Family and friends traditionally gather during this time of year to express gratitude. Many also participate in acts of service and charity as a way of giving back to their local communities.
As communication scholars studying intercultural communication, we have studied how many languages around the world have their own unique words and expressions to say “thank you.” In turn, these expressions reveal very different notions about how humans relate to one another and the world we collectively inhabit.
not everyone says thank you
Americans have been known to say “thank you” in many everyday situations around the world. While some of these “thank you” are undoubtedly heartfelt, many are also routine and are said without emotion. Given how often Americans say “thank you,” it may be surprising to learn that in many other cultures around the world, people rarely say “thank you.”
In many cultures of South and Southeast Asia, including India, where the expression “thank you” in Hindi is pronounced “thank you” in English. It is through this expression that a deep degree of gratitude is imbibed in interpersonal relationships.
In an article in The Atlantic, author Deepak Singh, an expatriate from North India to the United States, explains that “in the Hindi language, in everyday gestures and culture, there is an untold sense of gratitude.”
In many relationships – for example, between parents and children or between close friends – saying thank you is considered inappropriate in these countries because it introduces a sense of formality that takes away the intimacy of the relationship. Thank you is appropriate when it is deeply and truly felt, and in situations where one person goes above and beyond the normal expectations of the relationship. Yet it is also spoken with great seriousness, eye contact, and perhaps even with the hands in the heart center in the Namaste position.
economic rhetoric of gratitude
In American English, many expressions of gratitude are added to the language of the transaction, including expressions of personal indebtedness. We say, “I owe a gratitude to you,” “Thank you, I owe an indebtedness to you,” “One good turn deserves another,” and “How can I ever repay you?”
Thinking of gratitude as a type of transaction can actually encourage people to form mutually beneficial relationships. But it can also lead people to view their personal and impersonal relationships in economic terms – as transactions decided based on market norms of profit and loss.
The American language of gratitude reflects the fact that many of us can view relationships as interpersonal transactions. But if we enter into relationships only on the basis of what benefits us personally and potentially materially, it can be very limiting.
This is why, we argue, it can be enlightening to look at other languages of gratitude.
Thank you earth, sky and community
Many Chinese people, for example, use the phrase “謝天,” or “xi tiān,” which literally means “thank you to the sky” as a way of expressing gratitude for all things under the sky. In a famous essay included in many high school textbooks, called “Zhi Tian”, author Zifan Chen said, “Because there are so many people for whom we feel grateful, let’s give thanks to the sky.” The author redirects the gratitude of individuals to an all-pervading universe, which includes all things and all beings.
In Taiwan, people say “感心” or “kama-sim”, which means “feel the heart”, to express gratitude. In praising a good deed, the term is also meant to highlight how those who witness the act, but do not directly benefit from it, are affected by altruism. It encourages people to recognize that the impact of a good cause is not limited to its direct recipients but to other members of the community as well.
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What we mean by saying “kama-sim” is that our actions have effects that ripple outward, potentially eroding and strengthening the social fabric, which ultimately benefits all of us.
Every time we express gratitude, we invoke a social world. Often, we call upon the world without realizing its full power. For example, when we use the language of gratitude characterized by economic metaphors, it can shape our view of the world and our social interactions, allowing us to view life as a series of transactions. You can be encouraged to watch. Being more aware of our linguistic conventions and the possibilities of our choices can empower us to create a world we really want.
By learning from other languages of gratitude, perhaps we can make our “thank you” less casual and more heartfelt.