People Around the World Hardly Ever Say "Thank You" and That's Good News

It seems natural to thank someone when they pass the salt or hold the elevator for you, but it turns out such behavior is pretty unusual. A new study has shown that verbal expressions of gratitude like "thank you" are less common than you might expect. Are we ruder and more ungrateful than we realize? Not necessarily. This news shouldn't be taken as evidence of the decline of a smoothly functioning social order. Instead, it offers evidence that when it comes to human expectations about helping each other out, things are working exactly as they should.

No Word for "Thank You"

A new study published in Royal Society Open Science looked at language samples of casual speech in eight languages spoken on five different continents. For more than 1,500 exchanges where someone assisted someone else or complied with a request, a "thank you" or other verbal expression of gratitude only occurred about five percent of the time.

Many languages have no word for "thank you" at all. This is true for one of the languages in the study, Cha'paala, spoken in South America. For two of the other languages, Lao (Southeast Asia) and Siwu (Western Africa), write the researchers, "saying 'thank you' is so rare that it may be perceived as bizarre or out of place." Languages without phrases for "thank you" may use other expressions to show gratitude. In an example from an Australian language included in the study, Murrinhpatha, one person expresses appreciation with "that's right, you're beautiful." Still, even when such alternate expressions are included, the act of verbal gratitude is still rare.

The other languages in the study were Polish, Russian, English, and Italian. While there were slightly higher rates of verbal thanking in the Western European languages of English and Italian, it still occurred less than 15 percent of the time.

Not Saying "Thank You" Doesn't Mean We're Rude

In some cultures — English-speaking ones in particular — we're taught from a young age to follow a certain script when making requests, and that script includes saying "thank you" when the request is fulfilled. The script is a model for polite behavior and not following it can be seen as a lack of etiquette.

But a lack of "thank you" doesn't seem to be taken as rude in everyday interaction. The researchers found that people almost always comply with requests — at a rate of 7 to 1, in fact. Doing what's requested of you is so much the norm that a gratitude response is, in a way, unnecessary. Around the world, the most common way for this type of interaction to unfold is "by simply continuing with one's activities, relying on a shared understanding of the good, service, or support received as part of a system of social rights and duties governing mutual assistance and collaboration." The lack of thanking shows not that we don't appreciate what we do for each other, but that the system is so geared toward doing for each other that it's hardly noticed at all.

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For more differences between cultures, check out "Do's and Taboos Around The World" by Roger E. Axtell. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Arika Okrent June 6, 2018

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