Expressing (and accepting) gratitude in the new year

Screen Shot 2013-12-30 at 10.59.28 AMBy Jean Rhodes

A few years ago, my doctoral student and I published a study that drew a great deal of media attention. For about a week, my quiet academic life was punctuated with a flurry of interview requests from reporters at National Public Radio, “Dateline NBC,” “ABC News,” WebMD, The New York Times and the like. Although pleased that my typically-buried findings saw the light of day, I relished something else with far more excitement:  the end of each interview. As I breezed through my talking points, my mind would inevitably drift to that final exchange. The reporter would thank me, and, in response, I would utter the simple, elegant yet virtually forgotten phrase, “You’re welcome.”

I don’t know if you have noticed this, and hopefully I am not instilling a new pet peeve in Chronicle readers, but most guests on radio and television, indeed most social interactions, have lost the tidy closure that “you’re welcome” provides. Instead, after the expert has lavished the reporter with keen observations, rightly earning a “thank you,” they immediately lob the gratitude right back: “No, thank yoooou.” Even everyday exchanges have fallen into the familiar patter: “Thank you for taking me to the Red Sox game.” “Well, thank you for joining me.”

More troublesome than the grammatical violations are the lost opportunities for comfortable closure. What accounts for this epidemic of boomerang thanking? Social exchange theorists would argue that, particularly when each participant derives benefits, a “you’re welcome” implies an unbalanced exchange, instilling discomfort. If the radio guest is hawking books or running for office, the interview is, indeed, mutually beneficial. Yet I have heard radio interviews with anonymous witnesses to accidents, café patrons commenting on politicians and many others who have nothing to gain from an interview merrily lob the thank-you ball right back into a reporter’s court. Similarly, in a recent unscientific study that is unlikely to arouse a media blitz, I observed that my everyday thank you’s rarely elicit you’re welcome’s.

Perhaps “you’re welcome” is, well, just a little too self-righteous. Is there a certain smugness to simply accepting someone’s gratitude? Indignant do-gooders may have contributed to this as they angrily snap, “you’re welcome,” in response to a thank-you lapse. But, according to the dictionary, “you’re welcome” translates to “freely granted,” meaning that it literally dispenses the recipient of any lingering debt. Perhaps it is simply old fashioned, the verbal equivalent of a horse-drawn carriage. Even hipper versions of “you’re welcome,” such as “no problem” or “don’t mention it,” are far less reflexive than boomerang thank you’s. Maybe it’s too clunky, not as acoustically pleasing as, say, the lyrical Spanish de nada.

Whatever the reasons, conscious or unconscious, we must stop deflecting gratitude. I suggest that in 2014 we begin to more fully soak in the appreciation of our mentees, co-workers, and others; and to then provide something that is all too rare in our complex lives— a little closure.  ■