There are a number of basic phrases which are part of any good arsenal of etiquette words. I have discussed the virtues of ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ in previous columns. Here I would like to share my thoughts on the phrase ‘you’re welcome’. This phrase usually follows ‘thank you’. But more times than not, we forget to complete this communication.

What exactly do we mean when we say ‘you’re welcome’? For one thing, we indicate that we have heard and accepted the thanks conveyed. For another, it shows that we are happy that whatever effort we have made or whatever gift we may have given was appreciated. It actually gives us a feeling of satisfaction.

I have noticed however that some people have a tough time with this phrase. That is probably because some of those same people have a tough time receiving thanks to begin with. Giving and receiving thanks are two very different acts and they are so very important to learn to do gracefully.

Take for example a graduation ceremony. When the diplomas are handed to the graduates, the principal or dean will hand the diploma to the graduate and say, “Congratulations”. The new graduate will respond with, “Thank you”. The Dean would then appropriately say, “You’re welcome”. That remark gives a sense of deserving, an acknowledgement of accomplishment, and an exclamation mark to accompany the congratulations. The transaction of the giving and receiving of the diploma is thus completed.

In a further instance, someone holds a door open for another person leaving or entering a car, a room or a building. “Thank you” is quickly and logically followed by “you’re welcome”. Now that seemingly simple phrase means something akin to ‘it is my pleasure’, ‘no thanks necessary’, or ‘be my guest, please’.

In yet a third example, when an applicant for a job is hired, a similar series of ‘congratulations’, ‘thank you’ and ‘you’re welcome’ ensues. In this scenario, it implies ‘welcome to the company’, ‘this process is finally concluded’ and even ‘thank you’ in return. This use illustrates what a win-win result looks like in business.

In these three examples the phrase takes on slightly different meanings, and it does complete a transaction, a long term scholarly pursuit, or a difficult protracted interview process. In each example, without using a clear and sincere ‘you’re welcome’, something would be missing.

Using these two words regularly is a skill we need to develop at an early age. We often hear parents teaching children to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, but often ‘you’re welcome’ is left out. Learning to incorporate this expression of understanding into one’s communication style is important because it demonstrates that we ‘get it’.

It is routine for children to actually be taught that the various meanings of this phrase can be used almost interchangeably. This is certainly better than not teaching anything at all or reinforcing that no answer is acceptable. I would caution however that as we mature and conversations and situations become more complex, learning the distinctions between the various alternatives is important and each should be delivered with purpose. After all, this is one way that we can show respect for one another. It solidifies relationships and ties up any loose ends of an exchange.

Like all key phrases, ‘you’re welcome’ will become routine when practiced with regularity. It makes one feel that the ‘thank you’ they have just delivered is appreciated. The exchange of these polite and genuine phrases also means that there is an acknowledgement and recognition of one human being to another. A healthy society thrives on these niceties. And this is one that does make a difference.