I find ‘gratitude’ an exasperatingly convoluted concept. Its expression walks the fine edge between honesty and hypocrisy, too often tumbling off into cliché, trailing clouds of ulterior motives. The present human population does not possess the requisite humility for genuine gratitude. What passes today for gratitude is at best, a negotiation technique, a feint, and at worst, a falsehood. Gratitude frames its meaning in language that has evolved to mimic and hinder understanding, to have it both ways. All too often gratitude will hide a bad motive beneath a good one.
The phrase “Thank you” can convey both kindness and insincerity with the same neutrality. It encodes dishonesty. On the occasions that a ‘thank you’ greases a social transaction, it does so with a mercenary subtext. “Thank you” is currency for counterfeit emotional commerce. Sentimentalized, denatured, and commodified virtue nowadays passes for manners.
If one needs express appreciation, a descriptive sentence would be more accurate. For example: “The piece of gum you gave me calmed me down, at least I think it did.” This gives the recipient a both reasonably accurate assessment of his or her behavior and a report on its effect on the speaker: cause and effect. Still, there’s plenty of room for utter bullshit.
This brings me to the haunting Thank-You Note. There may be no other childhood formality more painful to recall. During the period between Christmas and New Year’s, I would be confined to my room until I could grunt out a snarky turdlette to Aunt Mary and Uncle George praising the utility of their unwearable sweater.
I write Thank-You notes all the time. I tell myself it’s because everybody loves to get mail, but in reality, I am a duplicitous son-of-a-bitch who can never have enough sweaters.