Hacking Nicities

Over on Quora, Deborah asked me to answer:

What is the best substitute for "thank you," "sorry," and "welcome" to express gratitude or apologize to someone close who considers those words a mere formality?

Which I answered briefly with:

I am not convinced the problem is the words themselves as much as the lack of clarity of what is meant by them. I think it helps to add three details to any of the above statements: what it is, why it matters, and how it makes you feel.

Thank you: I appreciate that you x because I value y, so now I feel z. “I appreciate that you did the dishes because I value cleanliness, so now I feel ready to start my day.”

Sorry: I apologize (as for your forgiveness) for doing x. I know you value y and so do I. I feel terrible/out of integrity/uncomfortable… and can we discuss what I can do to make this right for us?

Welcome: I am happy to help with x because y is important to me.

Nicities are nice! They help make us feel nice. But very few of us learn how to do them well. We get the ‘Say please and thank you’ lecture. In about a decade of reflecting on why a thank you or apology lands or doesn’t land with me or with other people, I have refined a practice. No, I am by no means perfect at it either.

Be specific. See, Touch, Hear it.

I have learned though that it helps to include one or more of the parts: describe specifically what is appreciated or what the apology is for – the more the other person knows precisely what is being discussed, the better they can hear what is said. “Thank you for sharing the day with me” is not half as powerful as “thank you for buying me coffee while we discussed the current political climate and watched the clouds go by. I love sharing that kind of time with you.” Be specific and use your senses of sight, touch, and sound.

Be nice

Get Subjective

The details of the objective reality – where you were, what was in the room, what would an observer say would happened, the details writers love to use, help us get into that moment.

But they don’t tell us why it matters. There, we get into the subjective. So if you share how that relates to your values, what is important to you, or why it counts for you, that also helps to ground the expression. “I find conversations about politics with people of opposing views to be the roots of good democracy, so I value practicing that with you, even when we disagree.”

Talk about Your Feelings

Even more in the subjective angle of expression here is how it makes us feel. “Debating with you makes me feel wiser because I have a better handle on both sides of the argument.” Or “Discussing these issues with you helps me feel closer to you because I see why you hold that position.”

When I have written letters of gratitude for something that happened in the past, I also include a list of things that I feel came about because of the other person. Results I attribute to their actions. So few of us know the second order effects of our interactions, yet all of us want to be a contribution. Good: “Thank you for connecting me with Sally.” Better: “Connecting me with Sally led to a new client engagement, a new idea, meeting my partner, etc.”

Specifically, on Apologies

Similarly, a great apology is grounded in specifics:

“I am sorry I was late this evening. We both value not wasting time, and my being late held you up. I feel frustrated with myself for letting you down and being out of integrity myself. I feel compassion for you feeling delayed and disrespected. I am so sorry. How can I make this right for you?”

Notice it also ends with an invitation to discuss how to make it better. Also notice that it is an invitation to make it better for the person you are apologizing to — improving their experience of you — and not for you to feel better about your actions — improving your experience of yourself. (That is your own work to do.)

Being humans together is often messy. We have conflicting desires and make human mistakes. Niceties help remove friction in that experience.

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