Looking back over my life a consistent thread has emerged with the people I’ve tried to keep around — they know how to say thank you, or express gratitude, in memorable ways. Although this could be a nuance particular to me, my guess is you’ve noticed similar trends in your life. So why is it we so often struggle to say thanks as a community? How am I supposed to teach aspiring professionals to say thank you, professionally and appropriately, to other professionals? I had to find out. And along the way discovered that I had many, many, opportunities to say thanks that I was wasting.

The Science of Gratitude

Let’s start with a formal definition of Gratitude (from Google): the quality of being thankful; readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness.

Given this anchoring in the reciprocity of kindness, it’s likely that gratitude is core to the cohesion of society.

In all of the ultimate cruel ironies of humanity you’ll find that the science on gratitude went thankless for many decades, if not centuries. Early psychological research on gratitude in the US focused on mostly priveledged, mostly white, college students. Only in more recent years have studies tried to understand the cultural norms and differences in how we express gratitude around the world. It turns out that many cultures say thank you in many ways, but some key trends have emerged that I’ll summarize using an empathy pyramid and a social taxonomy as follows:

Gratitude in the Empathy pyramid:

  1. Mirroring Gratitude — I nod my head in acknowledgement, you nod yours in return. I offer to shake hands, you likely mirror in return. I say thank you, you say you’re welcome. Traditionally called ‘verbal gratitude’ by the experts.
  2. Emotional Gratitude — Duration of the gratitude now matters; whether it’s eye-contact, a hug, or holding a hand. You’re telling someone I see your emotions and am giving you what I can in return.
  3. Rational Gratitude — Called ‘concrete’ or ‘connective’ gratitude by the experts, this is understanding that someone likes doing certain things or activities, so by giving them one of those things or involving them in an activity, it’s a rational way of saying thanks.
  4. Conscious Gratitude — Using gratitude as a long term opportunity for future synergy. To promote or advance something like a relationship, or even a community. Could be applied to an individual or a community.

Now that we have different forms of gratitude established, let’s look at mechanisms for how different social groups deliver that gratitude:

  1. Survival — Mostly mirroring or emotional gratitude if at all. It’s tough to be grateful when you’re in fight or flight, or to be rational about it.
  2. Tribal — When you’re in the tribe, there isn’t much need for gratitude as being in-step with the tribe is by definition what a tribe does. But tribes evolve their own unique forms of mirroring gratitude (tribal handshakes, etc) for acknowledging others in the tribe.
  3. Authoritarian — Authoritarians expect others to show them gratitude and often consider everyone else to be ungrateful. They say thanks by giving someone something the authoritarian would want, like money or power. Starting to see a little rational gratitude here.
  4. Legalistic — Saying thanks to the Constitution, God or some other legalized authority higher than an individual. Let’s create a formal process by which we’ll vote to show our thanks. Think about ’employee of the month’ forms of recognition. The process has to be fair and standard. We also standardize when someone should expect gratitude — mirroring, tipping ‘gratuity’, thank you cards, etc. This starts getting into MVP like ‘awards’ and recognition, which is different from being grateful, if you’re not careful.
  5. Performance — Sure we could tip someone or give them a card to show gratitude, but let’s make it memorable. “I tipped them that way so that they’ll never forget me, or us.” This is very much rational or conscious gratitude at this point. A unique personal experience or helping someone complete a ‘bucket-list’ item starts to fill the bill.
  6. Communitarian — How can we do something that says thanks to everyone in the community for a long time? What about art that gets people to remember something as a form of gratitude? How about we give all of our loyal patrons a free _____? How do we show gratitude to the Earth?
  7. Systemic — How do I wire together the above forms and processes in many ways at many levels to get a community of people showing the appropriate amount of gratitude for a given situation, reliably and efficiently, who are able to make it memorable when it matters most? When members of the system are able to correctly show gratitude, in the right ways, that’s the best form of gratitude a systemic minded individual can receive. Now you know why we’re here.

These social groups all evolved because the societal system needed them. As evidence, consider the need for reflection after an activity or event. The key things we identify as being helpful and beneficial from the event we will look for in the future. These things often work into the thankyous we give, even very early in childhood. Thankyous are a form of natural reflection and thereby important and healthy.

As you can see, the forms of gratitude and mechanisms for delivery are nested and become increasingly complex, taking more time and resources as you go down each list. Really the challenge isn’t teaching someone to be grateful, it’s teaching someone to show the right amount of thanks, reliably, for the right context, specifically, and efficiently. In other words, how can we get good at working the above playbook?

Some Examples

Nominating for an ‘Award’: A department chair for one of my friends sent me an email that he was nominating my friend for an early career faculty award and asked for letters of support. Turns out he asked like 20 people for the same letter. I don’t even know if the award exists or not. Regardless, he handed my friend a packet of 20 some letters from former students and friends saying how awesome he was. Whether the award actually existed or not doesn’t matter.

How ’bout them apples?: The call came in that the truck driver was here early and we needed to scramble to get the equipment off-loaded. The folks at heavy machinery dropped everything to come help us. They did not have the right machinery to help, so they grabbed everything from pry-bars to straps and showed up en-mass. We got it installed, by hand, on time, thanks only to those guys willing to drop everything to help us. I brought buy a load of Cosmic Crisp Apples (how can you go wrong with our own apples that are delicious and healthy?) and two six packs of local beer later that night to say thanks. We’ll need their help again sometime soon.

‘That guy’s getting cheese!’: One of MME’s best donors through the years was wanting to give the university an old piece of equipment. While we could’ve gotten by without it, it was clear this was what the donor wanted, and we would honestly use it. So a friend and I drove across the state to get the equipment. It was huge. We moved it ourselves. But when it came to doing the final lift we were outgunned. A guy from Pepperdine saw what we were doing and brought over his lift to pick it up for us. While this was happening my friend (who is very, very good as saying thank you) started talking to him, got his contact info, etc. Afterwords my friend said, “That guy’s getting cheese (Cougar Gold).” And he did.

“Try this on for size”: A colleague flew me around the world to give a seminar. I knew he was a former Coug. I got him the nicest WSU sweatshirt I could find. He received it at a social dinner hour. It was unexpected. From one Coug now around the globe to another.

“I’ve got the next shift”: One year we received a load of bad gas (hydrogen gas that was contaminated with water) and it iced up an experiment. But it did so in such a way that the experiment could not safe itself (we’ve since fixed this issue). The graduate student in charge of the experiment had worked hard (on his on volition) for days and was now totally exhausted, but new this one would take all night to correct, and if he didn’t he probably wouldn’t sleep. Sure it was 9 pm, but he needed a break. I said “I’ve got the next shift” and sent him home. I find I don’t have to nag people to work, it’s quite the opposite.

“We’re floored”: We were getting to move a bunch of equipment in the lab. The building janitor noticed and swooped in to wax the floor (it hadn’t been waxed in a decade). He didn’t have to do that, but he did, around our schedule. Carl Bunge figured that was worth a lab shirt and a thank you card.

“Breath easy”: After COVID-19 delays we were working hard to get back on track with a project. Miles Pepper in the machine shop dropped everything to help us navigate a big move, right in the middle of a bunch of COVID-19 uncertainty. He had a make shift mask. Mathew Hunt brought everyone in the VCEA shops our “Cool Fuel” HYPER lab face coverings the next week.

“You’re Cool. Have Some Icecream!”: We teach cryogen safety all of the time in the lab. We use liquid nitrogen; which makes icecream. Rather than waste the opportunity, we bring bowls and toppings around to all of the VCEA staff who’ve helped us to tell them they’re cool and say thank you.

“Please, Thank _____”: One of my most professional friends and mentors said thank you to me that was very memorable. He began with “Please…” and then ended with something un-expected, which is key, “…thank your parents for their continued support of you and your education.” It was that simple. It was formal. It was sincere. It was needed. “Thank you for asking me a question” is another.

“Thank you”: The minimalist in me understands the awesome efficacy of the basics. When someone tells you something, or teaches you something, whether it hits home or not, all you need to say is “thank you” for the effort. Give a pause to think, make it hit with an open hand gestures, eye contact, and a head nod. Then say nothing after to add weight to the statement.

(Many more to come)

Getting Good with Gratitude

What I’ve established above is all fine, analytical and cerebral. Think back in your life, about the ways and forms of gratitude you experienced; I’m guessing that the ones that are most memorable are the most heartfelt, raw, and original. Although it’s important to know the right forms of gratitude for a given context and mechanisms for delivery, good gratitude can’t simply be gleaned or contrived from a list like above and applied for efficiency sake. It needs to demonstrate a difference, an impact, in an original and unexpected way; it needs to be memorable. Getting good with gratitude is needed, because there are many people in all communities doing hard work that goes unrecognized. But getting good with gratitude, that isn’t accidental, is going to take practice.

Professionals practice heuristic processes. Here’s a process for practicing gratitude:

  1. Plan ahead — considering the above lists, how many of these things can you prepare or order in advance? Think like the HYPER lab thank you card at the top, or family photos, or the extra box of wine in your house or beers in your fridge, extra Cougar Gold, cash for tipping etc. But it’s more than just planning ahead to have a gift, it’s tough to think about the right type of gratitude; especially if you’re in over your head and have the biggest reason to say thank you for assistance. Planning ahead allows you to put in a formal review or a Gratitude check up.
  2. Be Grateful in the moment — of course say please and thank you, make eye contact, shake hands, remember names, make each exchange original and unique when possible. Be specific. You’re building momentum and relationships here.
  3. Do a Gratitude check up/retrospective — At the end of every activity or exchange, go down a list of what was given or received between the involved parties. Is gratitude necessary and appropriate? What rules or laws govern the situation that could cause an effort at gratitude to appear like coercion or otherwise inappropriate? Does the gratitude need to be immediate or can it wait for a later time? Don’t commit to anything, simply make an efficient plan (cause you’ve planned ahead) to deliver the gratitude.
  4. Continuously improve — last but not least is keep a gratitude log. Never before has this been easier to do and search with computers. Nothing says “they didn’t think this through” like receiving the same HYPER lab shirt year after year. Note what worked, what didn’t, and keep getting better. I know I have a long way to go to get good at being grateful.

And to the many mentors who’ve taught me how to say thank you over the years, you know who you are, thank you.