It's Always the Right Time to Say Thanks
We often think of expressing gratitude as a matter of etiquette. If someone holds the door open for you, it's appropriate to say thank-you. When you're invited to a dinner party, the right thing to do afterward is to send a thank-you note (e-mail is O.K.; handwritten is better). "I appreciate that" is one appropriate response to a compliment about your latest success on the job or at home.
However, it would be a mistake to reduce the importance of saying thank-you to just good manners. Fundamentally, expressing one's gratitude is a matter of ethics. Recall that Life Principle No. 3 calls upon us to respect others (BusinessWeek.com, 1/07). One significant way we do this is by acknowledging their help, kindness, or thoughtfulness. It's not just rude to fail to honor a debt of gratitude. It's wrong.
It's easy to understand why we don't say thank-you as often as we should. In our hectic, overcommitted lives, we tend to focus primarily or exclusively on our own needs and desires. When we're not immersed in activity (and sometimes even when we are), we mentally go through the items on our extensive to-do lists. Forty years ago, George Harrison sang It's All Too Much, and, sadly, that's still true, maybe even more so than in Harrison's day. Nevertheless, everyone wins when we step outside of ourselves and acknowledge the many things for which we should be grateful, in every area of our lives.
Thanksgiving in Practice
There are a few practical concerns about saying "Thank you" that are worth examining. First, it is just as wrong to say thank-you too frequently as it is not to say it enough. We can kill others with kindness, after all. "Thank you," just like "I'm sorry" (BusinessWeek.com, 6/07), loses its value if it is said insincerely, too often, or too late.
Second, you will probably feel better about yourself for thanking someone for what they did, but that isn't the reason to make this gesture. Similarly, the recipient of your thank-you may feel motivated to continue doing good things for you—positive reinforcement—but that is only a nice side benefit. As we have seen with every issue we've discussed in this column, the reason to do the right thing is simply because it is the right thing to do.
Feeling good about yourself or prompting more helpfulness in others by doing what you ought to do are just happy consequences, not the justification for so acting. Of course, you could also say that thank-you is just good karma, or "what goes around, comes around," but it is a mistake to confuse a benefit with a justification.
Third, you might wonder if you ought to thank people who are merely doing their jobs, as opposed to going above and beyond the call of duty. Yes, you should. A warm thank-you to the person who cleans your office, takes messages for you, or orders your lunch is another way of saying, "I value what you do for me." Thus, saying thanks from the heart is one of the easiest, but most essential, things you can do to maintain and even strengthen your professional and personal relationships.
An Exercise in Perspective
Since you are reading this column, it's safe to assume you are a person who appreciates the value of stepping back and thinking about the best way to live your life. Right now, you may also be feeling overwhelmed about all of the things you have to do today. I therefore propose the following exercise to brighten your mood, refresh your spirit, and keep things in perspective.
Give yourself 10 uninterrupted minutes—no phone calls, no checking e-mail, no catching up with anyone. Make a list of 100 things for which you are grateful. Don't stop and don't edit yourself. It's O.K. to repeat or misspell items. Now review your list. What surprises you? Which item came up the most? Next to each item, write the date by which you will say "Thank you" to the person responsible for it. Make your first thank-you as soon as you finish reading this column.
It would be great to thank each and every person on the list, but don't feel bad if you can't. Saying even a single thank-you today would be a wonderful thing to do.
It's a Gift
To continue expressing appreciation for the many gifts we have in our lives, the following mnemonic may be helpful:
Give yourself some free time.
Identify the things you are grateful for.
Find a date for thanking those responsible for each item on the list.
Thank as many people as you can.
By recognizing all of the bounties in your life and expressing your gratitude for them, you will not only fulfill an ethical responsibility, you will realize that, for all of the very real problems you have, you also have a lot to be thankful for.