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Sunday, September 20, 2009

Thanks a thousand!

Feature on gratitude to mark National Thank You Day, published in last Thursday's Irish Examiner.

The average person speaks about 16,000 words per day, but it only takes two - ‘thank you’- to make all the difference in your personal and social interactions. They don’t cost anything to say, and they are at the heart of what we all hold to be basic good manners. But how many of us forget to use those two little words in the course of our daily routines?

Well, tomorrow [Friday Sept 18] is National Thank You Day, an American calendar event that serves to remind everyone about the importance of expressing simple gratitude to your fellow (wo)man. The Newpark Hotel in Kilkenny is getting into the spirit of things, offering little gifts to every guest that checks in, be it a glass of champagne or a spa treatment, just to show their appreciation for the business.

Little matters of social etiquette are very much to the forefront these days, despite, or perhaps because of, the straitened times in which we live. The economic downturn seems to have had a knock-on effect in the area of volunteering, which is currently experiencing a boom. There’s even anecdotal evidence of people being friendlier to one another seeing as we’ve all been brought down a peg or two in the last year.

So are we meeting these basic rudiments of politeness in this country? I spent last Monday keeping track of how often I was thanked for simple, everyday social transactions. Being a good country boy at heart, I’d like to think I make a good effort everyday to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, but sometimes, like everyone else, my manners escape me. You might be having a bad day or else you’re so preoccupied that it slips your mind to say ‘thank you’. That’s forgivable, once it doesn’t become a regular occurrence.

One of my big acts of basic courtesy is holding open doors for people, but it’s amazing how many members of the public never even acknowledge you for it. On this day in question, I hold open the door to let people in or out ahead of me everywhere I go. The results form a basic pattern, stereotypical though it may be: older people always, always say thanks; younger ones, not so much.

Case in point: I’m walking out of a newsagent’s when I see four people approaching the exit behind me. Holding the door, two elderly ladies smile and are effusive in their gratitude, saying things like, ‘Ah you’re very good’ and, ‘There are some gentleman left’. They are immediately followed by a guy my age who gives me the oddest smile, like he is embarrassed for, or by, me, as well as a girl in her teens wearing earphones who doesn’t even look at me.

I catch a bus just after that, keen to observe the reaction of my bus driver when I hand over my money. I make a bit of a scene of it: “There you go,” I say clearly as I purposively deposit the coins in the slot. The driver stays silent and doesn’t even look at me. He pushes the button for my ticket and that’s it. I get a similar (non)reaction from the driver on the journey back. There are some really friendly bus drivers out there; not on these services it seems though.

I know it’s not really necessary for him to say ‘thanks’ in this instance, but, to be fair, we are paying for a service, and he is the face of that service, as much as a cashier or sales assistant is. Also, it’s a particularly Irish habit, and a lovely one at that, to thank the driver when you’re getting off at your stop. A little reciprocation isn’t asking too much.

On the bus back into town I end up giving up my seat to an older lady. Again, I get a ‘What a nice young man’ in response. I have a meeting in a cafe in town, and the waitress is uber-friendly. She says ‘thank you’ when taking my order, when dropping down my coffee, and when collecting the bill. My receipt even says ‘thank you’. Bless. A little while later, I’m paying for a sandwich in a deli, and tell the server to put the e1.50 change into the tip jar. For the second time that day I get, ‘Ah you’re very good’ in response. That’s even better than ‘thanks’, right?

Contrast that with my experience in a well-known supermarket later that evening as I pick up some groceries. The cashier is talking to her colleague, moaning quite audibly about her manager. The only acknowledgement she makes of my presence is when she absent-mindedly starts scanning my items from the basket, all while continuing her rant.

I tut under my breath at the rudeness and ask for a bag. She doesn’t hear me. I ask louder. She stops talking momentarily, throws a bag at me, and resumes her conversation. She calls out the amount due in a flat tone, we make the exchange, but there isn’t a word of thanks on her behalf. “Thank you,” I say in a loud voice. She doesn’t even look at me. “Next!” she shouts. What charm school did she graduate from, I wonder?

I decide to get the Luas home. There’s a big huddle waiting to get on. I step out of the way and allow a man and a woman board before me. Not a word of thanks. “You’re welcome,” I say. He throws me a look. Oh yes, I think. I’m the rude one in this case.

Judging by this one day, the ratio of receiving thanks to not is about 50:50. There’s always one negative experience to counter the positive one, and, of course, it’s the negative ones we remember longer. Let’s change that, today, shall we? Because, as the writer GB Stern once said: “Silent gratitude isn’t much use to anyone.”

Examples to inspire you…

*Oprah Winfrey has a pretty awesome way of showing her appreciation to the public that has helped to make her the billionaire superstar she is. Once a year, she holds a great giveaway for the audience of the day, gifting them household appliances, food and, on one memorable occasion, cars.

*Following a spiritual trip to India, singer Alanis Morissette became so thankful for everything in her life that she famously penned a song in tribute. Entitled ‘Thank U’, it expresses her appreciation for everything from India, to terror, to frailty, to, erm, “transparent dangling carrots”.

*Alfred Hitchcock, one of the greatest filmmakers in the history of cinema, never won an Oscar or any major award. So when Hitchcock was presented with the Irving G. Thalberg Award for lifetime achievement at the 1968 Academy Awards, everyone expected him to speak at length about his career and those that helped him along the way. Instead, Hitch simply uttered a short ‘Thank you’ and sauntered off the stage. Simple and to the point: really, what else was there to say?

1 comment:

Urban_Underclass said...


Great article, so true all of it. It's funny, I go to three supermarkets fairly regularly, in one the staff are always very friendly, helpful and polite. It is not false or forced in any way. I don't know why, but feel it must have something to do the management culture. These people must be happy!