Why you should just say thanks

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When someone thanks you, when someone helps you, when you need something, when you don’t know what to say, here’s a tip: Just say thanks…

Why is the phrase “thank you” so hard to accept and so hard to say? Think about the last time you heard it. I’m guessing, like many people, you were probably embarrassed by it.

In response to whatever it was you did — cooked a great meal, helped someone with a project, wrote a great article — when another person thanked you, you may have said something like:

Oh, not such a big deal.

It really wasn’t that great. I should have [insert possible improvement here].

I didn’t have that much to do with it.

The credit really should go to [insert name here].

You do this sort of thing much better than I do.

Here’s a newsflash. These kind of habitual responses don’t make you look like a good or modest person. They simply lead to an intensely awkward conversation and they also diminish the experience of the person complimenting you. After all, this person enjoyed or appreciated the work you did and they wanted to express that feeling to you. Don’t shut down the conversation by arguing with them. Instead, smile and say thank you. It will make them feel good and should make you feel good as well.

If you have any doubt about this — perhaps, in your heart of hearts, you feel that what you did was nothing special — remind yourself that you’re not taking credit for the work. Instead, you’re simply thanking the person for the compliment, which, after all, is a kind thing for them to offer.

On the flip side of the “thank you” equation, writers should also be prepared to give their own thanks more readily. Here are some examples of when:

To interview subjects: If someone takes 30 minutes out of their day to give you an interview for a story, be sure to acknowledge their contribution. You can do this in a number of ways — through a quick phone call or through a thank you email, for example — but I prefer mailing the person a copy of the story, just as soon as it’s been published, with a brief handwritten note. This is almost always an appropriate thank you for the effort they’ve made. (Unless, of course, the story was a piece of investigative reporting that makes your interview subject look bad.)

To editors: Most of us know editors who are kind and helpful and who make our writing infinitely better. It’s easy to thank people like that. But what about the editor who is harsh, mean and overly fastidious? I know the “thank you” may want to choke in your throat. But say it anyway! When we’re too close to our work — as we inevitably are after just finishing writing — it’s hard to know what kind of edits make the most sense. Your harsh, mean editor may be right on the money. Further, he or she may have spent considerable time on your work. Even if you disagree with their assessment, surely you can and should thank the person for their effort.

To librarians: Many of us now restrict our research to asking questions of Dr. Google. But, if you happen to go to your public library and get assistance from one of the highly skilled people working there, they, too, deserve your thanks.

To IT technicians: Isn’t it interesting how writing can so frequently be undone by technical problems? I’m guessing most of us have had the experience of losing a story because our computer ate it. If the technician is able to recover that story, most of us are unfailingly grateful. In those situations, we don’t generally forget to say thanks. But if the technician can’t recover it, we may be so pissed off, we forget to thank them for their help. Don’t! They still did the work.

To friends and family: When we’re writing — particularly if it’s a big project like a book or thesis — we may disappear for hours or even days at a time, or absent ourselves from typical work such as cooking, doing dishes, vacuuming. It takes a village to write a book. Be sure to give that village your thanks not only when the project is done, but also along the way.

Now, we come to the interesting question: how should we give these thanks?

Sometimes, verbal thanks are enough. Smile, look the person in the eye and thank them specifically for what they did. Being specific is important because it demonstrates your understanding of the value you received. So, for example, you might say to the librarian: “Thanks for helping me find that Andre Gide reference. It will make a big difference to my paper.”

At other times, a quick email will suffice. If you’re going the email route however, make it more meaningful by CCing the person’s boss. In this manner, you’ll be making a private acknowledgement more public. And, after all, who doesn’t want to look good in front of their boss?

But the ne plus ultra of thank you notes is definitely the handwritten one. It’s always been valuable but it’s even more so today because so few people do it. The effort it takes! The expense of the stamps! Not long ago one of my readers, Elizabeth Cottrell, invited me to join a Facebook group she moderates about handwritten notes.  I was reluctant to join because — as a result of my strokes — my own handwriting makes me look like a 90-year-old. But I did, and I’m glad. I’ve been writing more handwritten notes ever since.

Receiving and giving thanks, graciously and regularly, is like oil to the squeaky hinge of social interaction. Life — especially the writing life — works much better with more thanks.

And, by the way, thank you for being my readers. I appreciate the time you spend on my column each week and I’m especially grateful to those who make the conversation richer and more interesting by commenting.

Do thanks ever stick in your throat? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section, below. And congratulations to Heidi Yorkshire, the winner of this month’s book prize, Telling True Stories, a collection from the Nieman Foundation for an April 5 comment on my blog. Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by May 31/16 will be put in a draw for a copy of POP: Stand Out In Any Crowd, by Sam Horn. To leave your own comment, please, scroll down to the section, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join the commenting software to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest.


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