The Emotion Work of “Thank You For Your Service”

In the post-9/11 era, “thank you for your service” (TYFYS) has become the new mantra of public support bestowed upon the veteran community. In the early 2000s, as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq began escalating, “Support Our Troops” car magnets increasingly appeared on the trunks of cars across America. After well over 15 years of war, public gratitude is now most commonly expressed in small interactions between veterans and the public they’ve served – with strangers saying TYFYS or offering to pay for a coffee or meal. If you ask any recent servicemember or veteran how they feel when someone says TYFYS, you’ll probably hear them express a strong opinion about the phrase. While some view it positively and enjoy these interactions, most find it awkward, uncomfortable or irritating. The message of support and gratitude that well-meaning Americans are attempting to express is often lost in translation with veterans.

A collection of op-ed pieces have addressed why servicemembers find TYFYS to be a point of disconnection rather than connection. James Kelly, an active-duty Marine, says that he hears the phrase so often it has become an “empty platitude,” something people say only because it is “politically correct.” Matt Richtel, a New York Times reporter, highlights how veterans feel the phrase can be self-serving; civilians get to pat themselves on the back because they are doing something for veterans, alleviating any sense of guilt in the era of an all-volunteer service. Another common complaint is that TYFYS doesn’t start the conversation between veterans and civilians – it stunts it – leaving veterans feeling more isolated and less connected to the America they served. Veterans commonly remark that civilians don’t even know what they are saying ‘thank you’ for. Elizabeth Samet, a professor at West Point, argues that we’ve come to the other “unthinking extreme” with TYFYS as an attempt for atonement after the poor treatment of Vietnam Veterans.

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While many have tried to explain why veterans find TYFYS to be lacking, few have examined how these interactions affect veterans. Having interviewed servicemembers and veterans for the past 3 years in my professional life, and being a military spouse for the past 5 years, I have always been intrigued by how veterans handle these moments and interactions. I watch the discomfort when strangers approach my interview subjects or friends and say TYFYS – it becomes an awkward stumble for the veteran to find a way to muster their appreciation for a gesture that doesn’t necessarily square with it’s intent.

Emotion Work

As I analyzed the data I collected for my dissertation, a total of 39 interviews with wounded, injured, and ill post-9/11 veterans, I realized these interactions require veterans to engage in emotion work, a sociological concept defined by Arlie Hochschild. Emotion work is defined by Hochschild as “trying to change, in degree or quality, an emotion or feeling” (1979: 561). It is an active attempt to shape and direct one’s feelings to match the appropriate emotions for a given situation. For example, when someone thanks you for something you’ve done–you’re supposed to feel good, right? Gratitude should give you that warm fuzzy feeling inside. This is called “feeling rules”; it’s how we know what we should be feeling in any given moment (see Hochschild’s work here).

For veterans who genuinely appreciate and enjoy hearing TYFYS and other acts of gratitude—there is no “work” necessary because their feelings are appropriate given the situation. For Alex, a wounded Marine veteran, TYFYS makes him feel as though he is “seen” and that his service is validated:

“I like it. I really like it when people acknowledge my service. I’m not out there trying to get someone to do it, but when someone takes time out of their day to shake my hand and say, ‘Thank you for your service.’ It’s like, ‘Wow. You know this country – it was worth it. You know it’s – proud of your service to the country’…That’s something special.”

Alex’s emotions are in line with what we expect to feel when someone says thank you and acknowledges something that we have done. He doesn’t have to control or wrangle his emotions because they already align with the socially prescribed “feeling rules” and expectations.

My dissertation data suggests that 15 to 20% of veterans share Alex’s feelings; they enjoy and appreciate when people thank them for their service or demonstrate their gratitude through other acts and gestures. Personally and anecdotally, I’ve found about the same split: 10-20% find TYFYS gratifying and associate it with positive feelings, and 80-90% of servicemembers and veterans feel uncomfortable or upset about the phrase.

For the majority of wounded veterans I interviewed, who don’t have positive associations with TYFYS, these interactions necessitate emotion work. As they go about their day-to-day life, they are thrust into situations where they must acknowledge and negotiate the gratitude of total strangers through their own emotional response: emotions that do not match their true feelings in the situation. Luis, a young Marine Corps veteran with visible injuries, describes how he wrestles with having to do emotion work in these interactions:

“When people say thank you for your service, thank you for what you did…it’s kind of lost it’s shock value or something. I’ve heard it so much that I’m embarrassed that I can’t give them…like that first time when someone said thank you for your service…I feel like I don’t give them enough sincerity, I feel bad…I feel embarrassed for myself because I can’t do that, you know?…I just hear it sooooo much.”

Luis wants to give others a genuine emotional reaction each time they thank him for his service, but he feels he can’t because of the overwhelming number of times this happens to him. From this quote it’s clear he is blaming himself for even having to perform emotion work in the first place. Connor, an Army veteran with invisible injuries, discusses how he handles TYFYS:

“I give the standard, thanks, appreciate it or happy to do it. Or I don’t get into it. Even if I know it’s totally fake I’m like, yeah, appreciate it. And I’ll give just a fake answer. As fake as I got [from them], that’s how much I’ll give back…It’ll be like…’oh, thanks’ with the plastic smile. You know what I mean?”

Connor attempts to mirror the level of sincerity in the interaction, aligning his own response with it. His comment about how he puts on a “plastic smile” describes how he engages in surface acting: a way to present the necessary emotion to others even though his own feelings haven’t changed.

Another common strategy for veterans, especially wounded veterans who are frequently thanked for their service, is the use of predetermined responses. Having a rolodex of appropriate responses minimizes impromptu emotion work. Jackson, a Marine Corps veteran who has visible injuries, says that hearing TYFYS “just gets old” because he hears it so much. When I asked him how he usually responds, he said:

“[I will say] ‘…no, thank you.’ Another one is like some people [say] ‘thank you guys for what you do…you guys made coming home so much easier and so much more worth it.’ So make them feel just as adequate in a way.”

Jackson reveals the set of responses that he (and others) normally give. These prepackaged responses increase the efficiency of Jackson’s emotion work by creating sentiments that acknowledge and reciprocate the gratitude–an intentional move on Jackson’s part.

Several years after her Marine Corps service, Susan, an invisibly injured veteran, has gained a new perspective on the TYFYS issue. She is now able to see it from another point of view:

“You get to finally a point – I finally went, you know, these people are very sincere, and you’ve got to let them just say the thing. Because they generally want to thank you. And this is so not your experience. You don’t have to have it with them. And then it became okay going, you know what, they’re really caring, lovely people most of the time…”

Susan describes taking away her own investment in these interactions as a way to distance herself from constantly engaging in emotion work whenever someone says “thank you.” She understands the moment to be more about the other person than herself. She also describes her engagement with deep acting: working to change the way she truly feels about these interactions; trying to bring her own emotions in line with what’s expected.

The Cumulative Effect for Visibly Injured Veterans

For current servicemembers, veterans, and invisibly injured veterans these moments of invited gratitude from strangers happen occasionally or in concentrated environments where they know they may be thanked or approached. For visibly injured veterans, these interactions happen every day. Visibly injured veterans are disproportionately burdened with doing the emotional work surrounding public gratitude because their status as wounded veterans can’t be hidden or ‘taken off’ like a uniform. And their visible injury only amplifies feelings of gratitude among the public, causing them to experience more of these moments and interactions.

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Thomas, an Army veteran with visible injuries, describes:

“[Civilians]…they just all want to do the right things. And I mean, to that person they have one chance to make a difference to one person. But if it’s you, they’re the 100th person today to say ‘thank you for your service.’”

The cumulative effect of these interactions wears on Thomas and other visibly injured veterans:

“And what if everybody did that to me? Like, everywhere I went, what if every single person thought they were doing me a favor and said “thank you for your service.” I would spend my whole life giving to other people. I could literally go every five feet and just be doling out good feelings to everybody. And I’m sorry, I’m an emotional bank account, we’re all just emotional bank accounts.”

Thomas’ comments clearly reveal how visibly injured veterans can quickly become exhausted from the emotion work of receiving TYFYS and other gestures of gratitude. What seems like a small interaction in the moment is continually repeated for wounded veterans like Thomas.

The treatment of U.S. veterans has significantly changed over time, from the prosperous return of World War II veterans to the protests and mistreatment of Vietnam veterans to the new era of the all-volunteer force. It is important that as a nation, we engage in a constant reflection process of how we treat our veterans, from the largest of government programs to the smallest interpersonal interactions. The well-meaning intent behind TYFYS isn’t always received by post-9/11 veterans in the same way.

Practical Suggestions: What Should We Be Doing to Show Our Gratitude and Appreciation?

Inevitably, after presenting these issues with TYFYS I get asked: “well, what should we be doing?” This is both a prudent and complicated question, and there is no one-size-fits-all answer. We all have our own personal preferences of what is meaningful to us based on our personality, life experiences, and our thoughts. I’m not here to say that I have the answer, but I have a couple suggestions based on my work with veterans:

  1. Judge whether the military member or veteran seems open to conversation with a stranger. You know how you can tell whether the person next to you on a plane wants to talk or wants to be left alone? The same should go for your interactions with veterans, servicemembers, and wounded veterans. Do they appear willing to engage with others (i.e. making eye contact or already engaging in a friendly conversation with you), or do they look like they just want to grab their coffee and go about their day? If the latter – let them go about their day and reflect privately on your gratitude for their willingness to lay their life on the line for our freedom.
  2. If you want to show your support for veterans, find a local organization that helps veterans in your community. Do your research, find out what organizations are doing to serve veterans and improve their lives. Give your financial support or your time (through volunteering).1
  3. Go beyond “thank you for your service.” Ask them why they served, ask them when and where they served, ask them what they most enjoyed about their service. Dig deeper; cultivate gratitude for their service by learning more about it.

Note: this research was presented at the 2017 Eastern Sociological Society’s Annual Meeting in Philadelphia, PA.

**All participants have been given pseudonyms to protect their confidentiality**

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