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Does ‘Thank You’ Really Mean ‘Thank You’?

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Does ‘Thank You’ Really Mean ‘Thank You’?

Have you noticed just how often ‘thank you’ is used in everyday conversations in the UK?  Perhaps this is one of the reasons the Brits are thought to be polite to the point of excess and grateful for the tiniest thing.  However, recent studies* have shown that ‘thank you’ is not always used for its literal meaning and have highlighted the multiple functions these two little words seem to have in our daily interactions.

Take a look at the dialogue below:


You finally reach the end of an interminable queue in Primark, all the while texting words of support to a friend who has just been dumped.The weary cashier calls out to you, “Thanks for waiting.” 

You make your way over to the till and hand over the pair of jeans you are praying will fit – the queue to pay was nothing like the horde of teenagers on half-term that had flocked to the changing rooms.

“Thanks.” The cashier says as she takes the jeans and roughly waves them under the scanner. Beep. 

“That’s nine ninety-nine please.”

You flash your credit card and she passes you the chunky card reader.

“Thank you.” You say, looking up from your mobile screen. You key in your PIN without even looking and hand the reader back to the cashier. 

“Thanks.  Do you need a bag?”  She enquires. 

“Yes, thanks.” She tosses your latest impulse buy into a huge paper bag and slides it towards you.

“Thanks a lot.” She says, forcing a smile.

You grab the “Thank you.  Bye.”


How many of those thank-you’s express genuine gratitude? Not many, it appears. Instead, they are mostly used to initiate the stages and manage the flow of the interaction. For example, “thanks for waiting” really means “it’s your turn to pay”; “thank you” acknowledges you have received the card reader and are ready to make the payment rather than showing real appreciation for the act of passing you the reader. It has been suggested that the need to be seen to be using these conventions of politeness is greater than the actual desire to be polite**, dismantling the stereotype of British courtesy and refinement. 

S.S.L

* https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/may/26/britain-politeness-english-speakers-gratitude
** http://www.bbc.com/capital/story/20170309-three-tips-for-surviving-a-british-workplace

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