Some never say “thank you”

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Give and take hold societies together. A look at different cultures shows: It’s so natural that people don’t even need to express their gratitude. In some languages, there isn’t even a word for “thank you.”

With “What’s the magic word?” or “Say ‘thank you,'” many parents try to teach their children at an early age that saying “please” or “thank you” is simply part of polite interaction. Studies prove these parenting methods are correct. Some evolutionary theorists, for example, believe that the experience of gratitude is the “glue” of human societies. It motivates reciprocal giving and taking and strengthens cohesion.

It is also credited with numerous positive side effects: Those who are grateful are less aggressive, have better relationships, have more self-confidence and even sleep better. As researchers led by Simeon Floyd of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen write in a recent study, it is usually assumed that gratitude must also be expressed for it to help well-beinactually to help well-beingtherefore, “thank you” is more than a word of propriety. Instead, they say, it can make you happy and content – advice that can also be found in self-help books.

Gratitude in everyday life
This sounds logical and understandable, but the authors of the study led by Floyd found that this beautiful idea has a not insignificant catch. Most studies on “giving thanks” come from Western or English-speaking societies. Most of them are also based on laboratory experiments.

To find out how verbalized gratitude works, the team recorded everyday situations worldwide in images and sound in eight languages on five continents. In addition to English, Italian, Russian and Polish, these were four minor languages: Cha’palaa (Ecuador), Lao (Laos), Murrinhpatha (Australia) and Siwu (Ghana). Quite incidentally, this created the most extensive database collected to date for three of the mini-languages.

Tacit agreement
Thousands of situations surrounding simple everyday requests such as “Can I have the salt?” and “Will you wash the dishes?” were documented. The analysis shows: The recommendations are usually granted, regardless of which culture the speakers come from; only in one out of seven cases were they refused.

However, expressing gratitude is much less natural than one might assume. Only in five percent of the cases did the supplicant thank the person for the assistance with “Thank you!” or a close paraphrase such as “Well done!” In Cha’palaa, the researchers could not document a single expression of thanks. On average, native English and Italian speakers thanked each other more frequently, 13 to 14 percent of the time.

Measured by Western standards of politeness, however, that is still relatively little, according to the researchers. But that doesn’t mean that most people are rude or uncouth or never feel gratitude. It shows that mutual support in a family or familiar context is entirely self-evident, a tacit agreement.

“Thank you” doesn’t exist
In some places, an explicit “thank you” might even seem impertinent or inappropriate in everyday situations, such as among speakers of Lao and Siwu. In these languages, expressing gratitude is reserved for special occasions, such as when one’s life has been saved.

Given the infrequency of expressions of gratitude, it is not surprising that many minor languages, such as Cha’palaa, have no word for “thank you” at all. According to the researchers, formalized gratitude is needed more in exchanges with strangers or in official and formal situations. So in typical Western societies, some politeness training may even be helpful – but in everyday life of many small groups, “thank you” is superfluous.

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