Thursday, November 24, 2011

When Thanking Becomes a Problem

This post is a part of my “Out of the Kitchen” weekly column at The Progressive Playbook in which various news and pop culture items will be examined through a feminist lens.

It is the season of thanks. Expressing gratitude is a wonderfully beautiful thing; not only to express to others in appreciation of their generosity, but also as an act for oneself. Taking time to reflect upon the important things in our lives and really being thankful about them puts things in perspective. However, having laid out that I do think expressing thanks is valuable, I'd like to take a moment to discuss how simply saying "thank you," like most things, can be a very gendered act.

First, let me back up.  As a nonprofit manager, my work depends on the generosity of others. This career path puts you in the position to operate from a place of continual gratitude. That's a given. Nevertheless, this past summer, I realized something about myself and my communication style. I took a look at the emails I was writing. Literally every single one ended with "Thanks!" so much so, that it was even a part of my chosen signature line. Often I would start emails with a statement of thanks and then end it with "thanks again." Frequently, I was thanking people who were simply doing their jobs. In fact, I would end emails this way even when I was actually doing a favor for someone else. I also apologized for things that were not my fault and generally assumed a submissive stance in my day to day interactions.

It became a bit emotionally exhausting. People weren't reciprocating this behavior and I sort of felt like crap on a regular basis. I decided something had to change. I've come to believe that people will respond to you in the manner that you present yourself to them. If you grovel, they'll believe that they are doing you a favor. If you apologize, they will believe you were in the wrong. Apologies imply that much. Conversely, if I wanted to be taken seriously, I decided I had to drop unnecessary thanks and apologies.

This small switch in how I conducted my email communications began to make me feel a lot better. Turns out, I'm not alone in this approach. I recently read a piece by Amy Reiter over at The Daily Beast, where she goes through a similar process. She writes,
Then one day I looked up from my under-challenging, midlevel job and noticed that my boss, who was generally regarded as kind of a jerk, but a smart and talented one, never, ever thanked people. He never apologized. And he didn’t appear to give a rip about what was going on in the lives of anyone around him. He never took responsibility when things went wrong, preferring instead to label someone else the culprit and chew them out.

...A recent study examining the relationship between agreeableness, income and gender, published in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, found that the workplace does tend to reward disagreeable behavior. Disagreeable men tend to earn more than agreeable men, and disagreeable women, though they earn less than both nice and not-nice guys, earn more than agreeable women, researchers found.
These facts are interesting. The truth is that sugary sweet politeness doesn't pay off, literally, so why use it? As women we are continuously told to play nice and to be accommodating and to put others before ourselves. It's high time we reject this behavior and reclaim our right to communicate clearly, firmly, professionally, and without groveling. I guess what I'm really getting at is that thanking, like everything else in life, should not be a mindless, reflexive act and it certainly shouldn't come from a place of obligation. It means much more when you offer thanks only when it is motivated by actual gratitude.  Basically, don't pepper your language with unnecessary thank yous and apologies.

And unnecessary really is the operative word here. I'm certainly not advocating for jerkiness either. So please do take time this week to express genuine thanks as you feel it. Appreciate the happiness in your life and share it with friends, family, coworkers, and you community. And do apologize when you are wrong.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! But to quote a very appropriate Tweet by scatx, "Be thankful on Thanksgiving, hang with family and friends - but don't for a second celebrate false history about Native/European relations." In case your curious, you can learn more about what she means here.

1 comment:

  1. This is interesting for me because recently, my supervisor at my job where I work as a research assistant told me that I need to be more respectful and gracious in my emails to her. She's only a few years older than me, and yet she thinks that my level of politeness isn't sufficient.

    Otherwise, I'd totally agree with you on every point. Well, I still agree, I just wish that I had the freedom to put it into practice.


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