Giving specific thanks: a superpower that helps both parties

Photo of an eerie mural featuring an x-ray of intact fingers and broken bones  in the palm. Man and child are walking past.
Thanks to Shok-1 for this beautiful reminder of human fragility

Giving specific thanks and specific feedback is particularly helpful. Teachers know this when they comment on assignments. “Very good” is nice but of no practical help whatsoever. Very good at what? Remembering? Thinking? Following instructions? Inventing creative solutions? Punctuation?

Parents know this when they say, Nice tidy bedroom! instead of just You’re a lovely boy!

My friend Abby has accidentally reminded me that as an old person and future frail person, I must actively remember this too. Not just remember, but open my mouth and do it.

When I’m very old, what can I give?

In sickness or old age, our ability to give physical gifts diminishes. Lack of money, mobility, dexterity, technology, good health or good vision can make generosity seem out of our reach. Can’t get to the shops, can’t pay for a gift, can’t wrap it, can’t post it! At certain times of life, any of these problems can thwart our desire to give someone a gift.

But one gift is possible: specific thanks. I can express in words my appreciation of a particular gesture or habit or use of language. As long as I have words, I can show I have noticed certain ways that somebody is helping me. Their hard work in a good cause. Their extra effort. Their skill, care, kindness, knowledge, or respect. Because these qualities are not universal: they are special.

Saying thank you in words is as easy as pie! So why wouldn’t I? A single sentence or phrase is 100 per cent better than nothing. And specific thanks can be unexpectedly powerful. When I’m on the receiving end of such a “thank you”, I can even be surprised by tears — especially if I’m feeling frail, for whatever reason. (The relief! Someone noticed!)

Abby’s thank you

So here is my friend Abby’s story about giving specific thanks. Abby has some devastating health issues and so she often interacts with health workers. Here is a story she tells about giving thanks to a health technician for something specific.

Slowly crawling out from the post-heart-kerfuffle dragginess. I had a moment in the hospital I wanted to share.

I was getting one of the many tests where they need to put leads on in different places. I’m lying on the gurney and the tech, before placing the leads, pointed to where he was going to put them. I thanked him for being considerate enough to give me a heads up and said, “I appreciate the respect that shows.”

He literally froze. Hands in midair, holding leads, just froze. Then he said, “No one has ever thanked me for that before.” He’d been doing this job for 16 years, including always making a point of telling his patients what he was going to do before he did it so there wouldn’t be any surprises, and I was the first patient to let him know that that practice makes the procedure more comfortable.

I’ve talked to lots of people, mostly women, about how utterly frustrating it is when medical folk treat us like slabs of meat or statistics and how much we value those who treat us like human beings. This is a big, constantly recurring conversation among people with chronic illnesses. When we are helpless, it’s very comforting to know that the person who has control over our bodies sees us as individuals with feelings, not just as equipment they are working with. But somehow we haven’t managed to make it a standard practice to show appreciation to those who do it.

I’ve always thanked the nurses and techs who work on me, but I’m going to try to make a point with the good ones to be more specific going forward, to tell them what it is about their work that I appreciate. They deserve to hear that.

Abby Schweber on Facebook

By the way, that health worker had often been thanked, but only in general terms. It was the first time he had been thanked for this particular courtesy, though he’d been doing it for 16 years.

Abby’s friends and followers had plenty of comments to make about this incident. Now I’m looking forward to reading your opinions, too.

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22 thoughts on “Giving specific thanks: a superpower that helps both parties

  1. Jane Fritz says:

    What a hugely important message/reminder. Thanks for sharing it, Rachel.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      And I thank Abby for telling a story that hit the spot!

  2. judibwriting says:

    Living as I do in a Assisted Living facility, I am attended to by a variety of nurses and their support helpers every day and night. During this post pandemic period losing of staff, new and less efficient people come through our lives quite often These temporary agency hires do not know us by name and do not know the culture of the elderly intelligent, talented people who live here.Those who are regular staff are unfailingly respectful and kind as they tend to the wide variety of physical or cognitive issues we are dealing with. With the temp hires, it is clear right away the ones who may feel overwhelmed with a new system who shut down and treat us brusquely. There are also those who are innately empathetic who treat us with respect and allow us to help them as we are aware of what medications or guidance a mentally challenged resident might need. I do my best to specifically thank everyone- no matter who they are and no matter how unpleasant they may be. There are so many people whose jobs here deserve my gratitude, from those who carry trays for people who cannot join others in the dining room (me) to those who empty my garbage or the maintenance man who found me the right nail to hang up the weighty gorgeous calendar that my photographer friend printed for me. I think we all feel we could use a little more specific appreciation. Thank you for Abby’s lovely story.

  3. Alan Ralph says:

    I make a point of thanking the receptionists at my local doctor’s surgery whenever I need to phone to get a blood test booked. (A frequent occurrence — I’m on immune-suppressive medication, and the prescription is contingent on them tracking how it’s working.) I do the same when calling a support number for my bank or internet provider. They must get many angry people, so it’s nice to let them know when they’ve been helpful.

  4. Thank you for the reminder that a sincere, specific “thank you” is so easily given yet so rarely said.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      And now your comment and others are leading us in a beneficent circle of specific thanks!

  5. This is such a lovely affirmation of how just a few simple words can convey so much to someone, and it is not just the words used, but also the way in which they are said, the facial expression, and the body language whilst saying it. Similar conventions apply in such simple things as thanking someone for their comments here on WordPress. A like acknowledges having noticed (but not necessarily read) a post. A “Thank you” goes a little further, and is welcome, but a “Thank you for sharing this lovely post, it made my day a little brighter!” really does lift the spirits. Not just for the recipient, but also for the responder.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Beautifully said. Today was my little sister’s 80th un-birthday party, and she is gifted in this. Her whole body, in perfect stillness, often conveys that she is paying close attention. It’s so good.

      1. A lovely image of your little sister!

  6. That is a heartwarming story. I’ve been thanking people for a long time, but I’m not sure how specific I’ve been. I’m going to keep this in mind going forward. Thank you for passing it on and commenting on it.

  7. josaiawrites says:

    This was a great article. I’m going to work to remember to be more specific with my thanks. I always try to say thank you, but I can really see where adding specific details makes a huge difference. It’s a way of really seeing, hearing, and feeling exactly what someone is giving to us. Seeing them and who they are. And isn’t that the best gift of all? To be seen and heard and appreciated for exactly who we are and exactly what we may have done that made a difference for someone else. Thank you so much for the specific suggestions and examples in this article. That really brought it home for me!

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      This idea resonates with me: To be seen and heard and appreciated for exactly who we are and exactly what we may have done… It’s a gift, indeed, for all parties.

  8. Suzanne says:

    A genuine smile and a specific thank you – are priceless. When Mum thanks me for visiting her, that acknowledgement feels now more powerful and heart warming than when it was exchanged years previously, I am not sure why.

  9. Rachel McAlpine says:

    Anne, I must make sure that Abby gets to read your comment and all the others. She will know we appreciate her too!

  10. Rachel McAlpine says:

    Suzanne, isn’t that interesting! I strongly suspect that getting older makes us more appreciative of the good people right under our noses.

  11. Sadje says:

    Some medical techs and staff/ doctors do let us know what they are going to do and it’s always good.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      And I imagine that, like Abby, you appreciate the ones who do.

      1. Sadje says:

        Of course I do. I appreciate all health workers, specially those in the ERs. I had occasion to be there as a patient at the end of December and was very impressed by their kindness, concern and humanity.

  12. Claudia Ann says:

    I am a HUGE supported and user of the words Thank You. All the time. Makes me feel good — now I know it makes others feel good too.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      It does, it really does.

  13. Thanks for your perspective and timely reminder on this topic! This Abby wants to practice this art form more regularly, especially as a high school teacher. I’m so glad I stumbled across your blog!

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Glad to meet you! Thanks for your input.

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