It seems two very simple phrases, please and thank you, have become more absent from our current vocabulary. Thirty-plus years ago as a nanny in New York, it was a huge accomplishment by the end of the summer that I was able to get the 3-year-old, 8-year-old and even their 18-year-old brother to use these words in conversation with me. At the time, I looked at it as a cultural difference, a geographical difference, a generational difference.
If you look at etiquette books of years past, it states that we should say please when we are politely asking or inviting someone to do something for, or with, us. “Please come and meet me for lunch today” or “Would you please finish up the notes from our last meeting so that we may present it to the board?”
On the other hand, thank you is an expression of gratitude used to show appreciation for something given, said or done by another. “Thank you for responding to my email and answering the questions sent.” Or “Thank you for your gift of hospitality. Your smile and positive attitude mean so much.”
I don’t think people intend to be rude. Often, they are just unaware of how their actions and words, or lack thereof, might affect others. Maybe it’s from living in our very individualistic world that has made us become too insensitive. Maybe we don’t hear it often enough in our personal lives and therefore it’s not a habit when speaking with others.
A couple of years ago, I read a book during Christmas break titled “A Simple Act of Gratitude” by John Kralik. I didn’t know as I started the book how the simple act of consciously saying thank you to people daily as well as thanking those from the past could seriously change my own life.
I took on the challenge as a New Year’s resolution to send 365 days of thank-you notes to everyone throughout my lifetime who deserved a thank you by touching me in one way or another. I purchased many thank-you cards, colorful pens and postage stamps to tackle this somewhat intimidating feat and began my task of consciously taking the time to connect with people.
I looked up people on Facebook, contacted my parents for addresses and intentionally sat down immediately after an encounter with someone to send a note of thanks.
It was really quite easy to write to a number of my teachers from grade school, high school and college; friends I am still connected with and those I drifted away from; co-workers; policemen; repairmen; clerks and customer service employees; coffee shop baristas; waiters and waitresses; my kids, parents and other family members; visitors to the office; neighbors; and friends around the world.
Those that were less easy to do — yet, I still sent thank-you notes — were some of those people who I felt probably didn’t deserve a thank you because of something hurtful that maybe happened or was said. I tried to look at the positive side of all those situations and took it as a blessing for how that event or person affected me.
Then, something magical happened. I unexpectedly started to receive many thank-you notes, phone calls and visits in return from those I had connected with. The policeman thanked me for the opportunity to serve us and our community, and to this day a policeman comes to the office checking up on how we are doing.
Our homeless friend, Michael, whom I sent the first thank-you to for being Christ to me every day, tells us with a toothless smile that he says a prayer for us every day at church. Some co-workers responded with tears of appreciation as they shared that it’s rare they hear a thank-you from their fellow co-workers or employer.
Neighbors who weren’t very neighborly stopped to chat over the fence while out on their evening walk.
Classmates from years past who weren’t so kind to the freckle-faced strawberry blonde (me!) asked about meeting for coffee and an opportunity to start anew. Thank you, Lord, for all these wonderful people who have touched my life in one way or another. Please continue to keep my heart open and loving to all those I meet.
On Feb. 1, I reread the book, “A Simple Act of Gratitude” and made a vow to reconnect and recommit to acknowledging and thanking anyone who crosses my path. Thank-you notes continue to be a part of my life nearly every day here at the office, at home and in my personal life as well, just because. Sometimes my hand hurts from all the notes we send out to those who so generously contribute to the Mission Office. Sometimes I don’t have stamps at home to send a thank-you to my parents, my boyfriend or his family, my kids — gratefully, I get to hand deliver them!
As the author of the book noted, his life was changed, his negativity was changed, his luck was changed and many of the difficulties he was facing were diminished as he continued to be grateful for those he encountered and thanked in the past, present and future. I have to admit, thank you, I have also been changed.
Elizabeth Neville is director of the St. Cloud Mission Office.