Can you overuse "thank you?"
Dan and I have an unspoken rule that we thank whoever cooks dinner each night. No matter what the cook prepares, whether it is creating a four course anniversary meal from scratch or reheating leftovers in the microwave, the other says "thank you" at the end of dinner. It seems, after all, only like good sense. One person worked hard(ish) on meal preparation. One person benefited from not having to do the work. But one Thursday night when we both were scrapping off leftover pasta scraps from our latest leftover meal, I found myself asking, "Do we say thank you too much?"
That seems ridiculous. Too much thank you? How could that be a problem? But I wonder: if we say thank you for everything, does it cheapen our expressions of gratitude? For the moments when we are deeply grateful for and humbled by the other's effort, do we find ourselves discontented, wanting something more? If planning and executing gourmet dinner and mulching the entire yard receive recognition equal to that for picking up takeout and and taking out the trash, will a strange breed of resentfulness inevitably surface?
As I channeled my inner Carrie Bradshaw and posited profoundly framed but substantively shallow questions, I began to think to other marriage and partnership models. While I have no way of knowing what happens behind closed doors, Dan and I definitely said "thank you" more frequently than any other pairs out in the open. And not just by a smidgen but by a long shot. During a three hour cookout with three other couples, we said "thank you" to each other a total of eight times. The other couples? The most was twice, and the least none.
Now, maybe we said "thank you" so much more frequently because we were hosting that night. Very possible. Maybe our total was higher because I was raised in the South with a glass of sweet tea in one hand (which I hate, for the record) and a packet of thank you notes in the other. But I suspect that the reason is something else.
I like that we say thank you, although I do not necessarily think that it means that we are more appreciative of each other than couples who say so less. I do think that this habit has everything to do with our navigation of gender norms and expectations.
How we divide household chores and management happens to track closely with traditional gender roles: Dan does the trash and lawn, I do the shopping and cleaning. But we never want the status quo to be assumed. At any moment, I could begin mowing our grass and Dan could pick up a mop and tackle our kitchen floors. That probably will not happen, but our saying "thank you" after every little thing maintains the illusion that nothing is taken for granted, no option is ever off the table.
I say "thank you" when Dan pulls the garbage can to the curb this Monday night, just as he does every other Monday night, because I don't want to assume, just like Dan tells me "thanks" when I walk in the door with my arm full of groceries from the weekly shopping trip. We may be watering down the word, reciting it so frequently, so automatically that it does not even register, especially and unfortunately during those times when it needs most needs emphasizing.
But I don't imagine we will stop anytime soon. Like everyone else, we are making it up as we go, and in our book, any sign of appreciation and gratitude, even one that is grossly overused, is better than none. The alternative--a thank-less home--may make our special "thank yous" mean more, but to the expense of the everyday. And since most of our days or ordinary rather than extraordinary, I would rather privilege and celebrate the everyday. The rhythm of our everyday keeps us humming along, fueling us so that we can occasionally do the extraordinary.