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.
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.