Thank you to ‘thank you’

By Thomas Block, Columnist

The most important words you’ll ever know aren’t the ones you have to rummage through a thesaurus for. They aren’t intellectual jargon you’ll find in scholarly journals, nor are they perplexing dialogue from a Shakespearean play. They’re the ones you learned by the time you were 5 years old.

Like elements from the periodic table, words like “please” and “sorry” quietly serve as the foundation for daily interaction. They connect the dots between impossibly complex thoughts for everyone to follow and for the most part, they’re pretty good at it. It might make you squirm in your seat to think about starting up a conversation with new people at a party, but at least “hello” will get you halfway there.

It’s easy to treat this bank of words like a credit card, waved around just to make social transactions quicker and more efficient. Where’s the sentimentality in that, though? These words are short and sweet, yes, but beautiful nonetheless. They shouldn’t be used to sidestep the deeper implications of simple courtesy, but rather to dwell on them.

Maybe it helps to hear the words more than it does to say them. After all, are there any two words we crave more intensely than “thank” and “you?”

Not that “thank you” goes underused, fortunately. Here at the University, it’s about as common to hear “thank you” as it is to see corn while driving along I-57. Anytime a student holds the door for you, a waiter fills your water, or a bus driver lets you out at your stop, the phrase is bound to come out of your mouth, maybe even without you realizing it.

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As of late, I’ve been dealing out a fair amount of thanks. I guess that’ll happen when you attend office hours and visit career services nearly every day of the week. So often do I come into contact with folks whose job it is to help me, who gladly get paid to walk me through the same familiar problems students and applicants have year after year.

Is it my job, then, to say thank you in response? Sure, it’s considered polite to say it, but will an act of mere obligation really make the recipient feel all warm and fuzzy? It’s not like their paycheck comes in words. “Thank” and “you” are only two tiny ones. What does it matter if they show up or not?

Here’s what I think: Everyone — at least those who are physically, economically, mentally and socially able — has a choice to do what they do. Someone who chooses to be a social worker here on campus could have made a living doing anything. They get paid for their time, not for the additional patience and insight they offer their visitors.

This, by my definition, is a statement of altruism. Therefore, in return, it is not only my social but personal responsibility to do … well, something.

Should I impart some of my own limited wisdom onto them? Or would that be pretentious? Should I just get them a box of chocolates like I did for the angelic high school adviser who let me register for AP exams a day late and saved me a semester’s worth of college tuition? (I am forgetful to the verge of self-destruction). Or would that be reducing the value of their generosity to a material equivalent?

I’ve never really known the answer. All I know is that everybody knows what “thank you” means. It gets the message across: “I don’t totally get why you did something nice for me, but until I somehow return the favor, just know that what you did will stick with me.”

As powerful as the words are, “please” can’t get you everything and “sorry” can’t undo what you’ve done. “Thank you,” in that sense, is 100 percent effective. An act of kindness will come your way no matter what you do. To say “thank you” is to appreciate it.

Thomas is a sophomore in Engineering.
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