March 12, 2014

Horse 1634 - Is One Word "Thanks" An Adequate Email Response?

Let me introduce two players:
Brady Haran¹ has worked for the BBC, made documentary pieces for the University of Nottingham and has as far as I can tell, 14 YouTube channels. That's all really quite prolific.
CGP Grey² is a hidden character on the internet. Although we can work out that he lives somewhere in London, that's about it. I'm also assuming that he has some background in teaching; I suspect high school economics though I could be wrong.

Imagine then, my joy when Brady and Grey announced a series of ten podcasts about a series of indeterminate subjects called "Hello Internet". There are now 6 of them and I find them all interesting to listen to.
And now... the point of this post:

In Hello Internet #6: Delete, Flag, Delete, Reply from about 59mins onwardsGrey poses the question if an email doesn't warrant a reply: "Oh you've told me this thing, do I need to just say 'thanks'?" He then goes onto justify quite nicely on the basis of a time-cost-benefit basis, that someone with a lot of emails, probably shouldn't reply with a single word thanks. He poses the idea that a single word 'thanks' is sometimes worse that receiving no reply at all because somehow it is "totally empty and devoid of meaning".
Brady asks the very pointed question: "Should we be thinking about what the recipient will get from us taking 5 seconds to reply?"

This could very well be asked of all sorts of written communication. In the olden days, sometimes stationery lines were specifically devoted to saying thanks. In the twenty-first century when email seems to outrank physical letters though, do we even need to reply with thanks? Do the rules apply to Facebook? Is a Like the same thing? Does this apply to something like Twitter?

In a weird turn of events, I was listening to this podcast; whilst at the same time looking for the answer to another question posed earlier as to where the engines were in the Tesla Model S; found the answer and replied with what I thought to be an appropriate response; the the appropriate place and duly received a note of thanks.

How did I feel? Elated. This brings me to the curious question of "why?".

"Thanks" in principle acts as both validation of the individual and improves the total virtuousness of the exchange. Moreover on a broader social scale, you somehow feel honored, even if its only a very small amount.
Please, Thanks, Sorry - are like little drops of oil in the mechanics of society. People sometimes say that alcohol acts as a social lubricant but I can assure you, that Pleases, Thank Yous and Sorrys do more to maintain the proper functioning of society than any amount of alcohol is likely to.

Before we stray into the dangerous world of etiquette and manners though, it might be worth a reminder of the words of George Bernard Shaw:
I can assure you that if you will only take the trouble always to do the perfectly correct thing, and to say the perfectly correct thing, you can do just what you like.
- Lady Utterwood, Heartbreak House: A Fantasia in the Russian Manner on English Themes, George Bernard Shaw (1919)

Lady Utterwood does remark that good manners can be used as a cover for committing the most horrible of things, as long as it is all done with an air of civility. I don't really want to open up that can of worms because invariably it would require finding a larger can to put all the worms back into and I've already stretched this metaphor too far.

Admittedly, I do not have a heap of email. At most I'd get through maybe about ten a day which require actual action. Even when I have a few hundred of things which require deletion, all useful emails should be replied to.
"Thanks" does have the potential to become like a wave of "Sorry" that can burst out from time to time. "Sorry" in principle is an admission that there has been an offence caused and whilst "Thanks" isn't about someone making the same level of restitution to square away an account as a debtor, there is still a small amount of gratitude to be paid.
It's the same sort of idea as when you hold a door open for someone. If you don't get a "thanks" back, are you really going to spend the mental effort into feeling slighted? On the other hand, if someone does say "thanks" to you, what real benefit is there in feeling virtuous for a simple act like holding a door open in the first place?
Saying "thanks" though, does tend to square the account away. Manners aren't about making the other person feel good as the old proverb says but rather, to keep every one from embarrassing themselves.

Saying "thanks" in an email or on Twitter though is a little like giving someone a shiny New Penny (deliberately capitalised). It is ultimately of little intrinsic value but like the portcullis depicted, it renders a very small account closed.

¹Some of Brady Haran's... many things.

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