The Gift of Thanks: The Roots, Persistence, and Paradoxical Meanings of a Social Ritual.


480 pages
Contains Bibliography, Index
ISBN 978-0-00-200788-7
DDC 179'.9




Reviewed by Janet Arnett

Janet Arnett is the former campus manager of adult education at Ontario’s Georgian College. She is the author of Antiques and Collectibles: Starting Small, The Grange at Knock, and 673 Ways to Save Money.



Visser gives the gift of an anthropological, sociological, and linguistic exploration of the complexities of gratitude. She examines its nature—an action, an emotion, a virtue, a feeling, a reaction, a social custom—then turns her microscope on how we react when gratitude is expected but not received. She analyzes politeness routines in various cultures, the formulae for compliments, the role of gift giving and thankfulness in happiness, spiritual well-being, and the cohesiveness of society.


Gratitude, Visser explains, is a three-step process which encompasses giving, receiving, and reciprocity. This process can be seen throughout history and in dozens of countries and cultures. Examples include the Three Graces of ancient Rome, west coast Indian potlatch traditions, the formality of Japanese gifting, ritualized conventions among the Pakistani diaspora in Britain, and current wedding practices in North America. Examples are wide-ranging and the applications thought-provoking. Breastfeeding, for example, fits into the definition of a gift and therefore needs to be considered in the context of the give/receive/reciprocate cycle. Similarly, the concept of having received life itself (air to breathe, water to drink, etc.) from the Earth leads to the need to give back to the Earth and invokes gratitude as an environmental issue.


The work looks at concepts interwoven with gratitude, such as praise, loyalty, honour, filial piety, votive offerings, freedom, obligation, equality, and rank. Gestures such as clapping, bowing, and curtsying are part of reciprocating. Poisoned gifts (Trojan horses, white elephants) and those malevolent “cousins” of gifts—bribery, tipping, and largesse—are included. Ingratitude, once considered the greatest of all sins, receives extensive coverage.


The anatomy of gratitude is addressed from every angle, as the text weaves back and forth over history and various cultures. The language and terminology of gratitude is dissected to the extent that at times Visser’s erudition is overwhelming and an interesting topic is obscured by a tsunami of scholarly references and examples extracted from folklore, medieval philosophers, Shakespeare, and the Greek classics.


The work is a research powerhouse, packed with well-documented references marshalled to support some fascinating original thinking. While generally quite approachable for the academically inclined general reader, at times the scholarly abundance defeats its readability. The index has weaknesses but is adequate for most purposes. The very extensive bibliography and the mass of source references make it a comprehensive one-volume encyclopedia on anything and everything to do with gratitude.



Visser, Margaret., “The Gift of Thanks: The Roots, Persistence, and Paradoxical Meanings of a Social Ritual.,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed May 30, 2024,