Thanks and Giving: What's Your Gratitude Language?


Each and every birthday, Christmas, and gift-giving occasion, my siblings and I knew that after the festivities there would be a litany of thank you notes for us to complete. We were supplied with addresses and notecards (having our own wide selection of pens already at our disposal due to our father’s indulgence of our shared love of office products), and we’d set up camp at a coffee table to take care of business. Of course, we appreciated the gifts that we had received, but when we were young elementary schoolers, with self-centeredness in our natures, we felt our task tedious and couldn’t wait to be finished.

It was a good thing – a great thing, really – that my parents did in teaching us the importance of writing down our gratitude. As I got older, I understood how much more a handwritten note meant, even if there was already a verbal thank you expressed. But I also started to have difficulty expressing my gratitude, often feeling that my words were trite or lacking in the face of the kindness done or time spent or gift given.

Processing gratitude and attempting to articulate it is, to my mind, extremely similar to the process of gift giving. Both involve time, thought, and expression, outpoured in the spirit of nurturing someone you care about. It is gratifying to give a gift to someone and have the recipient recognize the effort you put into selecting it and wrapping it just so, even delivering it in person if possible. In much the same fashion, adequately and satisfactorily expressing my gratitude, in a way that lets the giver of kindness, time, or gift truly know my feelings, gives me a whole different feeling of appreciation.

I’m not implying that offering thanks is self-serving. I believe it’s all part of a beautiful, circular method to giving and receiving. The two concepts are inseparably linked by gratitude, for when we give, we show gratitude for the recipient; and when we receive, we feel gratitude for the giver.

But gratitude is difficult, at least for me, and I don’t find that aforementioned feeling of appreciation for having truly conveyed my thanks very often. I find it hard to effectively express what I am feeling in a way that the intended listener would best receive it, regardless of what words are at my disposal. How do you find appropriate words of gratitude for someone that sets aside one Saturday after another to help take your mind off the emotional rollercoaster of fertility struggles? How do you express your thanks to someone for flying across the country for your only baby’s first birthday after having made the same trip a month earlier? What are the right words to acknowledge how your heart could burst over someone’s belief in you? How can you tell a toddler you’re grateful for every cell of his being? How do you thank someone for opening your eyes to one of your life’s passions; for doing what you needed before you knew you needed it; for letting you be you – in all your messy jumbledness – and loving you, supporting you, anyway?

I have a fetish for cards, and I don’t think I’ve ever really found one that hit the mark in any of those instances.

This, I think, is why: Words fall short. Even though there is a wealth of them to choose from, sometimes, they are not enough. Ironically, it’s often when we need them most that they seem to fail us.

Thinking of those grateful missives, something occurred to me: even if the note wasn’t the most eloquent, or didn’t convey my deepest feelings effectively, there was the notion that it stood for something more than the words it contained. It was a symbol of time given out of gratitude.

That is when I realized that time is my gratitude language. Time spent with or in pursuit of the happiness of those that I hold close to my heart. Time spent talking, time spent holding, time spent celebrating, time spent teaching, time spent cooking, time spent baking, time spent creating, time spent shopping, time spent wrapping, time spent giving someone else their own time to accomplish what is on their mind, time spent sharing life.

Does everyone in my life speak in the same gratitude language? No, they do not. And that’s another difficulty – knowing what the receiver is most likely to accept or recognize as an offering of thanks, and not something superfluous or unrelated or even insufficient. But it’s my job, as someone who shows up in their life, to find out what their gratitude language might be – so that I can modify mine and try not to miss theirs. For some, I’ve found their mode of expression is no more than a twinkly-eyed smirk, or a bone-crushing hug. For another, it’s making sure my freezer is stocked. For others, stunningly expressed spoken words or beautifully composed sentences seem to come easily. It might even be a familiar phrase repeated, or merely showing their enjoyment in the use of something provided.

Reflecting on the instances that make me want to express my thanks, I have found a common thread: recognition. Recognition of who I am and what I need in a certain instant. Having people show up and see you, is a tremendous thing.

So that is now my goal, in showing gratitude – to reflect back to others what makes my heart feel full, through the medium of time. Thank you notes are still my go-to, but I also want to show up in the lives of those that I care about. Not just in response to something that they did, not just on that glorious third Thursday of each November, or in response to a nicety done or a present received, but as an everyday goal. Do I know for sure whether I’m fulfilling my objective? No, I do not. But I do know it’s important to keep trying, to keep making an effort for those in each of our corners of this world that fill our lives and our hearts in ways big and small. In thanks for giving.