We like to fancy ourselves very polite people, especially when we’re out and about in public. But a new study conducted by researchers at the University of Sydney found that people aren’t saying “thank you” nearly as much as they think they are when they encounter others out in the world.
From the beginning of our lives, we’re taught about what scientists who led the study call “social reciprocity.” It’s a fancy way of saying that when we ask people for something — whether it’s asking mom to pass the salt at the dinner table or asking a bartender for a glass of water — we expect them to do it for us if we ask nicely. We also assume that we’re expressing gratitude for their kindness, whether we say “thanks” or show it in some other way.
But researchers found that doesn’t always happen, even in the most informal of settings when a quick “thanks” is super easy to give.
Many children’s books out there focus on manners, and most adults consider themselves polite, but researchers found that all over the world, we’re receiving favors and not showing very much gratitude in return.
The researchers examined worldwide groups of people and found that when asked for something, people will usually comply with the informal request. But those do-gooders only received a “thanks” (or some other form of gratitude) once for every 20 interactions.
The people asked to do simple tasks in the study — like the woman who passes you a napkin at the coffee shop or someone who picks up the scarf you dropped on the street — didn’t even really expect a “thank you,” or any other sign of appreciation for that matter. The researchers also found that when someone didn’t receive appreciation for their good deed, they rarely called the other stranger out.
Now that’s being polite.
Nick Enfield, the University of Sydney linguist who led the study, told The New York Times, “Our basic stance is one of reciprocity. When we ask people to help us, the default is that they will.” This means that cooperation is at least happening out there in the world — even if we could all be a little nicer about it.
Of course, these were informal encounters between adults who were out and about in the world. Reciprocity gets more complicated in our personal relationships, in which we expect people to help us out, and if they don’t (or we don’t seem to appreciate it as much), we’re more likely to call each other out.
The bottom line? If you ask someone to give you a hand with something, take note of how you show them that you’re grateful. They might not expect it, but that doesn’t mean it’s not nice to hear.