When should I say thank you? A field guide

Now. Now is a good time to say thank you - Photodisc
Now. Now is a good time to say thank you - Photodisc

Dunno about you, but if I hold a door open for someone who doesn’t then thank me, I want nothing more than to fling them head-first into an industrial incinerator. The holding-open of the door is not an anonymous bequest, given with no hope of acknowledgment: it is a binding contract, and I will uphold it by every means available to me. You owe me thanks, and I will extract that thanks. I do this because I am British, and if you, too, are British, you will understand.

We say thank you more than anyone else in the world, it says here. We are a nation of hyperactive thankers, thanking constantly, thanking no matter where we are or who we’re talking to.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is handed over a bouquet of flowers as she meets Russian President Vladimir Putin - Credit: Getty Images Europe
Thanks... I think Credit: Getty Images Europe

Weirdly, some people might find this off-putting. If you’re a speaker of Lao, which is a south-east Asian language, or of Siwu, which is spoken in Ghana, you’ll say thank you so rarely, according to the research, that when someone else does it you might find it “bizarre or out of place.” Some languages, like Cha’Palaa, don’t even have a ready translation for “thank you”.

Navigating this gratitudinal labyrinth of British culture and the English language is difficult even for people who’ve spent their lives here. When do I say thanks at a restaurant? Do I say thanks to Siri? When do I bring out the lumbering, gratitude-blasting big guns of “Thanks a lot” and “Thanks very much”?

Wonder no more: here is your field guide to saying thank you. You're welcome.


Perhaps the easiest and most efficient way to out yourself as an exosphere-level jerk is to be rude to waiting staff. We spoke to several current and former waitresses and waiters, and although none of them expected diners to break off conversations to recognise every minor act of service, they all wanted acknowledgement.

Some tasks, like glass-filling and pepper-grinding, might not merit as much thanks as the delivery of a plateful of food. But even in these cases, eye contact and a smile are better than nothing. A substantial tip, a former waitress adds, will ease your path to forgiveness.

Verdict: THANK

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Obviously. A simple law to live by: the more time and energy someone expends, the more they deserve thanks. They made you a cup of tea? Say thanks. They let you use their holiday home? Write them a letter. They conceived you, raised you, put clothes on your back and food in your belly? Meh, it can wait.

Verdict: THANK

Voice assistants

It’s odd, isn’t it, barking an order at someone to CALL DOMINO’S or to PLAY MY RUNNING PLAYLIST without then thanking them for doing your magisterial bidding. But if it’s Siri or Alexa, save your finite breath. Thanking is a good habit to stay in, but I for one have every faith in humanity’s ability to tell the difference between humans and robots. When we lose that ability, we’ll have bigger problems than saying thanks.

Verdict: DO NOT THANK (yet)

Door holding

Listen, here’s a good rule of thumb: if someone does something for you, thank them. So help me God.

Verdict: THANK

Officials hold doors for Gordon and Sarah Brown - Credit: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images
'Thanks... creeps." Credit: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images


Thank you for your email, goes perhaps the most common throat-clearing technique in your inbox. It’s phlegm. It’s unnecessary. Reserve your thanks for specific acts.



Some thanks and a “Have a good weekend” when all your stuff is bagged? Yes. An individual “Thank you” for each scan of an item? No way. Sometimes thanks can be bundled. This is one of those times.

Verdict: THANK

A supermarket checkout - Credit: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg
Thanks. Thanks. Thanks. Thanks. Thanks. Credit: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg


From our investigation into waiting staff’s thanking expectations, an unexpected admission: “Someone spilled a whole G&T down my back,” said a former bartender “and I panicked and thanked them.”

This may well be the only country on Earth in which it is necessary to say that if someone has hurt you, upset you, or caused you inconvenience, then you do not need to thank them for it. You’ll still look like a psycho if you don’t start your complaint with “Sorry”, though.


Refuse workers

Tricky. Don’t want their work to go unacknowledged… but don’t want to look like you think you’re the mayor. Say thanks, but only if it’s when they’re doing your bin.

Verdict: THANK