We’ve come again to the time of year when a lot of us are feeling a little more inclined to say “thanks”. Gratitude seems to come a little easier, and maybe it’s all the turkey and pie, but we’re just feeling all warm and fuzzy. So thank you, reader, for being here with us right now. And we’ll also thank you for telling us what has made you say “thank you” today? And how many times do you think you’ve said it? Probably more than you realize: Americans are actually known for throwing around the big “TY” in most situations, and we’re taught from an early age to always say thank you!
But is that the way it is in other cultures? Not necessarily, and we might have something to learn about expressing gratitude from the language of thanks around the world.
How We Use Our “Thank You’s”
Let’s go back to our question above: how many times a day do you think you say thank you? Ah, but how about this: how many times do you mean it? That’s another story, right? So, if you’re like the average American, according to research from 2016, you say thanks around 2,000 times a year, or around 5 times a day. Buuuut you only mean it around half the time.
So does that mean that saying thank you has lost its meaning? According to the survey cited above, nearly half (49%) of us do think that we say thank you so much that it’s lost its meaning. Saying thank you has become an automatic thing, not something we reflect upon. We do it to be polite. And what’s more, the way we say it often feels like what Elaine Hsieh, a professor at the University of Oklahoma, where she studies language and culture, calls “transactional” instead of heartfelt.
According to Hsieh, “The way in English that we use ‘thank you’ is very transactional. A common way to say thank you or to show gratitude is like, ‘I owe you a ton of debt,’ like ‘I owe you lots.’ ‘I don’t know how to repay you.’ So these are very transactional understandings of thank yous and not all cultures use ‘thank you’ that way. In some cultures, they don’t even say thank you easily, because thank you is reserved for some of the most heartfelt moments to signify the importance of their gratitude.”
And maybe we feel grateful – Pew Research tells us that a majority of us (78%) feel a strong sense of gratitude or thankfulness on a weekly basis – but unfortunately, we’re not great at showing or saying it, even with our readiness to say thanks to everyone we see. In fact, according to the survey from above, 40% of those questioned said they often don’t show any gratitude at all for things they know they are actually thankful for.
Wow. Not even a “Thanks, mom, you’re the best” or a big kiss with a thank you and doing the dishes when your partner makes a delicious dinner? Hmm, we might need to rethink how we say thanks around these parts. And maybe we can get some ideas this holiday season (before it’s too late) from other cultures.
Different Takes on Expressing Gratitude
We might think that everyone around the world uses thank you in the same way, but that’s far from true. Let’s look at some interesting examples of how a few cultures express gratitude in very different ways from many people in the US:
Not everyone says thank you
In some cultures, for example in India, saying thank you is actually seen as formal and almost distancing to those involved, so it is often left unsaid in close relationships. Introducing this sense of formality (or the feeling of a transaction, as Americans use it) can be seen as taking away from the intimacy of the relationship. For example, a child wouldn’t say thank you to their parent for a simple act like bringing them a drink. Would that fly in your house? Probably not, since we’re conditioned to always say thank you.
But what if we could express our gratitude in unspoken ways? According to author Deepak Singh writing in The Atlantic, “in the Hindi language, in everyday gestures and culture, there is an unspoken understanding of gratitude.” People with close relationships tend to express their gratitude in nonverbal ways. But that’s not to say there isn’t a time and place to say thank you – but it’s said in situations where it’s truly and deeply felt, when someone has gone above and beyond, and is said with seriousness and with eye contact.
And not only that, but there are some languages that don’t even have a word or phrase for thank you. Speakers of Cha’palaa in Ecuador, for example, never say thank you after someone does something kind because this language doesn’t have a traditional way of saying the phrase.
When researchers discovered that many cultures say thank you very rarely, or don’t have a way to say it, they concluded “…that people across languages and cultures rely on tacit understandings of their social rights and duties to mutual assistance and collaboration. One of the reasons for this is that, in everyday life, we are not just motivated to help or ‘do favors’ for others; we are also motivated to participate in shared activities that involve expected contributions, and to fulfill the commitments implied by our social roles.”
In other words, for some, thank you is not a phrase, it’s a way of living, a mutual feeling of connection to others and being part of a collective group.
Thank you can be bigger than you
And while some cultures don’t use (or have) thank you because they see their good deeds as part of a more collective feeling, other cultures have a different way of saying the phrase. In some Southeast Asian countries, like China, expressing thanks sometimes goes not just beyond transactional and automatic, but beyond just you and a person to thank. For example, in China, many people use the phrase “xie tian,” which literally means “thank sky.” The thought is that there are so many people to thank that we need to stop and express gratitude for all things under the sky.
Hsieh explains it this way: “There are so many things and so many people we are thankful for, we’re grateful to that, let’s just say, ‘xia tian,’ ‘thank the sky.’ And when you say it that way, when you start to think about gratitude toward everything and all beings under the sky, that moves the expression of gratitude away from a transactional understanding of gratefulness, and into an all-encompassing understanding of kindness toward the world and how you’re receiving all the good things, goodwill in the world.”
And in Taiwan, gratitude is expressed by saying “kam-sim,” which literally means “feel heart.” It’s a way to say thank you for a good deed, but it goes beyond that: it is also meant to highlight how people who witness something worthy of a thank you also benefit. It’s about the ripples that kindness can create, which can spread out beyond two people in a transactional situation. Saying thank you in this way recognizes that the impact of a good deed is not limited to one person, but can impact other members of a community, as well.
What We Can Learn
The interesting thing is that in all of the above examples, the emphasis of expressing gratitude (or of not saying it) seems to be less about acknowledging a transaction between two people or a good feeling that boosts our happiness score, and more about a way to acknowledge our place in a bigger web of connections that we all benefit from. And more than that, that bigger web is ultimately what we should be grateful for in many ways.
So what can we take away from learning about expressing gratitude in different ways? According to Hsieh, “Learning about what other cultures do is not about that we need to adopt other cultures’ practices or language, but more as a reflective point to see how other cultures’ way of thinking, saying and doing things provide us the opportunity to reflect on our practice.”
Well said. After all, as we hopefully gather with our families this time of year to give thanks, it’s important to remember how our interdependence enriches our lives. We don’t have to go it alone, and then feel indebted when others lend a hand; rather, we can all be in this together and all be thankful. Let us know how you feel and express gratitude!
Co-written by Joanna Bowling