I nodded politely at the frail, leathered, old woman in the oversized straw hat, but really had no idea what she was saying. It was the first of many trips to Hong Kong in my newly launched consulting practice, and I had already adopted the habit of buying an orange or pear each morning from this woman sitting cross-legged on the woven mat in front of a modest fruit stand outside our hotel.
Her cotton tunic looked weary from the daily assaults of the sun, street grime, and taxi fumes. Her dark pants hung limply on her spindly legs, and her sandals barely disguised feet that were curled, scarred, and calloused. At least to myself, I nicknamed her Lucy.
As much out of an appreciation for something familiar, I would give her a big smile and an equally big tip that probably was double the price of the fruit (you lose perspective around currency exchange rates when things are so cheap).
I learned a few rudimentary phrases in Cantonese for the trip, the most existential being please, thank you, and where is the nearest toilet? I was told the most typical way to say “Thank you” was m-goi. And that’s what I used each time I bought fruit from Lucy, and each time she replied through a toothless grin – Do-dze! I thought maybe it was her attempt at “Good day.”
It baffled me for days, until I asked the concierge at my hotel, and he said m-goi was the casual form of thanks, a bit of a cast-off-phrase for little more than acknowledging someone holding open a door for you. Do-dze, he explained, was a deeper, more grateful expression, usually associated with receiving a gift.
The next morning, I bought some fruit from Lucy. Why I failed to see it earlier I don’t know, but this day I spotted the weary, woven grass matt in the alleyway behind her stand, a cluster of frayed cotton bags and a small stack of papers and books, a clay teapot, and some candles. Off to the side and nestled mostly out of sight was a small package held together by an old brown piece of twine-pictures of children and families. I suddenly realized that this was where Lucy lived, or tried to.
I selected an orange and a pear and held out some money in front of her. As on cue, her grass hat rolled back and I was greeted with her toothless grin as her dark, gnarled hand politely reached for the bills.
“Do-dze,” she said with her gravely but lilting voice. I looked back at her and coaxed out my best pronunciation, “Do-dze, yes, do-dze.” She broke out into an even wider toothless grin and waved to me as I crossed the street, merging with the daily flow of the city.
My “gift” to her was obvious; less obvious was her gift to me – the realization that a sincere thank you can mean more to the recipient than we know. We toss off a thank you or thanks to the point of habit, an expediency that can creep into exchanges that deserve more than an m-goi.
I’ve lost track of the times that friends and clients have told me that they have some hand-written letter from a boss or colleague where the thanks went deeper and lasted longer. It’s not hard, it just takes a bit more time, a bit more investment by us. Such is the stuff of authentic leadership, that irreplaceable connection with people that is the essence of inspiration, loyalty and respect.
Thanksgiving is that seasonal nudge to be thankful, often for the very things we take for granted. Yet, the do-dze opportunities need not have the ceremony associated with that prayer or toast around the dinner table. For me, it means policing myself to pause a moment and offer something more than a simple “thanks” and say something more than might actually mean something – to both of us.