My Thank Less task


A year or so ago my teacher Annie told me that I was doing something that most English-speaking westerners doxiexie new – which is not usual in China – I was saying ‘thank you” too often.

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.xie xie 2In the English-speaking world we are taught practically from babyhood to say please and thank you.Thank you floral 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.

Thank you keyWhen 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.

Thanks bookSome 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.

xie xie 4The Chinese think that thanking people puts a formal distance between you and them, and the verbal response when someone says xièxie is bú yòng xiè 不用which roughly translated is ‘don’t use thanks’.

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.Thank you chop

About herschelian

Recently moved to Beijing from London - its all new to me! Trying to learn Chinese, and what makes this city tick.
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11 Responses to My Thank Less task

  1. tantalus2013 says:

    Um, dare I? Thank you Jo

  2. Chris says:

    Thank you! Interesting post. I will be more conscious to be sincere when I say it.

  3. I remember the quizzical look on faces of friends in China when I asked them the word for ‘please’! I have the same thank you issues over here. I fear I’ll return rude.
    ‘You’re welcome’ – ahhh, Angus!

  4. lostnchina says:

    Excellent observation! And very well presented! I think the Mainland Chinese are not saying thank you enough, and I think there are many reasons for this. Their social and economic backgrounds/level of education. And also with the one-child policy I’ve noticed that kids are just spoiled. So there’s a feeling of entitlement instead of gratitude. I think change in China (environmental awareness, social responsibility) will only occur when people lose that feeling of entitlement. What do you think is the reason behind the lack of thank yous?

    • herschelian says:

      You know, I’m not sure I agree with your analysis. I think that the mainland Chinese are just as grateful as any other group when things are done for them, but the difference is that they don’t express it as often and as voluably as we English-speaking westerners do, and I don’t think it has anything to do with their levels of education or the ‘one child policy’. It is a deeply rooted cultural norm.
      Reading Margaret Visser’s book was very informative. She explained that in some cultures where everything is shared (eg: the Inuit, and some tribes in Africa, Australasia and places like New Guinea) giving thanks is almost unknown, and we ‘sophisticated’ westerners assume ingratitude. Not so.
      And to be absolutely honest, I often say ‘thank you’ on auto-pilot, because it is deeply ingrained in ME and my culture, not because I really mean it.

  5. Jean says:

    Interesting post, Jo. As you say, omitting thank you is not limited to China or cultures such as the Inuit. My Swedish friend Pamela has to remind her 7-year-old son to readopt the please/thank you mode when he comes over to the UK for access visits with his father. It’s not a sign of rudeness at all in Sweden, simply not expressed verbally to the same degree.

  6. Helen B says:

    Well thank you…..for all you digests. I sincerely enjoy them so keep them coming. I also love Margaret Visser’s books but haven’t read that one. Helen (Robertson)

  7. Aussa Lorens says:

    Woah. I had never heard this or thought about it– I know I definitely say “thank you” a lot all day every day, and clung to “xie xie” while I was traveling in China… Hmm… I’ll have to ask my friend Sars, who lives in China, about her thoughts on this! Thank you for the conversation fodder.

  8. camparigirl says:

    English people do say thank you an awful lot, a habit I picked up when I lived there. Sometimes it’s just a reflex, hence not necessarily heartfelt. But your post explains why, when interacting with Chinese people, Westerners can sometimes perceive them as slightly rude – culturally they don’t abide by the same thank you and please expectations as we do. Very interesting.

  9. saying thank you is a wonderful thing, gratitude is one of those amazing things we can do with ease and having an attitude of gratitude is really something life-changing. im not english, however i do live in europe , and yes thank you and please are 2 words we teach our children from a small age. and i find it healthy to teach them that. it is very important not just the politeness , but also the meaning of these words . i never knew chinese people don’t say thank you so often 🙂 anyway i came here to say i used your colorful thank you photo in my blog and put a link of yours there 🙂 and im happy i stumbled across your blog this way 🙂 anyway im still saying thank you for posting 😀 and im not worried of saying thank you too often 🙂

  10. Pingback: Taking one day at a time… Day 3 « Liss Silverwing's bits and pieces

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