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TWTS: When "thank you" is your only option

Note: This episode of That's What They Say originally aired on July 9, 2017.

It doesn't seem like coming up with a response to "thank you" should be that complicated. When you think about it though, there are a lot of options, and our response depends on what's happening in the conversation.

A listener named Peggy recently wrote to us about a response to "thank you" that she's heard quite a bit while listening to the radio.

"Over the past months, I've been noticing that when a radio guest is thanked, rather than the customary 'you are welcome,' they instead respond with 'thank you,'" she writes.

As the hosts of a radio show, we're guilty as charged.

Let's take a look at what's actually happening when we thank someone.

Most of the time, "thank you" is what linguists refer to as phatic communication — or, communication that's performing a social function as opposed to conveying information. "Hello," "goodbye," and "have a nice day" are all examples of phatic communication.

At the end of an interview, or any conversation, we need a way to get from talking to silence. That can be a fairly complicated negotiation.

First, we have to make sure the other person doesn't have anything left to talk about. Once that's clear, we send out a signal to the other person that we're wrapping things up.

We might say something like, "Well ...," to which they respond with something like, "Yeah ...," and then back and forth until someone finally gets to "Okay, bye."

We'd probably save a lot of time if we skipped all that and just said, "Hey, I'm done talking, what about you?"

Performing this ritual at the end of an interview can be complicated because, generally, neither person is actually leaving the room. Still, the interviewer has to signal that things are winding down, and "thank you" feels like a pretty natural way to do it.

The interviewee then has to signal back that they're willing to let the interview end. English Professor Anne Curzan, who finds herself in this position rather often, thinks that another "thank you" is a perfectly reasonable response.

"I could say 'you're welcome,' but that would suggest that I'm doing you a favor which certainly is not how it feels. I'm delighted to be here, so I'm also saying, 'Thank you for the opportunity to be here.' There's a kind of reciprocity there, which I think works well," Curzan says.

Are there other social cues that feel strange or awkward, yet you notice people using them all the time? Let us know at language@michiganpublic.org.

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Rebecca Kruth is the host of All Things Considered at Michigan Public. She also co-hosts Michigan Public's weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
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