Trying to be pleased to thank you

Winking like ninja stars as they fly across the messaging ether, the abbreviation "tks" has a neat yet potentially lethal shape. Short for "thanks", it looks harmless and, well, polite but it can be a weapon and shield for hypocrisy. The line between politeness and rudeness zigzags more than the outline of a ninja star.

I never tks-ed so many people in my life before I started work in a bigger office. I have never meant it less. I do not like that. The "tks" sometimes has about as much meaning as the signature "Warm Regards" or "Warm Whatever" you choose to have automatically stuck on to outgoing e-mail. Actually, it would be funny to see an e-mail message ending with "Warm Whatever".

I sometimes see messages with the "tks" imbued with a lot more meaning, but in a bad way. Without any dirty cursing though. Just a clean stream of tks tks tks spinning, twinkling through the air and sinking their poisonous blades into the backs of people.

The senders thank the recipients, sometimes doubly so ("tks tks" to go with the chirpy stuck-together greeting "hihi"), but they hide daggers in their hearts and in the angry thought bubbles above their heads, which later spill into revealing conversations not meant for the ears of the recipients. Are we polite so we can avoid confronting one another with the truth?

I have heard and seen barbed "tks" tacked on at the end of tirades. Okay, not so much tacked on but bashed in like smacking a Cantonese folk sorcery paper doll with a shoe. Yes, I have done that before. Bashing in a "tks" and bashing my own fake sorcery paper doll. As if ending with a "tks" makes everything better. As if asking for forgiveness at timed intervals means a blank cheque you can cash in for bad behaviour.

You know what, there might be some entertainment value in being politely mad. Well-mannered accented villains from James Bond movies tend to go, please and thank you, Meester Bond, before devising some exotic form of death for our shaken, not stirred hero.

Talking about death and the exotic, many years ago when I visited New York, I found it exotic that the locals barked "excuse me" at me because as an awestruck tourist, I was blocking the way by gawking at cinematic skyscrapers practically rocketing off the sidewalks.

I thought they were ever so polite because in Singapore, people just wordlessly hit you with shopping bags or expect you to step into a longkang (drain) because they absolutely have to walk two abreast as they are anatomically, atomically, photonically joined at the hip with their other halves.

Of course, the New Yorkers were probably not being polite since the "excuse me" was filled with deadly loathing and impatience. They were wielding it to jab me out of the way. Politeness is not made up of clean words per se.

My family used to have a mynah which parroted the Cantonese phrase "hum ga foo gwai!", apparently meaning "prosperity for the whole family". The bird, which could mimic sounds, started squawking that because a member of the family kept screaming the phrase in anger. As a very young child, I thought it was a filthy curse, not a blessing that I later thought it was. Then, I found out that it is possibly a variant of a swear phrase.

Rudeness is not made up of swear words per se. It is the intent behind the words. So you can have a warm, convivial shower of friendly "f***s" filling the air, while one sweet, savage "tks" can cut you to the quick. Are we polite so we can try to tell one another the truth calmly to avoid getting into an all-out fight? Warning growls instead of roaring like a fed-up Singa courtesy campaign lion - whiskers and mane all a-quiver?

I used to be really bothered by swear words. That primary schoolgirl aversion to primary schoolboys squawking and parroting dirty words because they think it makes them sound big? That aversion stayed with me.

But then you grow up and meet friendly sorts who use f-bombs disarmingly and Hokkien dirty phrases funnily. And swear words grow up and fade in intensity because of common use and turn into more polite or twee versions: gosh for God; aw-shucks for s*** (that's poo to you); wah lau for wah **n (which refers to manly parts). On the messaging and e-mail system, I try to change the shape of my flat emotions by typing "tks" in different ways but without using too much time; I try to stretch my gratitude out with "tkssssssss". I try to offer one and all a fullness of emotion.

I am considering using something that sounds like a cat hacking up a hairball: "ack". Short for "acknowledged", I am beginning to warm to it because "ack" is straightforward and neutral, and does not hold a smiling mask in front of a distraught courtesy campaign animal face. No sickly sweetness, no grinning and gratitude while ill will drifts around you. Your missive is acknowledged, message received, over and out.

Ack.

But with Warm Whatever and tkssssssss.

denise@sph.com.sg

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