The Power of a Proper Thank you – Free Ebook

Life continually requires that we write down a few 
words of thanks: for holidays, meals, presents or  

people’s place in our hearts. However, too often, 
our messages end up flat or somewhat unconvincing;  

we say that the dinner was ‘wonderful’, 
the present ‘brilliant’ and the holiday  

‘the best ever’, all of which may be true while 
failing to get at what truly touched or moved us.  

To render our messages more effective, we 
might take a lesson from an unexpected quarter:  

the history of art. Many paintings and poems 
are in effect a series of thank you notes to  

parts of the world. They are thank yous for the 
sunset in springtime, a river valley at dawn,  

the last days of autumn or the face of a loved 
one. What distinguishes great from mediocre art  

is in large measure the level of detail with which 
the world has been studied. A talented artist is,  

first and foremost, someone who takes us into 
the specifics of the reasons why an experience  

or place felt valuable. They don’t merely tell 
us that spring is ‘nice’, they zero in on the  

particular contributing factors to this niceness: 
leaves that have the softness of a newborn’s  

hands, the contrast between a warm sun and a sharp 
breeze, the plaintive cry of baby blackbirds.  

The more the poet moves from generalities 
to specifics, the more the scene comes alive  

in our minds. The same holds true in painting. A 
great painter goes beneath a general impression  

of pleasure in order to select and emphasise 
the truly attractive features of the landscape:  

they show the sunlight filtering through the 
leaves of the trees and reflecting off of a pool  

of water in the road; they draw attention 
to the craggy upper slopes of a mountain  

or the way a sequence of ridges and valleys open 
up in the distance. They’ve asked themselves with  

unusual rigour what is it that they particularly 
appreciated about a scene and faithfully  

transcribed their salient impressions. Some of 
the reason why great artists are rare is that  

our minds are not well set up to understand why we 
feel as we do. We register our emotions in broad  

strokes and derive an overall sense of our moods 
long before we grasp the basis upon which they  

rest. We are bad at travelling upstream from our 
impressions to their source, it feels frustrating  

to have to ask too directly what was really 
pleasing about a present or why exactly a person  

seemed charming to have dinner with. But we can 
be confident that if our minds have been affected,  

the reasons why they have been so will be lodged 
somewhere in consciousness as well, waiting to be  

uncovered with deftness and patience. We stand to 
realise that it wasn’t so much that the food was  

‘delicious’ but that the potatoes in particular 
had an intriguing rosemary and garlic flavour  

to them. A friend wasn’t just ‘nice’; they 
brought a hugely sensitive and generous tone  

to bear in asking us what it had been like for us 
in adolescence after our dad died. And the camera  

wasn’t just a ‘great present’; it has an immensely 
satisfying rubbery grip and a reassuringly  

clunky shutter sound that evokes a sturdier, 
better older world. The details will be there,  

waiting for us to catch them through our mental 
sieve. Praise works best the more specific it can  

be. We know this in love; the more a partner 
can say what it is they appreciate about us,  

the more real their affection can feel. It is 
when they’ve studied the shape of our fingers,  

when they’ve recognised and appreciated the quirks 
of our character, when they’ve clocked the words  

we like or the way we end a phone call that the 
praise starts to count. The person who has given a  

dinner party or sent us a present is no different. 
They too hunger for praise in its specific rather  

than general forms. We don’t have to be great 
artists to send effective thank you notes: we  

just need to locate and hold on tightly to two or 
three highly detailed reasons for our gratitude.

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