Think Twice Before Saying "Thanks"

The polite act of saying "thank you" may have unexpectedly harmful consequences.

Posted Dec 13, 2019

In Eudora Welty’s short story “A Worn Path,” an elderly African American woman named Phoenix Jackson treks through miles of rural Mississippi countryside to visit a health clinic in town to get some medicine for her sick grandson. When Phoenix finally arrives at the clinic the attendant at the front desk remarks, “A charity case, I suppose,” and then proceeds to deal impatiently with the old woman’s exhausted forgetfulness until a nurse who knows her intercedes to get her the medicine she came for.

As Phoenix prepares to leave and begin her long journey back to her grandson, the attendant offers her a gift in honor of the holiday season. “'It’s Christmas time, Grandma,'” she says. “'Could I give you a few pennies out of my purse?'” One might expect, as the attendant undoubtedly does, that Phoenix will respond to the proffered gift with a humbly grateful “Thank you!” but this is not how she responds. Instead of thanking the attendant, Phoenix replies, “stiffly,” “'Five pennies is a nickel.'” When the attendant hands her a nickel, she accepts it—without a “thank you”—and leaves the clinic to begin the long walk back to her grandson.

To anyone witnessing the episode, Phoenix Jackson’s stiff refusal to say thank you for an unbidden Christmas gift might easily appear to be a display of ingratitude, particularly in the Depression-era South in which the story is set. She’s desperately poor, after all, and the attendant is voluntarily offering her some much-needed money, even if only “a few pennies.” Phoenix intuitively understands, however, what a study recently published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin found: Not all “thank you’s” are created equal.

While saying “thank you” is very often a polite gesture that makes both the giver and the recipient feel good, under certain circumstances, this polite gesture can have unexpectedly harmful consequences. When expressions of thanks are delivered from someone in a low-power group (such as a poor African American woman during the Depression) to someone in a high-power group (such as a white attendant in a medical clinic), the gesture can have a “pacifying effect” on the “disadvantaged” person that prevents him or her from protesting the injustices that often result from that imbalance of power.

A pair of researchers at the University of Osnabrück, Germany conducted a series of studies to explore the possibility of a “harmful side of ‘thanks.’” Acknowledging from the outset the many proven intra- and inter-personal benefits of expressing gratitude to others, Ksenofontov and Becker hypothesized that “expressions of gratitude by low-power group members for favors given to them by the high power group can demobilize low-power groups to challenge the status quo.”

In the series of studies, Ksenofontov and Becker created scenarios in which people from low-power groups experienced some kind of unjust behavior from someone in a high-power group, who after the unjust behavior offered some kind of benefit or assistance to the people in the low-power group. In order to determine whether “expressing thanks to a member of a high-power group for their help undermines low-power group members’ protest against them,” they gave the people in the low-power group an opportunity to thank the high-power person for the offer, and then assessed their inclination to protest the initial injustice.

In one scenario, participants were supposedly working with an employee and manager to complete problem-solving tasks for which they would receive lottery tickets. Unfairly assigning all the easy tasks to himself, the manager easily completed his tasks, while the low-power employees struggled with theirs. In response to the failure of the employee and participant to complete their tasks in the allotted time, the manager contacted the participant to offer his help in the form of easier task assignments in the next round.

The next study featured an online vignette involving students and a professor as the low-power and high-power groups, respectively. Participants read a vignette—and were asked to imagine themselves being a part of it—in which a group of students who had been working hard on a group presentation met with their professor for advice. The professor suggested several changes in the presentation, which the students implemented, but he then gave them a bad grade on the basis of the very changes he had recommended. When the students told him that he was the source of those changes, he said he couldn’t remember making the suggestions, but “generously” raised their grade nonetheless because of the way a bad grade might affect their bachelor’s degree.

A third study involved power relationships between men and women. The participants—all women—imagined working with a male colleague on an important project to which all had contributed equal amounts of work. The female protagonist in the scenario, whose is facing a contract renewal, is eager to impress her boss when she and her male colleague present the results, but the next morning she learns that he has already presented the results to the boss because “these things are often more effectively communicated between guys.”

In a final study, female undergraduate psychology students were invited to the researchers’ lab supposedly to evaluate previous application procedures for research assistants in the lab, as well as to apply for research assistant positions if they were interested. Told they were working with two other students—one male and one female--in an adjoining room, they communicated by computer to make suggestions for improving the application procedure.

At one point, the male student made the sexist observation that the lab should have a quota for male research assistants, since “psychology was female-dominated and men were beneficial to psychology, given that they won all the Nobel prizes.” In a later task, the male student offered the female student “help” in the form of an offer to “be a gentleman” and transfer his course credits to the “ladies” since he was only participating in the study to apply for the research assistant position and didn’t need the credits.

Following the offers of help from high-power individuals who had committed an act of unjust or offensive behavior, the low-power participants were given the opportunity to respond to the offers in ways that either offered or withheld thanks (control participants were not given the chance to offer thanks). The researchers then administered a “protest intentions measure” to assess the willingness of participants to protest the unjust behavior they had experienced.

Across most of the studies, the participants who had said “thank-you” to the offer of help were less likely to protest the offense than were the participants who did not say thank you. The act of saying thank you appeared to reduce the participants’ willingness to stand up for themselves to higher-power individuals who had acted offensively toward them in some way.

A mediation analysis conducted in two of the studies determined that forgiveness was a key factor connecting the expression of thanks and the reduction of protest intentions. Saying thank you to the high-power transgressor motivated forgiveness in participants for the unfair or offensive behavior they had experienced. This forgiveness, in turn, appeared to foster justification for a “hierarchy-supporting belief system” in which the high-power transgressor was somehow entitled to his bad behavior simply because of the disparity in power.

In short, saying thank you to someone who has more power than we do makes us more accepting of the imbalance of power that separates us from them, and less likely to defend ourselves when that person takes advantage of the power imbalance to perpetrate some sort of injustice upon us.

Phoenix Jackson’s refusal to say thank you to the attendant for her offer of “a few pennies,” then, is not a display of bad manners, but rather an act of defiance. In “stiffly” responding to the woman’s offer by informing her that “five pennies is a nickel,” Phoenix is lodging a quiet but profound protest against the “hierarchy-supporting belief system” that has oppressed her, and everyone like her, throughout her entire lifetime.

References

Ksenofontov, Inna, and Julia Becker. “The Harmful Side of Thanks: Thankful Responses to High-Power Group Help Undermine Low-Power Groups’ Protest.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 9 October, 2019.