In society various social customs develop. They start as politeness, and eventually evolve into an expected part of interaction. Years ago, when someone helped you pull your ox out of the ditch, you would say “Thanks.” It was a simple way to let the other person know that you appreciated their help.
People started saying thanks for everything. It was easy to do and didn’t cost either party anything. Then writing developed and some people began to send thank you notes. It took extra effort. Now the thankee knew that the feeling was sincere. It might take a few moments to read a thank you note, but it was well worth the time to know you were appreciated.
But as technology rapidly and radically changes, we’ve entered a time when old customs still persist, but have a different meaning. At work (in my non-writing job) I get many emails a day and about a third of these are thanks emails. After a while I found myself reacting in an unexpected way.
Instead of feeling appreciated, I was feeling irritated.
At first, I didn’t understand it. It seemed like I was being ungrateful. Why was this constant stream of thanks having the exact opposite of its intended effect?
When you say thanks in person, it costs the recipient nothing. Your thanks may be sincere or it may not be, but the interaction takes a mere second and since you were already with the person, it doesn’t distract you.
When you write a thank you note it takes a bit of effort, even if the note is brief. You have to write it and mail it, which takes time. Nowadays we usually reserve this for special occasions, when someone has done something out of the ordinary. The note takes time to read, but it’s more than worth it to know that someone took the time to show appreciation.
But when sending an email thanks, it is the worst of both worlds. Like face-to-face thanks, it’s easy to do, so the sincerity is questionable. Like a written note, it’s an interruption. I finish working on something, which involves an email or two and then move on. Sometime later I receive an email notification in reply to that subject and check it to see if anything else needs to be done. Instead it’s just a thanks.
Obviously I don’t think the thanker is trying to do anything but be polite, but in this case the politeness isn’t doing what they want it to do. The negative effect is magnified now that we have smart phones that can check email anywhere. I try to stay on top of work issues even when away. It’s particularly irritating to check an email after hours to see that it’s irrelevant.
In a face to face interaction, if I help someone, I’ll feel they’re being rude if they don’t say thanks. But since an email is time delayed, I have almost always forgotten about the interaction by the time the thanks comes in. I’m not sitting there waiting for the social ritual to complete. It’s particularly irritating when the thanks is to someone else and the sender hit “Reply to All” (an tremendously overused button).
And please understand that I’m referring to the simple one or two word thanks emails that never-endingly fly among coworkers. I am not referring to a multi-line email where someone takes time to write up a sincere thanks for something specific that meant something to them.
Like everything, this problem will eventually work itself out. Some people are applying the old social rules to a new environment. It will take some time to work out a politeness that applies with the new technology.
I personally only send thanks emails in two situations: when a longer reply of thanks is warranted or if the sender needs an acknowledgment (but nothing more than a simple acknowledgment).
So, am I a grumpy troll or have other people felt the same way, but not wanted to say it?