A Little Gratitude
A Little Gratitude
How to change the way the world sees you, one thank-you note at a time
By Tom Chiarella
I don't really care when people say thanks. Open a door. Thanks. Hand someone a stapler. Thanks. Push a button on an elevator. Thanks.
That's just chatter. Meaningless interaction. Broadly speaking, hearing thanks five dozen times a day might be seen as an anthropological indicator of some sort of social ordering, like cryptic head tilts between sparrows on the lip of a gutter. It's often an anonymous interaction. I can live with that. I can even participate. That doesn't mean I have to care when some thirty-one-year-old salesclerk at Restoration Hardware, who didn't take the time to use hair gel that morning, says "Thanks" as I walk out of the store having bought nothing at all.
Three days ago, I stepped out of the way so a three-year-old could caterwaul past me in the soup/chili/potted-meats aisle at a grocery store, knocking cans off the shelves as he went. I could have horse-collared the little jerk, but I figured it was none of my business. His father galumphed around the corner, smiling, tilting his head, turning his palms up at the apparent zaniness of life with toddlers. "Thanks," he said.
But why was he thanking me? There wasn't any gratitude to be had in that moment. I'd done nothing for him. Mostly, I got the sense that he was using the thanks as a kind of wink, as in "You know how it is."
And most of the time, that's all people mean when they say thanks casually. They mean: I could have done it myself or My boss wants me to say this or I appreciate the tip, but this isn't what I plan to do for a living. There isn't really any gratitude in those exchanges. But when we use a thank-you as a how-do-you-do, we take all the air out of being grateful, creating a world in which gratitude has no currency.
Being grateful matters. A good thank-you -- a real thank-you -- means something. It is notable, memorable, important. A meaningful thank-you reveals the evolution of a friendship; it declares what we value, making one party certain that the other party notices and cares about the quality of human transactions in the world around them. But every verbal thank-you, even a sincere one, risks being forgettable. No, there is only one way to really thank someone: You have to write it down. You gotta write a thank-you note.
I always appreciate a thank-you note, but I've never been particularly good about writing them. I have let so many kindnesses pass, so many gifts and gestures drift by, so many sweaters made by my aunt or books sent by my father pile up in the corner, that I am ashamed.
So I decided to get serious with my thank-yous, taking a month to let no kindness pass. I went to the stationery store, bought a hundred cards and a decent pen, and took a month to write thank-yous for everything that happened to me, to everyone who did anything for me.
This time it wasn't so much about what this would get me or how this would bend the world in my favor. I was adopting a karmic ritual, which, over time, might actually benefit all parties.
I decided to be aggressive. A hundred thank-you notes in a month. How much real kindness was there in a single day after all? I figured three per diem would do it. It seemed likely that I would have some lousy days, some days when nothing was worth noting.
But then I wrote ninety-one in the first week.
Could I write a thank-you note to everyone who opened a door for me, or picked up something I dropped, or handed me a Sweet'N Low in a coffee shop? At first, that was what I was after, the attempt to use thank-you notes like a giant caliper, taking measurements on grace and kindness in the world around me. I wrote to a dozen baristas, two clerks at Wal-Mart, a state trooper, a spate of department secretaries at work, waiters, waitresses, bartenders, a guy who sold me a pair of tires, friends, acquaintances, clerks from whom I bought Christmas presents at the mall, the parking attendant at that mall, and three different newspaper writers. That was just the legitimate, hardcore thank-yous, the ones for which I had a name and an address. I also sent dozens to anonymous people at coffee shops, dressing-room attendants at Old Navy, customers in long-evaporated lines at bakeries, operators in the distant offices of toll-free numbers.
I had my rules. I would not use e-mail to thank anyone. An old-school, proper thank-you note is a card selected for that purpose. I chose ones that said thank you right on the front. I didn't do any drop-offs, either -- no notes stuck in mailboxes at the office, no cards slipped under doors. I wanted the notepaper, the method of delivery, the construction of the letter, even the selection of the postage stamp, to imply consideration on my part. More to the point, I wanted to consider those aspects of the process.
I got some answers. A woman from Best Buy called to thank me for the note in which I thanked her for the help with buying a refrigerator.
"Selling appliances is a pretty thankless job," she said. I told her I hoped it would score points with her boss, thinking maybe there would be a kickback for me in the form of a discount. "Oh, I quit that job,"
she said. "I'm in St. Louis now. I'm going to be a minister."
But overall, this just didn't work. Letters came back unopened. My handwriting got worse with each repetition. I began to realize that thank-you notes, like their verbal counterparts, should not be broadcast indiscriminately like grass seed. I had made the mistake of treating the thank-you note as something easy and casual, vaguely tossed off, rather than something timely and considered. After week one, I started to make some choices, finding real moments from the day before.
Every morning I took three cards and set them down in front of me. I was back to my original formula. Now that I wasn't keeping a running list of every event on my Day-Timer, when I didn't force myself into a frenzy to cover every possibility, I found that I was in a sort of buyer's market each morning; I had plenty to pick from. I wrote my therapist, and a biologist I spoke to at a New Year's party about books he was reading, and my departmental assistant. I thanked my brother for the football he sent my son for Christmas, the one we played catch with until our fingers were dead from cold. I thanked people for parties, for lunches, for jars of jelly dropped on my porch over the holidays.
I've never been very good at this whole daily-reflection thing, but if I ever gave it a real shot, it was while I was scratching out these notes. Time passed differently. I began to look at the day as a series of opportunities for thankfulness rather than obligations to a calendar. The discipline of the writing gave me a morning ritual beyond a cup of coffee and the blathering of SportsCenter. I started, for the first time in years, to work on my handwriting. The morning didn't tear by the way it usually does. I found that I could sit there and reconstruct the prior day by thinking of the faces of the people I met, the tenor of the things they did, and the places in which I met them. With each day, I could remember more about each day that passed.
One day, toward the end of my experiment, I was called into my boss's office and pretty much told my time was up. They couldn't offer me the terms I had been working under any longer, and they wanted things to change, whether I wanted them to or not. As I sat there, my head filled with anger. I could think of three people I blamed for this.
Then more. Jealous, petty, careless people, each of whom had declared, without saying as much, that they no longer wanted to watch my back.
Thanks, I wanted to shout. Thanks a lot. But I knew by now that no one would hear. I wasn't being fired; I was being dared to quit.
The next morning, as I set the notes down in front of me, I expected I'd be able to think of little else except my imminent demise. When I looked at the blank notes, my new memory kicked in. The day hadn't been that bad. One guy had lent me a book on pigeons that I liked very much already. I'd also received a large discount on a poker table I wanted. I had plenty to write about. I wanted to write my boss, too. I felt like I had something to say.
I started in, because I knew I could. The discipline told me this
much: Gratitude requires some measure of humility. I didn't quit, or tell him to fuck off, or ask for another meeting. I sidestepped my anger and thanked him for his time. It turned out to be all he could offer me, and I told him I was glad to know that much. Knowing that -- really understanding it on a level I could reach only by sitting down to write the note -- made it easier to consider what had passed, and what might still be to come. I was grateful for that.