For several years, my work frequently took me to Moscow, where never once did I receive a “thanks” or “you’re welcome” for doing things that would typically and obviously (to my mind) elicit one in the U.S.

Were my Russian collaborators rude?  Were they simply uncaring and difficult?  Were they being as cold as their notorious winters?

Perhaps they needed to bone up on the latest thinking around the concept of “gratitude”—a hot topic back home.  The U.S. business media is full of stories like, “How to show gratitude,” “Say thank you to your employees,” “Engagement begins with thanks,” “Gratitude is good for your bottom line,” and so on.  Stories such as these turn up in my inbox and newsfeed all the time, and I am a huge proponent of practicing gratitude on a personal level, too. Good manners cost nothing, and just how difficult is it to say “please” and “thank you?”

As a cultural anthropologist, I can’t help but question the presumed simplicity and ease of saying “thanks”—and if my Muscovite coworkers were actually on to something. While we’re trained from early childhood to repeat these words when someone does something for us, no matter how big or small, saying “please,” “thank you” and “you’re welcome” may actually be more of an ingrained habit than an intention of spirit.

I think of the lesson I overheard my sister teaching my young niece recently.  “When you say ‘thank you’ to someone, do it with intention.”  You see the difference?  Conscious choice-making versus mindlessly parroting a phrase.  My sister was teaching my niece to speak her words from a place of genuine appreciation and authenticity.  Don’t go around thanking everyone for everything.

How might we apply this lesson to the workplace? In speaking with my colleagues, most felt that too many “thank-you’s” rendered the phrase meaningless.  A Greek friend told me that his approach to thanking those on his team who perform above and beyond is to bring him/her a sweet dessert made at home. 

Anthropology has long been fascinated with gift-giving rituals across cultures. There’s very rich literature showing how gift-giving shapes and strengthens ties of obligation (Mauss 1954; Malinowski 1920).  Others have highlighted the economics of gift exchange and the implied or explicit obligation to return the favor at some point—which is another way of saying that generosity, reciprocity and gift-giving are deeply cultured practices.  Whether you are family or colleague, a stranger or intimate, old or young, an authority or a peer, a manager or a team member, all these dynamics and more shape both the receiver and the giver of appreciation.

I don’t mean to say that giving gifts is a requirement to show true gratitude.  However, there are more concrete ways of showing an employee appreciation beyond a simple “thanks.”  Leaders tend to have a lot on their plates and must remain focused on meeting objectives and deliverables.  But sometimes when showing gratitude by only saying “thanks,” the words suffer from diminishing returns and employees begin to desire other forms of gratification.

Gratifying an employee can be as simple as creating a sense of trust in the workplace, building a comfortable atmosphere and open dialogue to share ideas and support employees in opportunities to experiment, challenge and grow.  Other ways to demonstrate gratitude include offering flexible work arrangements, when appropriate, and enthusiasm to support employees in their career goals.

Which brings me back to Moscow and my seemingly ungrateful local colleagues.  I actually forged wonderful collegial relationships with the people I worked with there.  I considered several of them friends and still do.  In the early days of our collaboration, I remember thinking it odd that I never received a “thanks” or “you’re welcome.”  Not once!  But after about a year of working closely together, I was invited to join one of the agency founders for a night at the ballet.  Of course, I asked about the cost of tickets to repay her (seemed the polite thing to do) to which she immediately indicated that this was unacceptable: I was her guest, and I had done much to advance the business development of her company.  Deeds not words were abundantly expressive of “thanks.”  It was a powerful lesson.

Gratitude doesn’t exist in a vacuum.  It is deeply embedded in a broader cultural context, ultimately contributing to the functionality of a company, productivity and success.  As we’re told, actions speak louder than words, the action of support speaks volumes. Providing the encouragement, foundations, and resources necessary for employees to grow is the kind of appreciation that fosters productivity and teamwork to a much stronger degree than simple acknowledgement for a task.

It’s important to not just say words like “thank you” and “please” because they are a polite turn of phrase.  Put some real thought into what you are saying and like my niece you’ll find you’re expressing yourself from a place of intention.

Malinowski, Bronislaw. 1920. “Kula: The Circulating Exchange Of Valuables In The Archipelagoes Of Eastern New Guinea.” Man 20 (51). London: 97-105.

Mauss, M. 1954. The Gift: The form and reason for exchange in archaic societies. London: Cohen & West.