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(posted early, just in case you need an excuse to escape the holiday madness)

I remember the very first time I walked into a restaurant and a young man behind the counter glanced up and cheerfully called out, “Welcome to Moe’s,” echoed by a chorus of welcomes from the other employees. After I worked up the nerve to go back into the restaurant, I decided this was actually kind of nice. Soon, I began joining in, and on later visits I would yell it out myself before they could yell it to me. Eventually it became kind of like a game between friendly employees and a simple-minded customer.

But like the winter flu or that whole ‘twerking’ thing, this practice began to spread, and today it is almost impossible to walk into a fast food place in our region without hearing this. Somehow today it feels different. Usually it feels like the employee is contractually obligated to yell out this greeting so the manager watching from corporate headquarters over a webcam won’t deliver an electric shock, and instead of being pleasant, it feels forced and fake and annoying (I mean the person yelling it seems annoyed). Moe’s is now closed, and while the problem might have been the boring menu or the greasy chips, I blame the stale attempt to welcome customers by yelling at them.

Businesses wrestle with this question of how to make customers feel appreciated, and they try a variety of ways to show their gratitude. Some of these work better than others. Take-out bags that say, “We love our customers” don’t seem to accomplish much, though the people who came up with this idea are clearly selling a lot of bags (and no doubt love their customers). Some companies send a ‘thank you’ message along with some kind of gift, like a discount on future purchases. A 2015 study found that this technique tends to have one of two outcomes: it makes customers feel appreciated and grateful, or it makes them feel unappreciated and annoyed, which in technical business professor language is what we call “bad.” The peril here is this: if the reward is seen by the customer as too small, she will feel like the words of thanks are belied by the cheapness of the gift, and will wind up less happy than if the message had just said “thank you” and left it at that (which in many cases is actually the most effective, least risky strategy of all). “Thank you,” delivered sincerely, is an amazingly versatile, powerful tool. A reciprocating saw is also an amazingly versatile, powerful tool, and I feel truly virile when I use one, and that is one of the things that makes me happy.

Sincere expressions of gratitude are good for business, but despite the fact that they are also incredibly, phenomenally good for both you and the people you share them with, this behavior doesn’t always come naturally and it’s not covered in school. Katie Wolf writes about how to express gratitude well, which seems appropriate around Thanksgiving. Here are her suggestions:

  1. Do this face-to-face, specifically, and full of appreciation. As in walking to your neighbor’s house and saying, “Gary, I really appreciate you loaning me your reciprocating saw yesterday. It saved me a couple of hours of hard work, and you didn’t have to do it and it made me feel really manly. Thank you.” Also, if appropriate, you can add something like, ” I am really sorry about the damage to your house and the contractor is coming later today to give me an estimate.”
  2. Do it in front of others. This must be done with some finesse, but there may be chances to recognize people in front of others, like when you are sitting around Thanksgiving dinner and you mention how much you enjoy being with everyone and how you could not have pulled off the meal without all the help from Aunt Peggy. There are tons of opportunities to do this at work, and quite a few at home, and it is more effective than yelling “Welcome to Moe’s” when Aunt Peggy arrives.
  3. Give them a small gift. Yes, I know we covered this, but here is what makes this different. The other example was an impersonal note, from a company, with a “gift” that appeared to be a thinly disguised attempt at extracting more money from you. Contrast that with this: you walk into your friend’s office or up to your spouse with a cup of steaming hot cup of coffee, set it down, and say, “I really appreciate _____. It was a huge help to me. Thank you.” If your spouse does not drink coffee, substitute a donut or a pile of kale or whatever works at your place. The important thing is that you not only were grateful, you actually invested a small amount of time and money to demonstrate it.

Here’s what you are going to find. If you are the least bit perceptive and you pay attention after you do one of these things, you will see something happen in your friend’s face that will tell you that, whether your day is going well or not, you just made someone else’s day a whole lot better. And….. (big bonus payoff!!!) doing that for somebody else is going to indirectly do it for you. As a teacher there are a handful of things I do that seem to bring happiness to my student’s faces, things like canceling class. But words cannot fully capture the reaction I see when I speak individually to one of them about something they have done really well in my class, and I tell them how much I appreciate their hard work. The reaction is extraordinary, and I am still amazed each time I see it. I should do it more.

We are celebrating an entire season of gratitude, with a holiday literally named for it. Your homework, which like my students you will probably choose to ignore, is this: choose one person this week, plan your approach, and clearly, specifically, face-to-face, express gratitude. Then watch and see if anything happens in that person. And don’t be surprised if something happens in you as well.

Coming next time: Anti-happiness, and the ways we make ourselves unhappy

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