For children who are raised in English-speaking cultures, saying “thank you” is one of the first things we learn. Mama. Dada. Please. Thank you. There! For most of us it was probably the fourth word we learned.
Verbally expressing thanks is the most basic form of politeness. It is just good manners.
Unfortunately, for those living in China, this can lead to miscommunication and misunderstanding. In Chinese the verbal expression of thanks is not required in all of the circumstances it would be natural in the West. In fact, there are certain situations (among close friends, for example), where saying thank you actually serves to create social distance.
Deborah Fallows wrote about this in her wonderful book, Dreaming in Chinese:
My Chinese friends say they notice that Westerners use lots of pleases (qǐng) and thank yous (xiexie) when speaking Chinese. And actually, they say, we use way too many of them for Chinese taste. A Chinese linguist, Kaidi Zhan, says that using a please, as in “Please pass the salt,” actually has the opposite effect of politeness here in China. The Chinese way of being polite to each other with words is to shorten the social distance between you. And saying please serves to insert a kind of buffer or space that says, in effect, that we need some formality between us here.
One of my tutors, a young guy named Danny, who straddles the line between being a Chinese nationalist and being an edgy global youth, nodded his head enthusiastically when I asked him about this interpretation: “Good friends are so close, they are like part of you,” Danny said. “Why would you say please or thank you to yourself? It doesn’t make sense.”
It’s Thanksgiving week in the United States, and we at ChinaSource would like to wish you and your family a Happy Thanksgiving. Whether you are part of a culture that expresses thanks verbally, or part of one that doesn’t, may your heart be full of gratitude.
Oh, and thanks for reading this. (Sorry, I couldn’t help myself!)
Joann Pittman is senior vice president of ChinaSource and editor of ZGBriefs. Prior to joining ChinaSource, Joann spent 28 years working in China, as an English teacher, language student, program director, and cross-cultural trainer for organizations and businesses engaged in China. She has also taught Chinese at the University of Northwestern-St. Paul …View Full Bio
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