Monday, October 3, 2016
What Happened To the Magic Words? A Mom's Plea For More "Please" and "Thank You"
Sure, raising children is certainly difficult, often physically and mentally exhausting, and occasionally downright disgusting. But thankless? Hardly.
My kids are currently 9, 7, and 5 years old, and from the very beginning, we've done our best to instill in them the power of the "magic words" and the importance of a grateful spirit. They are far from perfect, but more often than not, they say "please" when they ask for something, and "thank you" when it's been received. So not only are we verbally receiving thanks multiple times per day, but we're "paid" in frequent hugs, deep belly laughs, and the cautious optimism that we're not raising entitled brats. Even with the 24-7 on-call shifts, I'd call that a hefty payoff. OK, a decent payoff. OK, fine- but I would still not call it "thankless."
Now dealing with adults, on the other hand- there's your thankless job. Actually, it's more like a "thanksless" job, as in a shocking lack of use of the word "thanks." It can also be a "pleaseless" job, sometimes a "you're welcomeless" job, and almost always a "sorryless" one.
At least once a day I am shocked by the most basic lack of manners among adults, and I'm not even talking about the level of incivility that passes for discourse online. Believe me, I'd sooner put my bare hand in a blender than read the comments section of any news article, especially during election season.
I'm simply referring to what it feels like the almost total extinction of "please" and "thank you" in everyday life. You're probably familiar with the scenario: someone provides a service for another person. This could be anything from holding open a door to simply providing information via email, text, or other messaging means. Whatever the details, the response is often the same: Crickets. Nothing. Nada. AND IT MAKES ME CRAZY. When did saying "thank you" become optional? And when did so many people decide to opt out? The mom in me constantly fights an overwhelming urge to prompt people with a sugary, "What do we say?" or put a friend/acquaintance/total stranger in time out for what I consider abhorrent behavior.
Want some examples? The other day I was in the checkout line at the grocery store, when I noticed the child in the cart in front of me had dropped her toy. I picked it up and gave it to her mother, whose only response was, "Oh geez, did she drop that again?" You're welcome. Later that same day, I was out to dinner with my family, and I couldn't help but notice that when the waitress set down plates of food at the table next to us and they immediately said...grace. I'm all for that- really, I am. But shouldn't the process of giving thanks for one's food include thanking the person who brought it to the table? Directly, and not just through the intercession of a higher power?
Before you accuse me of being over-sensitive, consider what those words actually mean. Saying "thank you" isn't just a trivial throwaway. On the most basic level, it communicates acknowledgement of the act that took place, or receipt of the information that was communicated. Those things are rational, but saying "thank you" is mostly an emotional act. It connects one person to another. Saying "thank you" doesn't just acknowledge someone's effort, thoughtfulness, intent, or action. It acknowledges the person himself. And that is our basic responsibility as human beings living in community with each other. It's part of the unwritten contract we sign as co-inhabitants of the planet. And we're violating it right and left.
I often see "open letter" style thank yous, where people offer their profound gratitude very publicly to someone they often failed to thank privately. I'm sure you know the type of post I'm referring to- it usually has a title like: "To the Kind Woman In The Trader Joe's Parking Lot," or "Dear Lady Wearing The Black Swimsuit at the Splash Park." In the tradition of grand intellectuals like Emile Zola and Martin Luther King, Jr., the writer clearly feels his or her communication should not be limited to the mundane reality of either personal one-on-one missives. These letters often go viral, but they change nothing, and serve mainly to put the focus on the writer. That's not really what gratitude is all about. You know what I'd love to see go viral? Good old fashioned thanks.
A few years back I made what ultimately ended up to be a very brief stop in corporate America, taking a job in public relations. It was one of those "too good to pass up" opportunities, so even though I had a feeling it wasn't quite the right job for me, I gave it a go. A few days into the job, I needed to email a senior vice president for some information, which he promptly provided. "Thanks so much!" I replied. The same scenario played out over the next few days, and each time I replied with my thanks. Later that week, Mr. Very Important Senior Management Guy paid an unexpected visit to my desk.
"Hey, I get that you're new here and you're trying to be friendly," he boomed, loud enough for the entire cubicle farm to hear. "But you're clogging up my email with all your replies. You don't need to say 'thank you' for everything around here- we don't have time for that."
My jaw hit my my desk. "Umm...OK..." I stammered to his back as he importantly walked away. "Thanks...I mean, not thanks...I mean I'm sorry...wait, do we have time for 'sorry' here?"
For the record, I did thank him for the opportunity when I submitted my letter of resignation not long after that.
Contrast that to a day 35 years ago this month- one of my earliest memories of the power of the magic words. I came home from school to something my 8-year-old eyes had never seen: both my parents in tears. Anwar Sadat, the president of their native Egypt, had been assassinated as he marched in a parade commemorating the anniversary of the 1973 war with Israel. For days to come, we watched the footage over and over again, with audible sobs heard over the whir of the VCR in rewind mode. My parents and their Egyptian friends poured over news clippings taken from papers around the world, and discussed the implications in hushed voices.
I did not come close to understanding the nuances of the situation at that time- heck, I hardly do today. On the one hand, Sadat was a man who had not made life easy for Egypt's Christian minority, to which my family belongs. He had gone as far as to imprison the church patriarch in a remote desert monastery after accusing him of inciting sectarian unrest. On the other hand, he was the first Arab leader to sign a peace accord with Israel, a feat for which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and which ultimately lead to his death at the hands of extremists who considered him a traitor.
As my parents struggled to digest all of that, what rose to the top on October 6, 1981, was that the leader of their beloved homeland had been killed, and from thousands of miles away, they mourned the piece of their history that died along with him.
In the days that followed, one of our closest family friends paid a visit. A devout Jew, she had been my parents' very first next door neighbor, and their relationship seemed a testament to the amazing possibilities this country held. No doubt, she was working to reconcile her own jumble of emotions over the events that had unfolded. But this was not the time for debate.
She walked over to my mom, took her hands, and held them to her heart.
They stood that way for some time, not speaking, both with tears streaming down their cheeks.
"Thank you," my mom eventually said.
And it was more than enough.