The Power of Casual Gratitude

On swallowing “sorry”s and replacing them with simple “thank you”s.

Connie Britton as Tami Taylor in Friday Night Lights (Bill Records / NBC)

There are many things I envy about Tami Taylor, the famously empathetic yet take-no-shit matriarch of Friday Night Lights: her perfect hair, her prodigious wine intake, her ability to always say the right thing. But while watching the show, one thing that really grabbed me was her capacity for casual gratitude.

Casual gratitude is a term I just made up, to distinguish it from the more serious, mindful, let-me-sit-down-and-count-my-blessings practice of gratitude, or the formal gratitude of, say, a thank you note, or a life debt. As the Taylors flurried around their Texas kitchen and the local high school, Tami was always quick to recognize others for the small favors they did for her with a “thank you” or “I appreciate it.” And it’s how she says it. She doesn’t make a big deal out of it, just thanks people casually, but with grace and sincerity, and then she moves on. A simple thank you for a simple kindness.

This is hard to do! It requires that you pay attention to what other people do, and not get sucked into taking simple kindnesses for granted—or, worse, apologizing.

This year, my best friend Cortney told me her New Year’s resolution was to stop saying “sorry” when she meant to say “thank you.” She got this from a great web comic by Yao Xiao, which shows the contrast between things like “Thanks for listening” and “Sorry I’m rambling,” or between “Thanks for waiting,” and “Sorry I’m late.” Watching Tami Taylor’s casual gratitude reminded me of this, and I’ve started noticing when I and others opt for “sorry” or “thanks” and thinking about what it means.

It’s well-known at this point that gratitude can increase your happiness and well-being. There’s a lot of research that focuses on mindful or formal gratitude, with participants doing deliberate writing activities that boost their mood. Studies also show the pro-social effects of gratitude; married couples who thank each other more often have happier marriages, and thanking friends or acquaintances makes them see you as a warmer person.

One study, from 1967, looks specifically at substituting “thank you” for “sorry.” The researcher surveyed college students about how they would feel if someone was late for a lunch date or stole a seat from them on the bus if they apologized, thanked them, or said nothing. In the lunch date condition, the prompt said you were pretty sure the lunch was at noon, but the person arrives at 12:30. So it’s more ambiguous whether they were late or not, since you could have been mistaken about the time.

When the offense was unambiguous—the seat-stealing condition—participants preferred an apology to a thank-you. But in the lunch-date condition, when the offense was more ambiguous, a thank-you was just as effective at reducing participants’ irritation. The researchers also speculated that thanking might be more effective over time, because if you keep apologizing for the same offense over and over, well, you stop seeming sorry.

This makes sense; if you’ve truly done something to hurt or offend someone, an apology is best. But so often the things people apologize for in daily life are ambiguous. A “sorry” is a token offered to ward off guilt and to keep others from being irritated with you. But it’s just basic economics that the more of these coins you have in circulation, the less they’re worth.

I want to try not to spend them on apologizing to people because they did something nice for me. It’s a reflex to try to relieve the itchy feeling of being in someone else’s debt, even if it’s just that they gave me a ride home, or brought me a beer when they went to get their own. “Sorry you had to do that” is not only a rejection of their nice gesture, a lot of times, it makes it weird. “Thank you for doing that” is recognizing and accepting their kindness. It’s being your best Tami Taylor self.

It’s tricky to train myself out of these habits. Sometimes my thank-yous still come out in the key of an apology: “Thank you so much” said with the inflection of “I’m so sorry.” I find I also often say “sorry” when I mean “excuse me”—moving around people on the train, trying to get someone’s attention.

Over-apologizing seems to particularly be common for women. One study suggests that women just have a lower threshold for what’s offensive and requires an apology. Or perhaps women are just spending sorry coins in a male-dominated world to avoid paying a steeper price, like being seen as a bitch. Whatever the reason, there have already been a storm of articles telling women to stop apologizing, as well as ones telling people to stop telling women to stop apologizing.

While I do think the sorry scale tips unjustly toward women, the phenomenon of favoring casual apology over casual gratitude seems prevalent throughout American society, and perhaps beyond. For some, it may be inspired by low self-esteem—thinking everything you do is wrong and needs to be apologized for.

But on a broader level, I think it’s tangled up in Western ideals of individualism and self-reliance, and in the culture of overwork. Time and attention are the most precious gifts you can give someone. But it seems that sometimes we conceptualize this in reverse: that taking up someone’s time and attention is robbing them of their most precious commodity; that being in someone else’s debt, even in a tiny way, is equivalent to bothering them. Like we’re not social animals, like there aren’t avalanches of studies saying that helping others makes people feel good (and maybe even live longer). Humans enjoy doing things for each other. And if it’s a slight inconvenience, well, it’s better to thank someone for the room they make for you than to apologize for taking up space in their lives.

So thank you for reading. I appreciate it.