At Princeton, lunch is a mechanized process that goes something like this:

Enter dining hall, hand prox to dining hall attendant.
-Hi, how are you?
-Good, thanks. How are you?
to friend, over the shoulder Where are you going out tonight?
to dining hall attendant, Thank you.

Receive prox, select food, masticate said food, lament problem set. Food in food-hole, plate on conveyor belt, human out.

But at a recent lunch, a glitch in the system:

Enter dining hall, hand prox to dining hall attendant.
to attendant It’s a nice day isn’t it?
to me Good, thanks. How are you?

A pause. A realization that my question wasn’t quite answered. A consideration: is my question ever really answered? If my exchanges are so superficial and the conversations so vacuous that there is literally no variation in responses, what do I ever gain from them? Why do I give these thoughtless thank-yous over a cold shoulder?

Emphasis on social thanking isn’t universal. While on Bridge Year in India, I would often be reprimanded for over-using the phrase, which is reserved there for only the largest acts of kindness. Using thank-you frivolously made people feel uncomfortable and undermined its strength. In the middle of conversations in Hindi, I would switch languages to English in order to say thank-you. Our culture has adopted an unnecessary compulsion to thank. Mine was so strong that I had to revert to a different language in order to satisfy it.

Here at Princeton we say thank you with minimal enthusiasm. We drone or mumble thank-yous under our breath. The nature of our thank-yous extends beyond the dining halls. You can see it in libraries, when papers are being handed out in precepts, and when small favors are done in dorm rooms. Of course, the magnitude of the phrase should be proportionate to the size of the favor, but here it seems to have a universal banality.  The overuse of thank-you here remains a mystery to me, but I propose three theories on the nature of the phrase:

1. We say thank you to remind ourselves of our gratitude. As students here with generous meal-plans, ornate dining halls, and Prospect Ave mansions, we have much to be grateful for. We are acknowledging whatever it is that has worked in our favors and brought us here. We are acknowledging the effort that some unknown number of people put into cultivating and preparing the food, the fact that we can have it on demand, the fact that we can leave quickly to continue lives at Princeton. Our dining hall thank-yous are reminders to ourselves of that privilege. It’s cliché, but plausible.

However, if we acknowledged our appreciation internally we could drop external thanks entirely. We could develop a standard for the term similar to the one I saw in India. We could still acknowledge inwardly when we were thankful and express it through other means. The verbalization is not necessary. In fact, it is a barrier to more profound gratitude. The thank-you instills a sense of complacency. We accept that it is enough to utter the phrase and move on, forgetting what we’ve received. By saying thank-you we enable ourselves to feel comfortable while not engaging in any actual meditation on gratitude. By not saying thank-you we could more deliberately acknowledge our thankfulness. We would force ourselves to act in response to gratitude by reciprocating favors or being more compassionate.

2. We say thank you to express outward gratitude. We see the dining hall attendant as someone who deserves to feel appreciated, and we want them to understand it. The thank-you is not so much an internal recognition of our thankfulness as an attempt to communicate to someone that they are meaningful to us. Thank you is a means of saying “I appreciate you” or “I acknowledge you’ve done something for me.”

As opposed to the first theory, this one would require us to verbalize our thanks, if not perform a more meaningful act of gratitude to the person we appreciate. However, our lackluster thank-yous seem to disprove this theory.

If this theory were the case, we would give thanks with more gusto. My high school was big on gratitude. We put emphasis on public displays of appreciation. We made assembly announcements thanking people for planning events, for attending events, for promoting events. The thank-yous seemed to be said intentionally and enthusiastically. Princeton, in contrast, has felt devoid of that appreciation. If Theory Two were true, we would not throw the term around haphazardly.

It is possible that thank-yous at my high school were insincere. However, in most cases it would seem that if one were willing commit themselves to a grand thank-you, they must feel some level of gratitude. The thank-yous are attempts to emphasize appreciation externally, but are propelled by internal gratitude. We want to make the person being thanked feel appreciated. We want to do so because we feel grateful or at least have some kind of appreciation for the person and feel they deserve to know it. If thank-yous are insincere and are primarily theatrics, then Theory Two doesn’t hold water, but Theory Three might.

3. We have given in to a societal expectation. The perfunctory thank-yous and you’re-welcomes are mandatory. We fear social judgment for not saying it. The words themselves no longer carry any meaning, but are a way to escape being seen as rude, ungrateful, or lacking social tact. Perhaps the rate of thank-you inflation is so high that there is no value to each thank you. There is strictly the risk of negative value—not saying it and seeming ungrateful, or at least socially oblivious.

Like the second theory the goal of the thank-you is externally motivated. We say thank-you because we want someone else to hear us saying it, as opposed to saying it for our own internal processes. However, in this case the motivation for the thank-you is also external. We are abiding by social norms. We thank because it would be socially unacceptable not to do so.

Parents goading children to say thank you in sing-song voices is a cultural trope. However, the norm is not that parents teach their kids to say it in order to express appreciation.  They do it because it’s. They say it to exhibit good manners—an accepted mode of acting. The top hits for a Google search of “children say thank you” include an article from mannersmentor.com and an article entitled “How Children Learn Manners”. Almost none mention gratitude. We agree and discuss that it would be embarrassing for a child to not say thank-you after, say, receiving a gift. We do not discuss that it is a problem that the child does not feel grateful.

If this theory is true, our manners come at the detriment of our social interactions. Thank you loses its function as a way to communicate appreciation. The moments where we want to express gratitude for small acts of kindness become lost to superficiality. In the moments when thanking would truly be necessary, the gratitude is not necessarily communicated. The sincere thanks only portray as much appreciation as the false ones.

If it were possible to change thank-you culture entirely, we could reserve thank-yous for large acts of sacrifice and kindness. Reducing our own use of the phrase would give more value to it when we did thank. Even if changing everyone else’s use of the phrase is impossible, we should still try to cut back on thank-yous.  The exercise of not saying thank-you serves as a way to consider our own gratitude. Every time we actively stop ourselves from, or permit ourselves to say thank-you, we are considering how thankful we are. Inherent in that process is acknowledging that we are, in fact, thankful. Alternatively, one might realize they are never thankful, but for the sake of my own outlook on humanity, I will ignore that claim. In acknowledging our gratitude we must also understand that silence does not mean ingratitude. We have to know that if someone does not say thank-you it does not mean they are being rude.

We can also express gratitude in less mundane ways. We can engage in conversation to make others feel appreciated. Showing enthusiasm in interactions with the dining hall staff—learning about them or sharing about ourselves—shows more gratitude than just saying thank-you. We can also return or pass on good deeds. We can live with an ethos of kindness and make an effort to do good for others. Doing so makes entering the dining hall feel less mechanized. The small exchanges during the prox-swipe become moments of genuine social interaction. We become free of the constricting obligation to thank. The term is no longer a means of exchange where each thank-you is a social payment or protection from judgment. Thank-you becomes a substantive statement, and interactions become meaningful and enjoyable.  Instead of something we take for granted, they become positive moments, and make me feel all the more grateful to be here.