Remember when you were about seven years old and it was your birthday, and you had presents – some from your Mummy and Daddy and others from remoter, more distant personages such as aunties and uncles, or even a great-aunt?
And then perhaps your Mum made you sit down and write letters to each of your aunties and uncles to say thank you for the present you had had from her or him, even if it was a pair of hand-knitted socks, and not the train set, Barbie or samurai sword you had really wanted.
And there you sat, with paper and pencil in front of you, feeling vaguely resentful (even though you ought to have been bubbling with gratitude) and were unable to think of a single thing to write, beyond the obvious “Thank you for the nice socks.”
Yes, surely I’m exaggerating just a mite. But I did have to write thank-you letters and it did feel like a very onerous chore at the time, from my childish perspective. I don’t have to do this any more, of course, firstly because I’m now a grown-up, and secondly because there aren’t exactly truckloads of birthday presents arriving for me these days.
Being a grown-up has its advantages because, despite a dearth of items in shiny wrapping paper, life usually provides plenty of other things to be very thankful to others for. There are parties, gatherings, concerts, courses, seminars, evening classes, get-togethers, trips, outings, and probably lots of other reasons to go out, brush up on skills, enrich one’s mind and, last but not least, enjoy doing so and feel grateful towards the people who have devoted time, money and effort to make these events happen.
Now I’m wondering what you think I’ll be writing next. Maybe how glad I am that I’m not compelled to say thank you to anyone any more, now I’m over 40? Actually, no. The opposite, in fact – thank-you letters are an excellent idea, and I have put together the following list of reasons why I’ve changed my mind in the years since childhood.
1) Technology has moved along since the 1970s – we now (most of us) have access to e-mail. It’s fast, it’s cheap, it’s convenient – no more pencils and notepaper. (Although in fact a hand-written letter can have an especially positive impact, as it shows that you have been willing to go to some trouble.)
2) Expressing gratitude makes you happier! At this point I could have searched for some appropriate piece of research from the field of positive psychology to back this up, but have been prevented by sheer laziness. However, this is an easy one to test for yourself – go out of your way to say thank you to someone, then pay attention to your feelings.
3) Expressing gratitude makes the other person feel happier too. You feel good, he or she feels good, and in this way positive feelings insidiously spread out through the world, from person to person. A bit like a virus, but far nicer.
4) Following on from 3), doing something positive for others creates good karma for you. Or so the Eastern sages say. Even if you don’t believe in karma, you have nothing to lose by covering this particular base.
5) A thank-you note can give the other person valuable feedback. And it doesn’t even have to always be positive feedback. If there is anything the organiser could have done to improve a course, seminar or music recital, let them know; it will help them to make the next one even better. A good way to do this is in the form of a classic “sandwich” – one morsel of negative feedback between two healthy slices of positive feedback. The negative point will be something specific (e.g. “the room was a bit too warm”), so make sure that the positive items are specific as well.
6) Making contact by habitually sending a note of thanks provides you with a supply of weak ties.
Now you might have read my last point and thought – weak ties? What on earth are they, and why would I want them?
You will surely have heard of something called “six degrees of separation”, a.k.a. the Kevin Bacon game; basically the assertion that any person in the world can be linked to any other person via about six steps, whether it be Kevin Bacon linked to any other movie actor or you linked to a Mongolian botanist or Chilean penguin herder. It’s a small and highly interconnected world, after all. And the reason for the world’s astounding wealth of interconnectedness? The existence of weak ties.
Strong ties are those that exist in any family, workplace or close-knit community. If you made a list of everyone you knew, many or most of these would be people you see and interact with every day. You would be on your mother’s, brother’s and next-door neighbour’s lists, let’s say, and they would be on yours. The same names would keep on cropping up, with everyone knowing everyone else, essentially. If these strong links were all we had, the world would be divided up into myriads of self-contained and isolated communities, with no-one speaking to strangers, and the entire six-degree thing just would not work.
But the world is not like that. The vast majority of us also have weak ties – a second cousin twice removed, a childhood friend we seldom see nowadays, an occasional penpal, someone with whom we shared a classroom or apartment or social circle years ago. And it is through these far-flung, sometimes almost random connections that the whole wide world is sewn together. (For a lucid explanation of Stanley Milgram’s and Mark Granovetter’s studies of networks – which is where all this talk of weak and strong ties comes from – I recommend a very good book called Small World by Mark Buchanan.)
Every time we network, we build up a portfolio of weak ties. And these can be extremely useful. After all, which do you think is more likely, that you get wind of a job opportunity from your close colleague or from an acquaintance who works in the same industry and with whom you have developed a relationship over the course of several workshops and e-mail exchanges? I’d put my money on the acquaintance.
So – saying thanks can be a good networking opportunity. It would be cynical to treat it only as such, however, and after all there is no guarantee that any monetary or career advantage will come from a contact added to your network in this way. Which is why I have stressed the psychological benefits of expressing gratitude, as they are a lot more certain. As with many other kinds of networking activities, the trick (if it can be called that) is to do this for its own sake, and for the pleasure it brings, rather than getting hung up on the payoff.
The only slight downside I’ve found? Reflecting on the fact that the seven-year-old me had not somehow known all this when dutifully penning his thank-you letters upon the receipt of birthday gifts, all those years ago. It would have made the task immeasurably lighter.
(Yes, it’s another article for Helium.com.)