I’m imagining a portly cavewoman bent over a roaring fire, gingerly carving up a slab of meat, which hours ago her bearded partner wrestled ferociously with in the depths of the surrounding forest. Hands still bloodied from the kill and with several of his children fighting for the bones, I wonder whether Caveman gives his wife a tender kiss alongside a “thanks, honey” for the lovely meal or whether Cavewoman thanks her man for providing her with the succulent flesh of an Irish boar. Perhaps they thank each other in their own, silent way.
Thinking about thanking should be natural to us, since the two words stem from the same root; the Proto Indo-European word tong meaning to feel. Thinking pre-existed thanking- a fact which matches up nicely with the intuition that gratitude should be considered rather than automatic. It is no wonder that in Stone Age times, where food, shelter and sex were the hallmarks of successful existence, thinking and thanking were relegated to a common sentience. While thinking about thanking is a sign of evolutionary progress, not thinking about thanking is yet one step more advanced. After all, automatic thanking is synonymous with the language of service transaction, which constitutes a process more sophisticated than the simple bartering of one good for another. Take a bog standard morning in the city centre of Dublin for instance. The 15 A bus arrives late and takes me in to town. I alight and thank the bus driver. As I pass the gates of Trinity College, a religious enthusiast thrusts upon me a medallion of the Virgin Mary, which she claims will protect me from everything the world may throw at me, excepting medallions themselves it seems. I thank her with a smile and hurry on. I am groggy and so I head straight to Butlers Chocolate Café, where I order a caramel machiato ‘to go’. I thank the man at the till as I hand him over my money. Without thinking, I have given thanks for a tardy service for which a driver earns his keep, for an item I would rather be without and for due receipt of a steaming cup for which I have paid ready money.
But why? A 2007 study into cultural service exchanges argues that “the use of thanks in closing conversations … reflects local concerns of conversational management, insofar as participants need to demonstrate their final alignment to a common frame of reference and a shared satisfactory role-relationship.” In other words, perhaps what I am meaning to say is “I appreciate that you’ve battled through the morning traffic to drop me into town”, “Despite my complete indifference to your cause, I respect your dedication to The Legion of Mary and the fact that you are standing here in the freezing cold offering gratuitous items to passers-by” and “I value my cup of sweet warmth and your pleasant demeanour, even if provision of both forms part of your job description”.
Uttering thanks may have become automatic but feeling gratitude is a state much more specific to the individual and ultimately more meaningful. A child can be forced to say “thank you” for the cotton socks its Great Auntie has bestowed upon it, but in no way can the feeling of gratitude be imposed. The human brain – plastic with potential – can differentiate between uttering thanks and being grateful. Indeed, true gratitude is often exceptionally hard to articulate. A youtube video promoting gratitude to American service men and women, which has registered over two and a half million hits, describes some of the problems, which accompany the attempt to express true gratitude. One of the most common is the feeling of awkwardness. How do you tell somebody you have never met how grateful you are for their actions? How do you tell somebody you see every day how much they mean to you?
Perhaps it’s about showing and not telling. Like love and hope and fear, it’s actions that speak louder than words. Thank somebody with a look, a hug, a card, a surprise and watch the warm feeling break across their face. It is nobler to thank than to be thanked but there is nothing that replaces that affirming feeling of being appreciated.
This Thanksgiving Festival, as modern Man Matt carves the organic turkey that Marigold’s high-powered legal job has helped provide and Hannah Montana occupies the kids in the background, perhaps it will be a silent, prehistoric glance between man and wife and not a glass-tipping dedication to America that will express true thanks. “To Silent Gratitude”.