It’s absurd, standing at the grocery store checkout and repeatedly thanking the cashier for cashiering, only to have him or her either a) ignore me and continue conversing with fellow employees, b) grumpily grunt “uh huh” in return, or c) gaze at me mutely with undisguised contempt. 

Why am I thanking? Cashiering is the cashier’s job. Clearly it is the cashier who should thank me. I am patronizing the business! Keeping the doors open and people employed through my patronage! But I can’t stop thanking; it’s what people do.

There’s a range of acceptable auto-gratitude. I seethe with annoyance and want to smack shoppers who say “Thank you SO much!” with the sincerity and near-tears appreciation of a parent talking to an ER doc stitching up her kid. Thank you is one thing. THANK YOU SO MUCH is TOO much. What do those people say on their birthdays when they open their gifts? I can’t seem to let it go. Might need more yoga.

During pedicures, I thank the guy 30 times over 45 minutes. I thank him for everything because he isn’t fluent in English and I’m not remotely conversant in Mandarin, so that is the only “conversation” we can have. It feels ridiculous rolling out of my mouth over and over and over, but it’s going to continue. We’ve established a one-word rapport. 

Food service events prompt gratuitous thank yous to flow like bad beer on spring break. Thank you for offering to take us to our table, thank you again for that same exact thing, thank you for the menus and the water, thank you for taking our orders, thank you for stopping by the table…thank you for the food we’re buying and paying for; it’s so mixed up.

Imagine if servers thanked diners instead, as in “thanks for ordering, thanks for accepting your food, thanks for eating it, thanks for ordering another drink because my tip is growing as the seconds tick,” etc. That obviously makes much more sense. Why do we not do that?

The staff and servers can’t win: If they continually say “you’re welcome,” it spotlights the absurdity and the servers become partners in the backwards gratitude charade. If they don’t, they seem surly! So they utilize “My pleasure,” “Sure” or “Enjoy.” Though there’s a twee-seeming trend that I like quite a bit at some places: The acknowledging nod. It conveys “I heard you, but there are no appropriate replies, and let’s dispense with the inappropriate ones, shall we?” It’s quietly wonderful. 

I’m working to improve this situation, if not end it entirely. For example: I called a store to ask about applying a coupon to something that had been purchased but not yet delivered, and when they said they could not do that, they did not get any thanks from me. I said something like “Okay, goodbye” which felt abrupt, but really. 

At the grocery store, if I ask for an item and it is not in stock, I’m practicing the “okay” without the “thanks.” I don’t like that it’s not in stock; I am not thankful. And I’m increasingly disinclined to convey anything else (the joys of middle age – authenticity!).

Yet even as I struggle to reduce gratuitous thanking, I notice when others’ thanks don’t appear. If you text me with a question and I answer, where’s my thanks? You just go silent? Tsk tsk.

And in the interest of transparency I admit that at kids’ birthday parties, I notice which kids say please and thank you, then after the party I make a little score card out of real construction paper and I rank everyone’s manners and put stickers and glitter on the most mannerly kids’ names, and I keep it in a locked file in my office closet and the key is in my top desk drawer. Just kidding. That’s not where the key is.

You may be thinking, really? This is what you churn out today? Where’s the greater meaning, woman? Who gives a crap about insincere thank yous? They mean nothing! But….what if they do mean something?

An article awhile back contrasted the common American exchange of “How are you?” followed by “Fine” with standard practice in Russia, where they do things quite differently. In Russia, if you’re asked how you are and you respond “Fine,” your blasé answer is taken as an insult because apparently everyone knows no one is fine, so you are effectively openly lying to the person you’re talking to.

Standard practice there is to share some of the real dirt with whoever asks. Which is pretty interesting. What does that say about them? And what does it say about our collective psyches that we recite scripted lines to each other – “How are you?” “Fine!” “How’s your summer?” “Good!” – or thank each other endlessly, knowing full well we mean something entirely different? What does it do to our collective psyches?

One of my takeaways from mulling this over: I may be Russian. The timing of this revelation is awkward, but you can’t schedule such things, I suppose.

Thank you SO MUCH for reading this. 

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