I didn’t really take much notice of her remark until recently, when I suddenly became aware that I did seem to be saying ‘xie xie’ rather a lot, and it set me thinking.In the English-speaking world we are taught practically from babyhood to say please and thank you. Parents, grandparents, and other family members drum it in to small children over and over again, saying things like “what do you say?” when a child is given something in order to remind the child to say “thank you” and not giving a child something it wants until it prefaces the request with the word “please”. Indeed most western parents see this as one of their primary roles, teaching their children to be polite. Recently during a Skype call with my daughter and two-year old grandson I saw him being given a piece of fruit by his mum, and being prompted to say thank you. As he did so she turned away, he waited a few moments and then said ‘you’re welcome’ to himself, before getting on with eating the fruit. It was amusing, but more important for me was to see him learning the basic rules of social interaction.
When I stopped to think about it I realise that I must say “thank you” dozens of times each day, it is an automatic polite response to anything that someone else does. Most of the time I am unaware I am even saying it. Now I am doing the same thing, but in Mandarin, and it has dawned on me that I don’t hear Chinese people saying ‘xie xie’ anything like as much as I do, and it makes my conversations sound slightly odd.
Some time ago I read a fascinating book by Margaret Visser. In ‘The Gift of Thanks’ she examines the roots and rituals of gratitude, and the cultural history and significance of these simple words; and she explores how their usage differs from one society to another. Visser makes is this point: “they [native English speakers] often feel obliged to say ‘thanks’ in situations where gratitude is irrelevant” and that this seems very odd to foreigners, even to other Europeans. Our constant reiteration of thanks comes over as insincere and untrustworthy.
So I raised the subject with Annie again. I told her that if I had cooked dinner for members of my family, I would expect them to say thanks at the end of the meal. Annie told me that this would never happen in China, why would you thank your mum or dad for something they have done for you? they are your parents, they love you, it is expected that they would do such things.
I have decided that when speaking Chinese I am going to make a conscious effort to stop saying thank you so much – even if it makes me feel uncomfortably as though I am being impolite.
This is a strange little topic to be blogging about on what is Thanksgiving Day in the USA, and if you have read it from start to finish, I think it would be appropriate to sign off by saying Thank You Very Much.