Have you ever found yourself walking behind someone, and you pass through a series of doors one after the other, and the person holds each one open for you? Hopefully you say thank you the first time, and again for the second, and maybe by the third or fourth time you share a smile as you say it, the unspoken mutual recognition of the repetition a source of amusement for both. But why is this? What is it about the repetition that makes it seem strange, absurd even, as compared to the case of just one “thank you”? What is it about the situation that often even results in the cessation of giving thanks each time, simply accepting the door wordlessly if not accompanied with a smile? Why does the word sound so strange, hollow even, when given in succession so many times?
I think the reason behind this phenomenon, to use a rather grandiose term for something of probably absolutely no consequence whatsoever which I’ve picked apart and given exaggerated significance and meaning to, comes in four parts:
First is the matter of the tediousness of repetition. Eventually the words sound so hollow, so automatic, that we start to fear the person receiving our gratitude will suspect that our thanks is nothing more than that: an automatic reflex, the socially-ingrained response we have been fed and which we now regurgitate in accordance with the formulae we have been given. We don’t like to feel like robots, and more importantly, we don’t like the idea of people seeing us as robots. We want to be individuals, free-willed and free-spirited, with the capacity and the drive to do what we want when we want, and not because we’re supposed to. When we start feeling like we’re being pressured into conformity, we lash out in protest, to reassure others, but more importantly ourselves, of our own freewill.
This leads into the second reason for our hesitation. After a few door-holdings, the suspicion enters our heads that this person is subjecting us to this relinquishment of our freewill, almost as if they were holding a gun to our head and making us thank them for not pulling the trigger. We don’t like being pigeonholed into acting or responding a certain way, and we start to suspect they are actually enjoying this display of subjugation. We see their smug little grin, and it says that’s right, you say thank you when I make you say thank you. It’s as though by doing this for us, we suddenly owe them something in return, granting them power over us.
Thirdly, it can even be said that not only are they racking up the favours we owe them, but that they are also taking away our sense of self-reliance, by doing something we could do just fine ourselves! It’s not like we need their help, and it’s almost as if by doing it for us, they are subliminally suggesting that we can’t do it ourselves, that we are somehow lesser than them in our abilities. The nerve!
In a more existential analysis of the situation, the fourth part is that it’s also possible the situation reflects a subject I plan on expanding on in a later post: that of the speed with which good things lose their singular sheen when the contrast of bad things (or at the very least the absence of good) is taken away.
When given once or maybe even twice, gratitude of such a short and curt nature as a “thank-you” often seems earnest enough in passing. But two or three later and suddenly the word has lost its meaning, which goes back to the idea of repetition making things seem too automatic to actually have any real weight. Not only that, but the special individuality of the situation, of someone holding the door open for us, gets lost in the cycle. We forget that they are doing us a favour, and are acclimatised to having the door held for us, just as we assume they are being acclimatised to our thanks to the point where neither means anything.
After all, why thank a car for doing what it was made to do, unless it often gives trouble to start? Why be consciously grateful for something that happens all the time anyways? To offer that much thanks, for not being run over every time you cross the street, for your house not burning down every day, for your laptop working normally, for every breath you take not being laced with poisonous nitrous gas, would be exhausting! It’s only in the wake of actually being hit by a car, actually being the victim of a house fire, actually being subjected to a virus that wipes your computer clean, that you are consciously appreciative of every step that lands firmly on the other side of the street, every item that survived the fire, and every time your computer works without a hitch. And even then, only in the most extreme of situations does this appreciation for the things we would otherwise take for granted remain long-term. Eventually it fades back into the background, lost in the shuffle of existence and everyday life.
Returning to the issue of the “thank-you”s, as we grow aware and self-conscious of the meaninglessness of our words when they come so often, we feel the need to deprive the person of our vocalised gratitude. We do this to remind them of its worth, and to assure them that it is not simply a reflex response, that we do choose whether or not to say it.
Because it’s this uncertainty which gives life meaning. If we knew everything was going to turn out well in the end, well nothing would really matter, would it? I’m sure a lot of people would argue with this, but think about it: if everything is predetermined, and we know the future, then what would be the point of living? The knowledge that nothing you do has any consequence on the outcome would destroy us. If someone held the door open for you simply because they had to, what would be the point of thanking them? After all, it wasn’t really their choice whether or not to do it, so why are they getting the credit? If someone thanks you because they have to, then does it really mean anything at all?
Without the potential for bad, for negative, there is no meaning in the positive. One of my favourite metaphors in life is that of light and dark, and how you cannot have one without the other. Even more than that, not only do they create one another, give each other meaning and definition, but they also determine how bright or how dark they seem: they stress one another’s presence. It’s the contrast of the darkness which makes the light that much brighter, and it’s in the wake of light that our eyes take time to grow accustom to the darkness again.
Louise Philippe has a cheesy little quote on the matter (although let’s admit it; deep down we all love the cheesy romantic shit) which you may have heard before: “When darkness is at its darkest, a star shines the brightest.” Yeah, I warned you. The thing has enough cheese to supply fifty plates’ worth of nachos. It’s the kind of thing you’ll find on the stereotypical teenage white girl’s Instagram feed, captioning a selfie or maybe set over a picture of, you guessed it, stars. But as tempting as it is to dismiss the idealistic, heartfelt bullshit with a roll of your eyes, it’s still got some truth to it.
We perceive life as a set of ratings or measurements, all dependent on our own unique and individual scale, constantly changing and accommodating everything we experience. Someone with depression might have a higher tolerance for bad news than someone who, say, has lived their whole life with absolutely no bad news whatsoever. It’s all dependent on the contrast we’ve been given up to that point, the culmination of experiences we can use to compare this new experience to. It’s why a straight-A student will break down crying at their first B while someone with a learning disability will ecstatically receive anything higher than an D with a sense of pride and triumph.
Well, I’ve strayed long and far from the introductory topic (what the hell was this post supposed to be about again?), so maybe it’s time to wrap things up. And that, my dear readers, is a glimpse into my mind. That’s how I think, on a daily basis. All the time. About everything. Someone holds the door open for me and suddenly my mind is a hurricane of thoughts, a mess of questions and musings that I can’t quiet down until a conclusion is reached and I have about 1585 words worth of theories on the matter. But I think this blog is really a help: it lets me get things off my chest and out of my head, lets me get the voices out onscreen where I can control them, sort them into some semblance of order and structure.
Thank you for reading if you made it through, and a double thanks if you make it through on a regular basis, although for the life of me I don’t know why anyone would subject themselves to a glimpse into my world. Regardless, I really appreciate it if you do. Until next time, good luck out there.