With Thanksgiving Day upon us, it seems like a good time to reflect upon the use of “thank you” in different cultures. Most Americans are trained to say “please” and “thank you” to everyone on all kinds of occasions. “Please” is the “magic word” whenever you want someone to do something for you. “Thank you” is simple politeness to show your appreciation when something has been done for you.
We may not always remember to say “thank you,” but it might come as a surprise that in cultures and circumstances, people may be very surprised or even offended by your thanks. And you shouldn’t be surprised or offended when you don’t receive thanks in return.
In his book, Debt: The First 5,000 Years, anthropologist David Graeber tells of a walrus hunter who shared his meat with the author. When the author tried to thank him, the hunter took offense. Saying thank you implied that the hunter was giving him a gift and expecting something in return rather than doing what anyone would do for a fellow human being.
In many places it is still true among family members, friends and communities, that it is not common to say thank you for everyday help and may give offense.
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Bud Brown, an American living in the Philippines and married to a Filipina, gives his observations on the use of thank you in the Phillipines on his video blog. His wife, he says, simply thought it was strange when he thanked her for something, and never responded in kind. Finally, she said, “Why do you always say ‘thank you.’ I’m your wife. You don’t need to say thank you.” His observations lead him to believe that this is cultural. For instance, one day he watched as a group of fisherman gathered to help another with his beach boat. When the boat was back in the water, the group simply dispersed with no thanks from the owner. This was probably just something they all would do for another if needed.
According to the writer of the blog The Next Miles, you can insult your Indian friends by saying please and thank you. He says “using such terms with your friends here is the perfect recipe for them to feel you have demoted them to the status of a mere stranger.” Friends just do things for each other; it is expected and is no cause for special comment.
So the next time you find yourself in a new culture, don’t assume that the lack of “please” and “thank you” in every day speech is rudeness. Other cultures may have to learn about our expectations. The National University of Singapore’s student handbook has to caution students about the use of please and thank you.
If somebody does do something for you, it is good to acknowledge it. Saying thank you is something some people forget to do. After all, in many cultures, thank you is not needed among family members; it can even be a taboo. However, remember you are not at home but in a university. Showing your appreciation to someone who has done something for you by saying thank you goes a long way in maintaining good relations.
Originally posted on Nov 11, 2013