How Saying Thank You Can Be Meaningful or Empty

Saying thank you to someone should be a wonderful expression and witness of our sincere appreciation and gratitude for a person and/or something they have done for us or others.

But what if the speaker of thanks is being manipulative with those two words that many of us long to hear? How do you know if they spoke the words with authenticity? Are they meaningful?

Let’s first examine what the words “thank you” mean. 

The Language of Thank You

The meaning of thank you shifts with the language origin of the language you speak.

Look at the Spanish, French, and English origins for the words thank you.

In Spanish, the word “gracias” means “thank you”. This derives from the Latin phrase, gratias agere, which means “to express thanks.” It’s the same in Italian, when grazie is used to say, “thank you”, which also comes from gratias agere.

The typical French expression “merci” has a different origin. It comes from the Latin word mercēs, which translates to “wages, fee, or price.” That doesn’t seem consistent with how we view the word thank you today. However, our current use for merci comes from the Old French meaning of the word mercit generated from “reward, gift, kindness, grace, and pity.” It is this Old French origin of merci where the English word, “mercy,” derives from.

Our English words thank you were shortened from the phrase “I thank you“. This came from the old English “thancian” – related to Old Frisian “thankia”, Old Norse “thakka”, Old Saxon and Old High German “thancōn”, which led to the middle German “danken” and our modern English “thank”.

Old English þancianþoncian means “to give thanks, thank, to recompense, to reward,” from Proto-Germanic *thankōjanan (source also of Old Saxon thancon, Old Norse þakka, Danish takke, Old Frisian thankia, Old High German danchon, Middle Dutch, Dutch, German danken “to thank”), from *thankoz “thought; gratitude,” from PIE root *tong- “to think, feel.”

The words thank you mean a lot more things than you typically think about. I’ve assembled a few of my own thoughts around the etymology of the words “thank you” that we have looked at, namely:

  • Expression of thanks.
  • Kindness and grace.
  • Thoughtfulness and gratitude.
  • Recompense and reciprocity.
  • Take and give.

Learning to Say Thank You

When we are young children, we are initially quite self-centred and selfish. They teach us how to share, and our parents or caregivers constantly remind us to say “thank you” whenever we receive something or receive a kindness from another person.

In the beginning, the words “thank you” are not intrinsic or self-generated. People impose them upon us by the etiquette of politeness and in learning to communicate with others.

It is the same following birthdays and holiday celebrations where we receive gifts as children. Parents dutifully remind, and sometimes coerce us, into writing thank you cards to the givers of our gifts.

Other people seem to elicit the words thank you from us perhaps more often than we generate them spontaneously ourselves. 

When Do You Trust the Words? 

What causes the words thank you to be meaningful versus empty? It’s not so much about the words but what the person does with their life. And perhaps the authenticity comes through the tone of their voice. But actions always speak louder than words. How consistent are they with their words? Are they thoughtful with how they use them? 

Whenever you say the words, thank you, your goal is to be both thoughtful and thankful. Thank you as an expression is meaningful when the words correspond with the positive actions and interactions displayed by the speaker in their everyday life.

You must show gratitude and speak the words with sincerity to prove that the relationship between the expresser and receiver of thanks is genuine. 

Relationships between peers, and manager and employees, are not always as positive in the workplace as they should be. Develop positive relationship strength between one another through an accumulation of positive micro-experiences of communication and actions to discern the sincerity of a person’s spoken words.

As a manager or supervisor, never mix agendas when expressing thanks to an employee by giving them another job task to complete after you have spoken the words thank you.

The only expectation to follow an expression of thank you is saying something in return like, “You’re welcome!”

Recognition Reflection: How much thought and feeling do you put into saying thank you to people?

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