These days everyone seems to be bemoaning the disappearance of courtesy. It's certainly arguable that -- in large part -- manners have been discarded along with land lines and typewriters and the milkman. I'm not sure about the milkman, but I know the loss of social niceties is, in general, not a good thing.
To have good manners is to consider the emotional well-being of someone besides yourself, which is why I have often emphasized the importance of saying "thank you" to anyone who has done something for you. But is it possible to thank someone too much?
Recently a friend of mine was invited to a house party on Cape Cod. (Well, it wasn't so much that she was invited as that she invited herself to tag along with mutual friends who were already going -- which is probably why she went a little overboard on the gratitude). To begin with, she brought two bottles of wine, as well as a "hostess gift" consisting of a large basket of gourmet cheeses, jams and syrups. After all, she reasoned, she was staying for several days, so a "pre- thank you" gesture was completely appropriate, right? During the three-day weekend, she made sure that whenever there was a shopping expedition, she chipped in. The morning of her departure, at breakfast, she expounded in an effusive manner about what a wonderful time she had had. As she was walking to the car to go home she thanked them again.
The night she got back to New York, she emailed some photos taken on the beach, along with "many, many thanks." The next day she snail-mailed what she had been taught by her grandmother was the obligatory hand-written thank-you note, in which she penned several more lines about how fabulous the weekend party was.
A few days later I happened to be chatting with her, and she told me she could not shake the disconcerting feeling that she had gone overboard on the thanking. When I heard the whole story, I had to agree.
When you thank someone over and over (and over), the "thankee" can begin to think something is required of him in return. He might begin to feel pressure to respond with, "It's nothing, don't worry about it," or "It's fine, I loved having you." The fact is, over-thanking can negate the whole purpose of a thank-you: to make the other person feel good. Instead, you may make him feel uncomfortable or embarrassed.
Excessive gratitude can also cause an imbalance of power in the relationship; it can make the thankee question his own generosity. He may wonder, Gosh, I must have done something extraordinary to have this person thanking me so excessively. Maybe I shouldn't have been quite that generous. Over-thanking is in the same category as saying "I'm sorry" too much. It's potentially unsettling.
Of course, modern technology tends to inspire an overabundance of knee-jerk gratitude. As Nick Bilton pointed out in his New York Times blog in March, there are a lot of people dashing off unnecessary thank-you emails. (Never mind automatic-reply Twitter DM thank-yous -- that's a whole other level of inanity). For example, an office worker might send a group email to twenty people, attaching the minutes to a meeting, to which fifteen people press Reply (or worse yet, the dreaded Reply All) simply to write "Thank you." Multiply that by several times a day and you end up with a LOT of unnecessary emails to open. Most people feel that this is a waste of time; instead of being polite, you are actually annoying. Not only that, but when you overuse a word it tends to lose its meaning -- then when gratefulness is really appropriate, the expression of it can ring hollow.
However, it's not just thoughtless individuals causing the problem. I know someone who is the opposite of thoughtless. He is so gallant that he routinely sends a thank-you note in response to receiving a thank-you note (true story, I swear). I told him this practice reminded me of when I was seven. I used to walk my friend Beth home from our playdate, whereupon she would turn around and walk me home, then I'd walk her home again...The goodbyes took longer than the actual playdate. Where does this kind of thing end? Unchecked, thank-you madness can also last forever, an interactive loop from which you can never escape.
What is the correct amount of thanking? Obviously it depends on the situation. Opening the door for someone engenders one kind of thank-you; having someone stay in your house for the week another. Old friends may not say "thank you" at all. Strangers may thank each other a lot. (I counted my thank-yous yesterday when I was in the bank: It was a whopping five). But ordinarily, unless someone has given you one of their kidneys, I'd say one or two sincere thank-yous is really thanks enough.
So did you enjoy this piece? If so, you don't have to thank me.