“As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.”John F. Kennedy
Around this time of year, our collective thoughts often turn toward counting our blessings. These days it often seems that the gratefulness we collectively express on the fourth Thursday in November quickly melts away. We dive into a frenzied flurry of new spending and acquisition related to winter holidays. Too bad it is antithetical to the gratitude we just finished reveling in.
Gratitude is defined as a feeling of appreciation or thanks, or the quality of being thankful; readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness. Robert Emmons, a leading gratitude scholar, identifies two components of gratitude. They are affirming the goodness that exists in our lives, and recognizing the sources of that goodness.
Research demonstrates many benefits of gratitude. These benefits include personal outcomes such as support for psychological health and mental strength. It can also extend to other contexts as well, such as fostering positive work environments.
Managers who communicate gratitude to their employees may see positive results in employee motivation. In marketing contexts, the reciprocal nature of gratitude expressions, such as preferential treatment, can increase consumer loyalty to a brand.
Gratitude as Communication
However, thankfulness is more than just a character trait or a state of mind. From a communication perspective, it is interesting to consider that gratitude is also a social or relational value. That is, expressions of gratitude help to build relationships and foster a sense of community. Gratitude is part of the social glue that holds communities together.
When we express, or communicate, gratitude in a variety of ways as we interact with one another, we build networks of reciprocity. Someone does something nice for us, we express our thanks, and (ideally!) return the favor or pay it forward. We communicate gratitude both with our words and with our actions, such as how we behave toward others.
As a social value, practicing and expressing gratitude is also a skill we can develop. It isn’t simply a trait people are either born with or not. While some folks may naturally tend toward having a more positive outlook on life, like other forms of communication, gratitude is something anyone can practice and get better at implementing.
Qualities of Effective Gratitude Expressions
Research regarding specific components of effective gratitude communication is limited. However, we do know some general characteristics of effective expressions of gratitude. In the workplace, Ryan Fehr notes that implementing gratitude to foster positive outcomes works best when it is sincere. Weaving gratitude into the fibers of an organization’s culture reduces cynicism around gratitude and limits sending mixed messages to employees.
This makes sense. Has someone ever told you thank you, but their tone seemed like maybe they didn’t mean it? It probably didn’t make you feel very appreciated and may have even made you think less of the other person. In other words, simply using words of gratitude — i.e., “thank you” — while engaging in actions that speak differently will backfire.
Likewise, Fehr and colleagues’ research suggests tailoring expressions of appreciation to the specific employee is more effective to communicate gratitude. This is because it is perceived as being more genuine than more generic, “one-size-fits-all” options. If a “thank-you” gesture feels like a rubber stamp, the recipient is less likely to feel truly appreciated.
To these two principles of sincerity and genuineness, I would add consistency. Being consistent in expressing gratitude for others in our lives, whether our coworkers or our personal relationships, demonstrates our sincerity in our attempts to communicate gratitude. When it is a habit over time, it is less likely for gratitude to come across as a cynical manipulation, because it will be coming from a place of sincerity.
Gift-Giving to Communicate Gratitude
Let’s circle back to the gift-buying bonanza I mentioned previously. Why do we buy so many gifts at this time of year? Yes, many folks buy gifts in celebration of certain holidays, but there is something more underneath it. Sometimes we seem to forget it, though. In essence, these gifts we give to one another in the coming weeks are a way to communicate gratitude. As we give, we give thanks for the role the other has played in our life.
So, rather than bemoan the shift from the gratitude of Thanksgiving to the commercialism of the winter holiday season, perhaps we can approach the season from a mindset of gratefulness. We give out of gratitude because we are thankful for this person.
And if you plan to get started on your shopping right away, remember that the Saturday after Thanksgiving is Small Business Saturday. Shop local, and a business owner will be grateful for you!
Dr. Heidi Huntington
Assistant Professor of Business Communication