

  26. says

    I agree, Thank You is so important for any traveller. I also think, a smile goes a long way too. Like you said, it is the small things that matter.

  27. Rob says

    Daniel:

    I’ve pondered this since October and I think one other effect of actively and consciously saying “Thank you” is that it actually makes you (the person saying “thank you”) *more* appreciative of the efforts of the other person.

    I had to run an errand on the morning of Dec 25th and stopped in at the local 7/11 to buy gas. I noticed they were open and stopped inside for something. After I finished my transaction (and thanked the ladies behind the counter) it occurred to me that they were working on xmas morning. I took a moment to thank them for being there on a day when they’d probably rather be at home with their families. You could see they were simultaneously pleased that someone noticed and dumbfounded that anyone *would* notice.

    So I guess “Thank you” isn’t actually common enough.

  28. says

    @Rob: Thanks again for another very thoughtful comment. Gratitude is definitely something worthwhile to think on. Your point that gratitude builds on itself is an interesting one. I bet the women behind the counter at the 7/11 appreciated your gratitude. I can only imagine the looks on their faces and what went through their minds. It’s too bad this doesn’t happen more often. But perhaps if it did, we wouldn’t appreciate it as much.

  29. Rob says

    @Daniel: Hopefully my little effort made their day a little easier.

    As for gratitude in general, Betsy Talbot’s most recent posting at http://www.marriedwithluggage.com is all about something that happened about an hour’s drive from me a couple of days ago, and it and has me being even more grateful not only that I’m alive but that I don’t have anyone quite that crazy in my life. Or even close.

    Have an awesome New Year celebration, wherever you are, and do toast the joy of just being alive!

  30. says

    @Rob: Thank you for the reminder. I don’t think we need reminders like that one, but they do unfortunately happen.

    In sharing our 2011 end-of-the-year travel roundup, I commented that it was important not only to understand where we’ve been, but “gratitude fodder” to remind us of the experiences we ought to be thankful for.

    Thanks for the new year’s wishes. Same to you. When Audrey and I are toasting out 2011, toasting in 2012, we’ll toast to the joy in honor of your suggestion.

  31. says

    Great article. Funnily enough, I was thinking about how I often I say “Thank You” at the moment. I am in Siem Reap now, and I make the point of saying “No Thank You” to every tuk tuk driver who asks me if I want a ride.

    I make the point of saying it in English as they have gone out of their way to learn some English. I say it in Khmer if I have been spoken to in Khmer.

    I may not like being hassled constantly by tuk tuk drivers but I figure they are offering me a service, so I should thank them for offering!

  32. says

    @Tanya: Thank you for the compliment and the comment. Good point. Amidst my focus on “thank you” in this piece, it didn’t occur to me to address the use of its reverse.

    Saying “no thank you” to all the tuk-tuk drivers — that’s a very gracious application of the phrase. If I recall correctly our time in SE Asia, we probably would have been hoarse by the time we finished. However, being respectful and gracious is always the best approach, even if you must decline someone’s offer.

    Continued thankful journey to you!

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