Overview:

The misuse of “thanks” and its variations cheapens one of the most important forms of human communication and relationship-building. Let’s keep thanking each other. But let’s mean it and do it right.

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Lately I find myself irritated by a flood of messages that use some form of “thanks” as their closing. Maybe it’s someone updating me on a project,  concluding their out-of-office auto-reply, or stepping away after a routine conversation or meeting. They say “thanks” and I’m left wondering: Thanks for what?

A benignly lame “Thanks so much!” becomes out-and-out presumptuous and borderline-aggressive when it concludes a message in which I’ve been asked to do something difficult that I’d rather not do and, in truth, probably shouldn’t be asked to do. The subtext seems clear: “You’re going to do it. End of discussion.”

And so it goes with countless other communications, on our computers and phones or via postal mail or in real conversations. Thank you, thank you, thank you. For nothing in particular.

Of course, it’s far better that people go around chirping “thank you” than “f— off” to everyone they meet. But it’s more than irascibility that motivates me to say “no thanks” to empty thanking. The misuse of “thanks” and its variations cheapens one of the most important forms of human communication and relationship-building.

By all means, let’s keep thanking each other. But let’s mean it and do it right.

Be specific

I have a rather exacting definition of “apology,” and it’s more than applicable to the practice of expressing appreciation to someone.

To me, an “apology” is not truly an apology unless the apologizer accurately names the offense committed the harm it caused and, without minimizing or dodging, accepts responsibility.

I wish this would catch on more widely with news media. Countless are the times I’ve seen reporters and headline writers use “apology” in stories about a politician or celebrity voicing (insincere) regret about a deed or statement that got them in trouble and for which they are not truly apologizing.

No, “I’m sorry if anyone was offended” is not an “apology.” Saying “sorry” without precisely identifying the what-for also fails to qualify. Copping to a lesser charge—“Sorry for my immaturity” or “Sorry for being so honest”—likewise will not do.

As with apologizing, so with thanking.

If we are going to thank someone, let’s be clear about what the thanks are for. Sometimes, the context makes it obvious. Let’s say you’ve just completed an interaction with a service-provider who has done a conscientious job. Or a friend has helped you move a heavy piece of furniture. An earnest “thank you very much” will suffice.

But on many other occasions, the object of our thanking is far from obvious. Maybe even non-existent. Hear them enough, these non-specific thank-you’s begin to sound like white noise, even dismissive. If I appreciate someone or something so much, why can’t I take the time to name the object of my appreciation and why it matters?

“‘Thank you so much’” has become a popular phrase for email sign-offs and to express gratitude,” writes Joanna Cutrara at the Grammarly blog. “It’s colloquial, and feels personal and sincere—but all that (over)use may be lessening its impact.”

“A platitude of gratitude”—such is the choice phrase coined by a commenter on Quora named Audrey St. Clair. The constant vague thank-yous from her supervisor, she writes, “have become meaningless to me now, and I am impatient waiting for the ‘flow of gratitude’ to be finished! It has become somewhat condescending and overly solicitous. … I just wanna roll my eyes!”

Me too.

The wonders of acknowledgment

It takes effort to thank someone properly. It’s about more than the right words, as important as they are. It’s about accurately seeing and identifying the person’s contribution and the difference it’s made.

I’ve had interactions in which I’ve been thanked for something only to be left feeling unseen and disrespected. Why? Because the object named in the thanking is way down the list of important contributions I’ve made. I cringe at knowing I’ve done the same to others.  

Think of it as an act of under-thanking. Let’s say you knocked yourself out organizing a large, complex event for the nonprofit you work for—guest lists and invitations, catering, parking logistics, talking points for the main speakers, etc.—and it all went off beautifully. At the staff meeting the next week, the director publicly thanks you for how nice the flowers looked. Period.

You get my point?

On the other hand, there is nothing quite like a sincere, perceptive acknowledgment to make someone feel appreciated. Think of a thank-you you’ve received that specifically names the important and difficult thing you did and explains how it made a positive difference (extra buzz if an example is given). Think of a performance evaluation where your boss captured the nature and importance of the contributions you’ve made to the organization’s success.

Such acknowledgments are like a magic elixir for fostering good feeling and human connection and bringing out the best in people—and, if it’s workplace productivity you’re concerned with, for motivating people to continue making their best effort on the next assignment, and the one after that.

As business coach Chris Westfall writes at Forbes, “Acknowledgment says, ‘I see you. I recognize you. And you are making a difference.’”

In one of my former positions, my work team used our annual retreat to volunteer at a well-run food bank. At the conclusion of the session, the coordinator of volunteers met with us briefly and told us what we’d done: this many pounds of food sorted and this many meals packed for needy families.

When he followed that with “thank you,” the words meant something.

When I started noticing the ubiquity of empty thank-you’s, I realized that I was dispensing them, too. I was ending my emails with “Thanks and cheers”—two sins in one—and closing my voicemail auto-reply with an utterly vapid “Thank you.” Since then, I’ve been saying “thanks” less. When I do say it, there’s a “for” in there. “Thank you for …”

Those words “thank you,” and the larger human project of valuing and encouraging each other, are too vital to trivialize and waste. Let’s mean them when we use them.

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Tom Krattenmaker

Tom Krattenmaker is a writer specializing in religion, meaning, and values in public life. A longtime columnist for USA Today, he is the author of three award-winning books, including "Confessions of a...