A recent opinion piece in the New York Times on new etiquette norms in the digital age caused a minor stir when the writer asserted that simple "thank you" messages are often rude because they waste the recipient's time. The writer's point was that there generally is no need to acknowledge receipt of information sent via email or other electronic channels—and doing so only contributes to the deluge of messages that many professionals are forced to wade through every day.
Wasting people's time by sending unnecessary messages is indeed thoughtless; we don't dispute that. However, a blanket condemnation of thank you messages betrays a misunderstanding of communication etiquette and communication in general.
First, thank you messages often serve as confirmation that information has been received, and this feedback is particularly important when the sender assumes that some follow-on action will be taken after the message is received. Between overstuffed in-boxes and overaggressive spam filters, email messages don't always reach intended recipients, and knowing information was delivered successfully removes one element of uncertainty from the process.
Second, relationship maintenance is often as important as information transfer, and even in this new age it seems safe to say that many people still appreciate being thanked for their efforts, no matter how minor. Moreover, not saying thank you would be awkward for many people as well. In other words, saying thanks can be emotionally significant for senders as well as receivers.
What do your students think? Do they tend to say thank you when they receive messages from you or each other? Do you expect them to say thanks?
Image credit: Jon Ashcroft