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World: Different cultures understand "thank you" differently, says professor

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Don't be rude. Say: "thank you." Children in the US are taught to say "thank you" whenever possible. But a thank you as Americans understand it is not always the same in other languages and cultures.

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In some societies, such as in India, saying thank you to family members can be considered distancing. In some European cultures, saying "thank you" to a compliment can be seen as being vain. And in other cultures, like in parts of the Middle East, the reply to a "thank you" is sometimes more like, "at your service."

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Elaine Hsieh — a professor at the University of Oklahoma, where she studies language and culture — joined The World's host Marco Werman to explain the various nuances for expressions of gratitude around the world.

Marco Werman: So, let's just establish the baseline, Elaine. What is the role of a thank you here in the US? I mean, I think we all know the answer, but how does the term "thank you" used here?
Elaine Hsieh: "Thank you" is used in almost everyday life. We say it all the time to everybody we see. We use it so often that we are not very reflective. It's almost like we say it just to be polite.
And given that kind of automatic impulsive way we use "thank you," does it lose its meaning? Does it lose its power over time?
I think so. The ways 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." S,o these are very transactional understandings of thank yous that 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.
Yeah, give us a few examples of that, like expressions of gratitude and how they differ in other languages and cultures.
So, for example, in India, "thank you" is not something that you say on a regular basis. But, even though you don't say thank you, there's an inherent sense that gratitude is felt and oftentimes is expressed through nonverbal behaviors, rather than the words "thank you." In Chinese, there's a very famous article that's called "xia tian." "Xia" means "thank you." "Tian" is "sky." 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 is toward everything and all beings under the sky that moves expression of gratitude away from a transactional understanding of gratefulness, but into an all-encompassing understanding of kindness toward the world and how your receiving all the good things, goodwill in the world.
Elaine, as you said in Hindi, there's kind of an unspoken or an assumed gratitude. So, if a kid asks a parent in India for a glass of water, would "thank you" be inappropriate?
Yes, it would be perceived to be inappropriate and it would be perceived almost intentionally over-distancing the relationship. So, in some ways we can think of in our everyday lives, a husband and wife may talk in a certain way, but if you always say "please," "thank you" whenever you ask your husband or wife to do something for you, that would almost seem overly formal and you don't do that unless you are angry with them. And so, to me, 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.
That's really interesting. I know you speak, obviously, English and Mandarin and Taiwanese. How do you approach your language of gratitude? Are you now more aware about how and when to say thank you?
Yes, definitely. Actually, one concept that came to me was about the Taiwanese use of "kam xim." "Kam xim" literally means is "feel hard." And I ended up calling my mom about, "I know kam xim is the way we express gratitude, but what is it? And my mom was like, "kam sim" is not really a way of saying thank you, because you're just showing the community how much you appreciate the good deed. These ways of expressing gratitude, like other languages, like Taiwanese or Chinese expressions of gratitude, they move away from the transactional understanding of gratitude and open up a world that we normally wouldn't have considered.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

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