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A Little Gratitude

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WebMD Feature from "Esquire" Magazine

By Tom Chiarella

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How to change the way the world sees you, one thank-you note at a time.

I don't really care when people say thanks. Open a door. Thanks. Hand someone a stapler. Thanks. Push a button on an elevator. Thanks. That's just chatter. Meaningless interaction. Broadly speaking, hearing thanks five dozen times a day might be seen as an anthropological indicator of some sort of social ordering, like cryptic head tilts between sparrows on the lip of a gutter. It's often an anonymous interaction. I can live with that. I can even participate. That doesn't mean I have to care when some thirty-one-year-old salesclerk at Restoration Hardware, who didn't take the time to use hair gel that morning, says "Thanks" as I walk out of the store having bought nothing at all.

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Three days ago, I stepped out of the way so a three-year-old could caterwaul past me in the soup/chili/potted-meats aisle at a grocery store, knocking cans off the shelves as he went. I could have horse-collared the little jerk, but I figured it was none of my business. His father galumphed around the corner, smiling, tilting his head, turning his palms up at the apparent zaniness of life with toddlers. "Thanks," he said.

But why was he thanking me? There wasn't any gratitude to be had in that moment. I'd done nothing for him. Mostly, I got the sense that he was using the thanks as a kind of wink, as in "You know how it is." And most of the time, that's all people mean when they say thanks casually. They mean: I could have done it myself or My boss wants me to say this or I appreciate the tip, but this isn't what I plan to do for a living. There isn't really any gratitude in those exchanges. But when we use a thank-you as a how-do-you-do, we take all the air out of being grateful, creating a world in which gratitude has no currency.

Being grateful matters. A good thank-you — a real thank-you — means something. It is notable, memorable, important. A meaningful thank-you reveals the evolution of a friendship; it declares what we value, making one party certain that the other party notices and cares about the quality of human transactions in the world around them. But every verbal thank-you, even a sincere one, risks being forgettable. No, there is only one way to really thank someone: You have to write it down. You gotta write a thank-you note.

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