This post is part of the Workplace Anthropology series.

When was the last time you used some variation of the phrase "Thank you"? At the coffee shop this morning? While you were having dinner last night? Because someone held the elevator for you?

How about online? Have you used it to sign an email recently? Did you intentionally not use that phrase? And did you stop to think about what that really meant?

The phrase "Thank you" is part of a triad of ritualized responses we learn in early childhood that also includes "Hi" and "Goodbye." The latter two represent transitional linguistic points that signal increased and decreased access to certain states of interaction. "Hi" both acknowledges a relationship and opens the interaction, while "Goodbye" marks the conclusion of the interaction. In the United States, it is an expression of appreciation. "Thank you" plays a mediating role in sustaining relationships where social access is possible.

These types of linguistic structures are known as "politeness formulae." We are taught the framework for these responses by our parents—for example, American children begin to learn the rules for Hi and Goodbye by waving long before they are capable of verbal communication. My nephew is just learning how to wave Hi and Bye and while his movements are jerky, the delight of his parents will undoubtedly encourage his practicing and ultimately reinforce his understanding of this action. He may be told, if he refuses to participate as prescribed, that "it's not nice" to not perform these social rituals, and in turn will learn that it's a required part of social interactions. Over time, as he interacts with other groups of people, he may learn how variations of this response can be employed (e.g., goodbye versus bye or see you later; tone; accompanying gestures) to add further meaning to the phrase. For example, "Hey" may be used between friends of cosigns by way of greeting, but with strangers or uncles and aunts and grandparents, a more formal tact may be taken depending on the relationship and/or age difference between communicants. These patterns of responses are deeply nuanced and reflect the nature of the relationship between participants: degree of intimacy, relative status, and length of contact or expected duration of separation all influence how these interactions are carried out.

Goodbye is larger than just a word. It encompasses an entire ritual. Psychologist Herbert Clark expands on this idea with the ways in which we end a phone call. We can't just hang up. There are three parts to ending a phone call: topic termination, leave taking, and contact termination. First, we have to indicate we're done talking ("Well, it was really good to hear from you."), and then both agree to break contact ("Okay, we'll catch up again soon." "Okay, bye."), and then actually physically end the transmission (hang up). We rarely ever just hang up without observing these niceties, and if we do it is regarded as the height of rudeness even if it signals displeasure.

In the age of texting, these practices may seem antiquated, but the need for those sorts of rituals remains important, particularly in electronic communication where tone is hard to read. We end our communiques with "talk later," "talk 2 u tomorrow," or even simply "bye." "Thanks" and "Thank you" have worked their way into this portion of the formula particularly in emails. More traditional valedictions have been replaced with "Thank you" so subtly that it's now a common sign-off in this medium. But what does it mean? And why is it more acceptable than "Sincerely" or "Yours truly"?

It is in part be a reflection of our times. Email offers a speedier means of contact than an actual letter (and in some cases, a telephone), but that speed also means we're sending more messages through this medium both for personal and professional reasons, and reading and responding to these messages requires a commitment of time. So it's more important that the sender recognize the burden that they've placed on the recipient. In a time when letters took time to write, send, and respond to, it was important for the sender to attest to her reliability. Responses and actions were not so easy to take back. "Sincerely" and "Yours truly" which were meant to build trust between communicants. Credibility was an important determinant of whether a response would be issues. Today, as the web enables stranger to contact each other with little effort, credibility is less of a factor in determining responses (SPAM mail aside) when weighed against time.

That is not to say that more formal valedictions or affectionate closings are entirely overlooked. The nature of the relationship between corresponding parties must be recognized. It is vital to the continuation of the relationship. Skeptical? Try leaving the valediction off the next time you email a friend or loved one and let me know how it turns out. (Or fail to greet them as you are accustomed to.) "Thank you" serves a similar purpose. By including a closing at all, we're adhering to the overall social politeness formula, and demonstrating that we understand the rules of social engagement. So in that sense, we are sincere individuals.

This practice is rampant in business communication—where people are most pressed for time to respond and where it seems it is most offensive if a closing is omitted, especially if the email contains a request of some sort. "Thanks" seems the safest option. But has it's overuse has also reduced its meaning? How are you signing your emails—and have there been any instances where not having a closing created an issue?

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References and Additional Reading:

  • Becker, Judith and Patricia C Smenner (1986). The Spontaneous Use of Thank You by Preschoolers as a Function of Sex, Socioeconomic Status, and Listener Status. Language in Society, Vol. 15(4): 537 - 545.
  • Clark, Herbert and J. Wade French (1981). Telephone Goodbyes. Language in Society, Vol. 10(1): 1 - 19.
  • Ferguson, Charles (1976). The Structure and Use of Politeness Formulas. Language in Society, Vol. 5(2): 137 - 151.
  • Greif, Esther and Jean Berko Gleason (1980). Hi, Thanks, and Goodbye: More Routine Information. Language in Society, Vol. 9(2): 159 - 166.