Gratitude 4: Express gratitude to others

One of the first lessons we learn as children is the importance of saying “thank you” when someone does something that benefits you. By using these words, we show respect to others and establish that we know how to be polite. But, according to Marshall D. Sahlins, a cultural anthropology professor from the University of Chicago, the act of saying “thank you” is an important part of how we demonstrate reciprocity, a fundamental building-block of a good society.

Reciprocity is the term that describes the back-and-forth, give-and-take behavior that occurs between people. When someone gives something to you, there is an implied expectation of giving something of similar value back to that person. The ancient Romans called it “quid pro quo”; the modern Romans call it, “You scratcha my back, and I’ll scratcha yours.” In the case of your family, reciprocity may be seen in an increase in love and attachment. In the case of your customers, it may be payment for your goods or services.

Expressing the words, “thank you”, is an important part of the reciprocation process where you stop what you’re doing and acknowledge the receipt of a gift, your new indebtedness, and your intention to reciprocate at some future point in time. Without reciprocation, most people would stop interacting with each other and society would quickly fall apart.

Try to imagine what your world would be like if people consistently failed to reciprocate and indicate gratitude. How would you feel if someone didn’t acknowledge your benevolent actions with anything, even a small thank you? Would you be annoyed, resentful, or angry? Would you stop doing things on behalf of this person? Would you begin avoiding this person? Would your future relationship be impaired? In fact, if everyone on the planet felt this way, it wouldn’t be long before people would stop trusting each other, relationships would fall apart, families would be destroyed, economies would fail, and governments would collapse—all because people failed to express gratitude.

Sahlins, M. (1972). Stone Age Economics. Aldine-Atherton: Chicago.

“No one who achieves success does so without the help of others. The wise and confident acknowledge this help with gratitude.”

Alfred North Whitehead
Assignment A: Write a short paragraph (or attach a video or audio clip) where you describe what the world would be like if no one expressed gratitude.
Assignment B: Write a short paragraph (or attach a video or audio clip) describing why some people find it hard to say "thank you" and express their gratitude.