August 22, 2010

Why I Don’t Say Thank You.

Minding My Matrika

“Thank you emphasizes a separation, a duality, when really we are all one, so why should we not perform kindnesses for each other?”

In Emma Bull’s fine urban fantasy novel War for the Oaks, the heroine experiences an unexpectedly socially awkward moment when she thanks a phouka who is her protector and companion for a good turn he has done her. He looks deeply uncomfortable, and when she bewilderedly wonders why, he informs her gently that it is considered bad manners to thank faeries.

Faeries don’t say ‘Thank you,’ and they don’t expect to be thanked. The phouka doesn’t explain why. Knowing there must be a good reason, I went in search for why. The best I was able to come up with, raking through the sands of faerie lore on the Internet and in all my books, was that saying ‘Thank you’ emphasizes a separation, a duality, when really we are all one, so why should we not perform kindnesses for each other? We may as well thank each other for breathing. That makes perfect sense to me, but it was only one source (that I wish I could remember). Surely then, I thought, there might be other reasons.

If saying ‘Thank you’ is actually bad manners, what makes it so? I started listening to the moments I said ‘Thank you,’ and when other people say ‘Thank you’ to me, in precisely those words. I started to notice how often we say ‘Thank you’ or some variant thereof when we mean anything but.

How often do you get off the telephone with the bank or some such necessary evil, and the person you have been speaking to says ‘Thank you’? But what are they thanking you for? Your time? Your patience? Why do they even say it? More than anything it is usually just a tag, a flag which actually means, ‘Okay, we’re done here,’ that tells you the conversation is through. But it is not to express gratitude.

Then of course there was my temperamental former roommate who would punctuate an email to me about some beef she had around the house with a terse ‘Thanks.’ Now, I know she wasn’t thanking me for anything. I don’t even know why she bothered to write that word, usually because it followed a nasty screed. It fell like a thud at the end of her correspondence, an impotent gesture of etiquette, a sign signifying nothing.

But beyond listening to others, most importantly I started listening to myself. I was surprised how often those words came to my lips as a quick reflex, more as punctuation than anything else. I could have stopped saying it altogether, but not everyone perceives a nondual world, and people deserve to be appreciated when they are sweet. So I started trying to exercise other ways of saying it that conveyed what I actually meant. I became fond of ‘I really appreciate it!’ or ‘I couldn’t have done it without you!’ or ‘WOW! That is the best sweater EVER! I can’t wait to wear it!’ Sometimes I overdo the effusion. But I like trying to come up with something new. At least, with something that expresses appreciation but would not offend a faerie.

It’s a good exercise, as is anything which makes you more aware. For if the words you use ring false, if no-one is thanking anyone really, then words like that are better to be avoided. Perhaps that is what made the phouka squirm. Who wants to be given something offhand and thoughtlessly?

I am not advocating a reversion to rudeness. But it is surely preferable when offering someone your precious breath, the gift of your voice and language, to use words that actually mean something. Mind your matrika. Make what you say mindful and purposeful, truthful and appropriate. Don’t say ‘Thank you’ when you don’t mean it. Don’t say it as rote when you mean something else instead. Hear yourself. Hear what you say, really. Be sincere. Be creative, expressive, original, fresh, intelligent, and new. Make your beautiful speech and writing, make your words and meaning, not society’s, but your own.

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