With an increased interest in attracting and retaining employees and, in general, encouraging them to want to stay, there’s been a lot of enthusiasm for the topic of gratitude. The media frequently includes titles like, “How to Show Gratitude,” “Say Thank You to Your Employees,” “Engagement Begins With Thanks,” “Gratitude Is Good for Your Bottom Line” and many more.
While I am personally a huge proponent of practicing gratitude, as a cultural anthropologist, I can’t help but question the presumed simplicity and ease of saying “thanks.” For those of us raised and working in the U.S., saying “please,” “thank you” and “you’re welcome” is more of a habit than an intention. We’re trained from earliest childhood to repeat these words when someone does something for us, however big or small. It’s the polite thing to do, after all.
Of course, I am generalizing. I know a few people who don’t ever show appreciation in word or deed, which is unfortunate. Still, there are also a good many who seem to say “thanks” without giving it too much thought. That’s not great, either.
On the other hand, I overheard my sister teach my young niece recently, “When you say thank you to someone, do it with intention.” My sister was teaching my niece to speak her words from a place of appreciation and authenticity. In other words, don’t go around thanking everyone for everything.
Upon speaking with my colleagues, many born outside the U.S. and intimately familiar with the social norms of other countries’ workplace etiquettes, it became clear that “thank you” isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be in the U.S. For example, my colleagues from Brazil, Russia and the Ukraine told me that saying “thanks” at work in these cultures isn’t expected. Because it isn’t an expectation, they aren’t upset when they don’t receive a “thank you.” In fact, one colleague went so far as to say that having a job he enjoyed was thanks enough. Another indicated that it would be more appropriate to thank a manager than a co-worker. Most felt that too many “thank yous” rendered them fairly meaningless. A Greek friend told me that his approach to thanking his team members who perform above and beyond is to bring them a sweet dessert made at home.
These conversations got me reflecting on my own experiences working outside the U.S. For several years, my work took me frequently to Moscow. I forged wonderful collegial relationships with the people I worked with there; I still consider several of them friends. In the early days of our collaboration, I remember thinking it odd that I never received a “thanks” or “you’re welcome” for things that would typically and obviously (to my mind) elicit it back home.
Are my former Russian collaborators rude? Are they uncaring and difficult? Absolutely not! After about a year of working together closely, one of the agency’s founders invited me to join her for a night at the ballet. Of course, I asked about the cost of tickets so I could repay her (it seemed the polite thing to do), and she immediately indicated paying her back was unacceptable, as I was her guest, and that I had done much to advance her company’s business development. Deeds, not words, were abundantly expressive of “thanks.” It was a lesson for me.
Anthropology has long been fascinated with gift-giving rituals across cultures. There’s a rich literature showing how gift-giving shapes and strengthens ties of obligation (also see Marcel Mauss’ book “The Gift”). Other researchers have highlighted the “economics” of gift exchange and the implied or explicit obligation to return the favor at some point. In other words, generosity, reciprocity and gift-giving are deeply cultured practices. Whether you are a family member or colleague, a stranger or intimate, old or young, an authority or a peer, a manager or a team member, these dynamics shape both the receiver and the giver of appreciation.
Which brings me to my interest in the topic of thanks at work. Some years ago, a co-worker complained that a colleague (a team manager) with whom she worked closely never said thanks. Even after working long hours together on time-crunched projects, no “thank you” ever came. It upset her, and her conclusion was that this person was rude and cold.
She did not understand that her apparently thankless manager was following a different cultural script than the one she had grown up with. It was a classic cultural misunderstanding. Importantly, it is not the same situation as a manager who fails to acknowledge her team’s hard work despite having been trained in a culture where such behavior is tacitly agreed to be appropriate. This behavior is poor management practice — one that, in my experience, creates division, disinterest and a tendency not to do more than what is minimally required.
It’s important not just to say words like “thank you” and “please” because they are a polite turn of phrase. Put some real thought into what you are saying and, like my niece, you’ll find you’re expressing yourself from a place of intention.