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We’re turning into a thankless society

By DOROTHY LIPOVENKO, Montreal Gazzette, Canada – 05/01/2008 – 12:00am

Basic etiquette in marketplace ain’t what it used to be

Every so often news wires carry a “money-falling-from-the-sky” story and it goes something like this: elderly man dies and leaves all he has (usually a cheque with several zeros) to coffeeshop waitress.

“I’d pour his coffee when he came in every day and just listen to him for a few minutes,” she’d explain, still in shock. But I suspect this kind ear to a lonely soul was also someone who said “thank you” for the tip on her table – and meant it.

The waitress and her windfall spring to mind whenever two simple words in daily commerce go AWOL: “thank you” can now be heard about as often as people (count ’em) wash their hands in a public bathroom.

And, like just about everything else in life, the habit is learned young.

Years later, it still rankles that a share of stock given to a teen for a special birthday was never acknowledged with a thank-you note. Sadly, my experience has repeated itself. New baby, adult birthday, holidays, weddings. Milestones that bring out the best in gift-giving: a treasure hunt for the unique, the fun, the practical. The silence is disappointing but has bigger implications than my hurt feelings.

When parents give kids a pass on showing gratitude with pen and paper, they foster a sense of entitlement – or, to invert the popular saying, you can get something for nothing in this world. What’s the message here, as youngsters navigate through adolescence to eventually become young adults in the job market?

A written expression of appreciation isn’t reserved just for free goodies: how many job seekers thank an interviewer-in writing-for his or her time, even when no employment offer is extended? Such a note is perhaps its own best character reference, and it’s doubtful a hiring manager who receives one is likely to forget an impressive candidate when a more suitable job opens up.

“It really goes a long way; people will remember you,” Sue Fox, author of Business Etiquette for Dummies, says of the thank-you note which, she laments, is in decline and whose importance should be taught in sales training. She blames, among other things, technology (think email) for changing the style of business communication (less formal, more impersonal).

Acknowledging someone for their time and interest in you

isn’t just the proper thing to do. A hand-written expression of thanks says a lot about the sender, and how they might treat others. Is the parent who doesn’t sit their kid down at the kitchen table with stamps and a box of thank-you notes also the boss who doesn’t thank an employee for a job well done, a gesture that costs nothing but pays a small fortune in good will?

When personalized gratitude is a no-show, it can hurt employee performance, customer retention, even career advancement. “It’s costing individuals who are trying to get ahead,” warns etiquette counsellor Karen Mallett, referring to people who neglect this nod to workplace civility. When bosses watch how employees behave, good manners count, says the Winnipeg-based Mallett, co-founder of The Civility Group, which lectures to businesses on etiquette.

And while good manners never go out of style, their claim to my pocketbook – and yours – becomes even more necessary in a competitive retailing environment. How likely is someone to be a repeat customer if he or she doesn’t hear a simple “thank you” when leaving with a purchase? How likely are loyal, long-standing clients to stay that way if they don’t rate a note of thanks for that big order? What are the odds that a charitable project will see another dime from a new donor who didn’t receive a welcoming note of appreciation?

Just say “thanks” – when the situation calls for it and in writing. It will go right to your bottom line. All for the price of a stamp and two minutes of your time.

Dorothy Lipovenko is a longtime observer of the business scene who lives in Montreal.

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