In an article published in the New York Times this week on Tuesday, Jennifer Schuessler highlighted new research that focused on how much people from a handful of different cultures say thank you. The study, led by Simeon Floyd, found that, when we're going about our day informally, we express gratitude--including through phrases like "good job"--pretty infrequently. The thank yous come at a rate of only about one out of 20 opportunities.
Don't lose heart just yet
The researchers have an incredibly positive interpretation of the findings. They assert that our low rate of verbal thanks is a good thing. It demonstrates that, as social creatures, we already expect reciprocity. We demonstrate our need for or ask for help in what we say and do, and others step up to the plate. Surrounded by this constant, totally normal stream of back-and-forth help, we don't feel the need to say thank you every single time, and we potentially can focus more on whatever it is we have to do.
But is the office different?
Schuessler notes that Floyd's thank you study didn't look at institutional or business settings. She claims it might be more common for us to express thanks in these more formal environments. I'm inclined to agree as I think of how many emails I get that say thank you for simple completion of tasks, the default start and end to presentations, face-to-face interviews or meetings and the exchange of information.
You could argue that, in saying thank you more in business, we're doing each other a solid in that we're acknowledging individual contribution. Studies consistently show that workers want to be seen, included and valued more than anything, including fancy or impressive perks. Maybe this fact and the increased importance of verbalized gratitude in business are reality because the very nature of corporate hierarchy and role division puts such a massive emphasis on differences and inequality rather than equality. If we can't interact in the office in ways that really foster truly natural reciprocity, the way more informal settings permit, then getting a "professional" thank you becomes the one confirmation we have left that we matter and that we're not being taken advantage of. It's the one link we have to trust.
But it's a double-edged sword of sorts. The entire reason saying thank you has value or sincerity at all is because we don't say those words at every drop of a hat. We need affirmation, but could we be in danger of thank you becoming little more than one more piece of corporate jargon? Are we merely two steps away from fostering annoyance rather than happiness, the same way toddlers who can't stop saying "why" or "mommy/daddy" grate on the nerves of their parents? Raise your hand if you've ever heard an interviewee or presenter start with 20 seconds of flattery-filled appreciation and wished they'd just skip the bull and get to their point.
How much of our politeness at work simply a ruse to fit in? How much of it is actually representative of our toxic inability to create open, authentic cultures that truly break down silos? How many bosses take the easy route with empty words, rather than actually listening to their workers, rolling up their sleeves and swallowing their pride to assist and give back? How much better off--if any--would we be if we talked less and showed more?
Action, the study really does seem to prove, speaks louder than words.