Sunday, June 3, 2012

The Thanking Season (Nowhere, Nowhere)

Emma, just home from Beiing, tells me that the proper response to a thank-you in Chinese is, instead of words that translate to “you’re welcome,” a phrase that literally translates as “nowhere, nowhere.” The idea, she says, is a sort of general deflection, as if to refuse credit for the action entirely. I imagine a constant stream of heartfelt thank-yous bouncing off their intended recipients and perpetually ricocheting around the country. With an estimated current Chinese population of 1,352,701,483, that makes for a lot of homeless thank-yous.

This month kicks off the height of the height of our thanking season, when all those shower, wedding and graduation gifts will require a written expression of gratitude, at least according to the rules established by somebody’s mother and taken up as a cause by everyone else’s mom, through the ages.

A hefty portion of these missives have arrived in my mailbox over the years, and surprise, I’ve got some opinions on the matter. Like many other communications that aren’t a thumbs-only creation, and don’t allow for abbreviations and emoticons, the thank-you note seems to be a dying art. And at this point I hope I don’t sound like one of those cranky relatives writing in to Dear Abby, back when there was an Abby to write letters to, about how those gol-derned grandkids never send thank-you notes for all those itchy sweaters and instructional reading that’s been gifted to them over the years.

The best thanks-yous, of course, somehow have actual gratitude in their soul. Intended as a social nicety, a thank-you note can be twisted into a mean-spirited box to be checked off one’s social to-do list, and that doesn’t do anyone any good. The nicest monogrammed stationery and the absolute best penmanship can’t hide a bitter heart that’s never known a microsecond of true gratitude, and yes, as a matter of fact, I’ve seen more than a few of those soulless examples in my day.

But a written expression of appreciation can still be done beautifully, even in our illiterate and ungrateful times, as I have also witnessed. I still remember a thank-you from a high school graduate, delivered about five years ago. It arrived during one of those freak seasons when everyone I knew seemed to have a 17-year-old, and, since a high school graduation is usually the one (and only) time that Minnesotans will invite anyone into their home for a celebration, I’d been writing a lot of checks and eating a lot of cake that summer. This boy’s note was so refreshing that I still remember the lede. It began with a sentence that went something like, “First, can I just tell you that the most important thing was that you came to our house to celebrate with me and my family? It feels so great to be supported by friends like you as I start this next part of my life.” It was so sincere, and so fresh and so rare. He seemed to have understood why we drove all the way to St. Paul on a Saturday night, and he got to the heart of the matter, which had nothing to do with another check to add to his college fund.

It doesn’t always work so well. That was the very same summer when the thank-you communication from a very close family friend, a kid who had grown up alongside my kids, arrived in mid-August. It was a sheet that had been composed and printed from a computer, torn in half, and it read, entirely, “Thank you for the gift. I will use it at college.” The name was typed. I immediately predicted a bright corporate future for this young man, at least until the SEC hearings.

The intention of thanking, like so many other things, can be turned on its head and made into something else entirely. I still remember the wedding invitation from a couple who seemed involved in a power struggle of the sort that usually involves Third World countries, tanks and epaulets. About ten months after their wedding, a note arrived. Dispensing with the usual niceties, it launched directly into a screed about how the other half of the couple was supposed to write exactly fifty percent of the notes, per their agreement, and she hadn’t done it, and now he was shouldering this massive burden all by himself, which was why the note was so tardy. Oh, and thanks for the place setting of china.

We humans are so resourceful that we can drive each other crazy with anything, so I suppose thank-yous are no exception. Somehow the etiquette gods have decided that gratitude is best expressed in the form of a three-by-five-inch notecard, handwritten, black or blue ink, please. No space must feel more massive to a worn-out new mom, a depleted bridezilla or an antsy graduate than that vast emptiness. I usually deliver new baby gifts (a multi-pack of batteries, and don’t laugh until you’ve needed to refill that damn swing at 3 a.m. and have run out) with a “Free Pass,” telling the mom that she’s absolved from the need to write one more thank-you note during her daily five-minute allotment of free time. 

Perhaps, given the general misery surrounding this issue, it’s an idea that could be taken up by more givers, who could learn to embrace the little Zen koan of “nowhere, nowhere,” before the wrapping paper on their gift is even torn away, or before the check (this year, for $20.12, arriving this month in bank accounts all over America), is even cashed.

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