Erica Brown

The Art Of The Thank-You

We’ve spoken before about Jewish conversational style: the fast pace, the interruptive jumps that hold enthusiasm but are often perceived as rude, the stubborn holding-on to topics despite lack of interest or the quick move from subject to subject. But we haven’t talked about what we say or don’t say, only how. Indulge me for a few minutes on the content of our speech.

Every once in a while, I will hear someone complain that Jews don’t say thank you. That’s a large and loaded statement. But instead of feeling instantly defensive, I feel instantly sad. We all know the kernel of truth in those words. We’re a resilient, smart, self-reliant sort, the sort that sometimes feels entitled to what we get. So when we’re among our people, and we hear someone make a request without a please or a thank-you, we’re usually not surprised. Only bewildered.

A leader in technology once baldly told me that he never thanks his staff. He pays them.

In the introduction to “A Psychology of Gratitude,” Robert Solomon tries to explain ingratitude. Some people perceive that when they say thank-you it is an admission of vulnerability or dependence. I thank you because I need you. That confession of smallness may be too difficult or personally diminishing for some. Others in the nonprofit community explain that when you have a large cadre of volunteers that keeps your organization going, they often work without acknowledgement or appreciation. They don’t pay forward what they haven’t gotten.

Needless to say, this does not help us recruit new volunteers. Some synagogues, aware that volunteers do a job that should never be thankless, have volunteer appreciation Shabbatot, or services, or actually create their own prayers to help people feel thanked. The summer is a great time to have a board or staff conversation about how volunteers, donors and professionals are recognized in your organization, and if there is something else you should be doing to show your appreciation. You may think you said it, but a thank-you only works if it is really heard. Do people who work with you or for you feel deeply valued? How would you know?

Donor recognition has become an increasing problem in a culture of entitlement. We only feed that dilemma when we say thank-you as another form of solicitation. “Thank-you for your generous gift. It touches so many lives. This year’s campaign…” A professional fundraiser contends that in this climate, people need to be thanked seven times to feel truly appreciated. Don’t forget: trite thank-you’s covered in a layer of cliché don’t count in the seven. Every gift cannot be generous. Every contribution does not make a difference. Every gift cannot touch more lives.

Let’s be honest. These thank-yous touch nothing but the plastic bag liner of your garbage can.

This, however, doesn’t explain why a customer doesn’t say thank-you when he or she receives a service. We need to video ourselves in stores and restaurants. Along with rabbinic supervision of the food, kosher restaurants should be a place where courtesy and kindness preside. They don’t always.

The sting is that each time we forget a thank-you or a chance to recognize how someone has moved or inspired us, we betray our Jewish heritage. The first thing out of our mouths in traditional Judaism is “Modeh Ani” — I thank-you. Barely conscious, we are still expected to be grateful for the simple gift of rising. With these words, we send God a thank-you note each morning for the blessing that is this life.

We have fixed prayers to help us say thank-you to God when our own words aren’t expansive enough. But if you’re thanking humans, allow me to share some tips I’ve picked up to make written thank-you notes more memorable. Here are seven of them — one for each of your seven thank-yous:

♦ Be specific and detailed.

♦ Be authentic (this means avoiding clichés). You don’t have to say the actual words thank-you to mean them.

♦ Make sure this could only be from you and could only be to the recipient because it is that personal.

♦ Keep it short.

♦ The less a thank-you is expected, the more impact it will have. Surprise someone with a thank you.

♦ Write something meaningful enough that someone will want to save it.

♦ Never wait to say thank you. Time slips.

My friend Jeff says that when you receive a personal note, it is always the first thing you open in a pile of mail and the only thing you remember between the bills and circulars. I haven’t forgotten that advice. Thank you, Jeff. I would have written it seven times, but I ran out of space. 

Erica Brown’s most recent book is “Happier Endings: A Meditation on Life and Death” (Simon and Schuster). Subscribe to her weekly Internet essays at

About the Author
Dr. Erica Brown is the Vice Provost for Values and Leadership at Yeshiva University and the director of its Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks–Herenstein Center. Her latest book is Ecclesiastes and the Search for Meaning (Maggid Books).