Accepting Gratitude
© 29 Aug 2012 Luther Tychonievich
Licensed under Creative Commons: CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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The least common form of politeness.


Most of my acquaintances are very polite people. They are considerate, gracious, and kind. They give gratitude and praise freely and honestly. But many seem to have some difficulty knowing how to react to gratitude or praise. I myself struggled with this a lot, and still am less than perfect, but have benefited a great deal from understanding why I ought to accept things graciously.

What is the underlying connotation of an expression of earnest gratitude?

It can be helpful to consider insincere gratitude. I offer perfunctory thanks when I think a gift was what propriety demanded. I thank a merchant for handing me my change with not real sense of gratitude at all; indeed, I would be upset if they didn’t give me my change. Likewise, passing the salt is just part of what every dinner guest does; my thanks is merely a form, not real gratitude. If an act fits within justice, there is no gratitude.

Earnest gratitude is how I react to unearned service, to my perception that someone went beyond the call of duty to aid me. This is true, I think, even when I am thanking someone for something they are not aware of doing, such as inspiring me by their example or saying things that answer my privately-held questions.

I thus see at least two messages in any expression of sincere gratitude:

  1. Explicit: You did something of value to me.

  2. Implicit: That thing was beyond what propriety and duty demanded.

The first of these usually implies additionally the message that “‍you are more capable than I‍”. Thus, however briefly, the recipient of gratitude is elevated above the giver.

If my gratitude is not accepted then presumably the person I am thanking must believe that at least one of these statements is false. Being told my beliefs are invalid, particularly by someone I just asserted was above me in some form, is never pleasant. Beyond that, each of these statements is particularly unpleasant to have refuted. Consider:

  1. Either it wasn’t me, or it was not of value to you. You don’t even perceive the world correctly.

  2. It actually was my duty to do that. If you don’t understand this duty, how many of your own duties have you been neglecting?

I think it fair that no polite individual ever means to say these things. But these messages are often given.

So how do you properly accept gratitude? “‍It was nothing‍” works when it actually was nothing, like passing the salt, but not for real gratitude. “‍No, thank you‍” is usually just a way of turning down the gratitude unless it is clear what you are thanking them for. “‍You’re welcome‍”, coming from the idea “‍I am glad that you came‍” There is some extrapolation in my saying this. In old English “‍wilcoman‍” was both a noun and an adjective, both meaning “‍something pleasant to have arrive‍”. The adjective version remained in active use for the entire history of English. The formulaic politeness appears to have originated around 1900 and I am unable to find any suggestion of how it got there. , is roughly a way of thanking someone for the opportunity to aid them and appears to be the best of the formulaic replies I hear.

Even knowing the importance of accepting gratitude well, I still find myself saying things like “‍you are kind to say so‍” which implicitly suggests “‍…and I don’t deserve that kindness.‍” Accepting gratitude may be the most difficult part of politeness.

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