This is a comment on today’s NYT article on expression of thanks. In a study of language-based expressions of social reciprocity in eight languages, researchers discovered that requests for help were most often granted but thanks were rarely offered for the help received. I say “language-based,” as there are many ways, immediate or long delayed, to express something that the lexeme “Thanks!” is far from being alone in attempting to denote. I’m most interested in this something, which I follow tradition in calling “grace.”
One day in my childhood in Brittany—I may have been twelve or thirteen?—we were working on piling sheaves of wheat or barley on a cart, I needed a fork (two-tined!), asked my father for it, and said thank you when he passed it along. He stopped for a moment and told me thanking someone you were working with for passing a tool along was not done. I was surprised to discover that his hidden network of values and their expressions conflicted with what I was being taught at school, as I was on vacation from a Catholic boarding seminary. I was even shocked because I knew that my parents were extremely conscious of what they “owed” to their neighbors and extended family. In fact, it took me many years to realize how infinitely complex the sense of reciprocal duties was in the farming community we were in, and how it lived a hidden life, across time boundaries, below the world of social graces you encountered when you put on your Sunday finery or met, awkwardly, the powers that be: teachers, priests, banking officials, your landowner, etc…. It would take many pages to give a proper idea of this world of quietly enforced reciprocity, social status determination, and expectation of grace. This was a community of Breton speakers, with French fast becoming the main language. Breton has a “thank you” as I discovered later when I studied its “modern” form, but it was never used among my kins or neighbors. There was something at work that was more complex, it seems, than say, a surgeon not having to say thank you for every piece of equipment slapped into her expecting hand. More complex or far-ranging also than not expressing verbal thanks to your immediate family and siblings for the expected sharing of common goods or tools (or clothing!).
The presence and advertising of thank yous in US media is at the other extreme of the magic of giving or granting recognition. For each section of interview it makes, for instance, NPR makes sure I can hear the “thank you for coming on my show” and “thank you for having me,” instead of “my pleasure” or “you are welcome,” or clipping those extraneous remarks entirely. It usually cheapens the exchange as its material, economic components (recognition) are at odds with the expression of grace and sound fake and slightly repulsive, especially when the issues discussed are of the essence. BBC on the contrary doesn’t practice this tit for tat that I explain to myself as an intrusion of capitalist rationality in the shrinking world of grace.