The art of saying thanks

Over brunch recently, I was trying out ideas for essays on a friend of mine. "Someday," I said very casually, "I'm going to do a piece denouncing the nasty habit of programming innocent little children to say 'Please' and 'Thank you.' I'm afraid it's just training in hypocrisy."

I can't say I really meant it, even as I uttered it. My remark was merely meant to be provocative, a way of leading into a gentle discussion of the lost art of saying thanks. But I'm afraid it worked all too well: about one bite of French toast later we were well launched into a deep philosophical discussion of our theological differences. The matter of gratitude got left behind in the shuffle.

That discussion needn't be retraced here and now, but it did drive home the point that "good manners" are something more than a social nicety. They have roots in a complex view of the nature of man and of human society. To thank or not to thank isn't just a question of habit and convention; it's an issue of real consequence. If a superficial "thanks" is little better than a conditioned reflex, scarcely worthy of a thinking, feeling human being, the failure to say thanks at all is worse still. Early lessons in manners aren't wrong, they're merely not enough. At some point we must outgrow perfunctory habits, even our good ones, and replace them with genuine, heartfelt actions -- and this inevitably demands real creativity. Saying thanks needs to be raised from a pleasant habit to an art.

For better or worse, writing personal notes has become infrequent enough an occurrence that a "thank-you" note itself has some of the rarity we associate with art. What was once habitual is now almost more than enough to muster all the creativity at our command. At the very least, it's good for starters; and If your creative urge gets sufficiently entwined with your sense of gratitude, there's always room for written thanks where it's least expected: for the little favor that's become habitual in itself, for the services we think of as our rights. If you sat down and really thought about it, are there more thank-yous waiting to be written than there are stamps in the desk drawer? If not, let's hope it's because, your supply of stamps is more than ample!

One of the small pleasures of writing thank-you notes in this day and age of shrinking correspondence is the element of surprise. As we've dropped the habit of sending them, We've lost the expectation of receiving them. For good or ill, this means better mileage when we do write. Sometimes the surprise is so great the thank-you note itself prompts a thank-you in return.It's debatable, at least , if this is cause for rejoicing or tears, but it ought to cause some gratitude on the part of the post office, which has been bemoaning the falloff in first-class personal mail.

One's creativity needn't end at the mialbox, however. The Art of thanks includes the choice of gifts, the handmade or homebaked goody, the service volunteered as time and circumstance permit -- not as repayment, but as gratitude made manifest. It ought to avoid the appearance of repayment, in fact , or it's just another business deal: my dinner party for yours. delightful business, perhaps, but not an expression of thanks.

Not long ago I had occasion to be grateful for a loan of some money from a friend.The loan was interest free, which meant my thanks couldn't be expressed as a percentage point. I wasn't in a position to spend money on some token of my gratitude, or I shouldn't have needed the loan. My bundle of prepaid concert tickets -- bought in a more affluent moment -- held the answer: a ticket to a performance of Verdi's "Otello," a particular passion of my generous amateur banker. It is questionable which of us enjoyed the opera more that afternoon: he for being there, or me for having solved a problem in the art of saying thanks when something more than a postage stamp seemed appropriate.

The advantage of making an art out of gratitude is simple: it doubles the number of pleased parties, eliminates the hypocrites, and removes from the realm of duty an action that speaks well for the nature of man and of human society. One needn't make a theological argument out of it. Perhaps it's enough if one just makes a habit of it.

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