A few weeks back I had the opportunity to give a seminar for local expats on the subject of communication. Specifically, my topic was on how to communicate effectively with Chinese (not sure why anyone would think I'm an expert on that subject, but…I digress). Styles of communication vary greatly between Chinese and North Americans, and we spend a good part of the time talking right past each other. My goal was to help the group (many of whom were relative new to China) understand the cultural context of Chinese communication, as well as particular characteristics. As you can imagine, it was a lively discussion.
One of the things we talked about was the western (well, American anyway) compulsion to say 'thank you'. Verbal expressions of thanks are absolutely fundamental to politeness in American culture. As toddlers the first three things we learn to say are 'mama,' 'dada,' and 'thank you,' and if we don't, then we (even at the ripe age of 2) feel as though the collective wrath of western civilization will come crashing down upon our heads.
But in Chinese communication, verbal expressions of thanks are not as commonly used in certain settings, particularly where a duty is being carried out. I remember learning this way back when I was a classroom teacher. As my students handed in their homework to me, I would say "thank you," only to get funny looks from them. Finally one student asked me why I kept thanking them for doing what they were supposed to do, namely turn in their homework. Well, because! In their mind, expressing thanks was not a necessity in this communication event. In my mind, it was simply a polite acknowledgment of the work they had done.
I also sometimes encounter this with close Chinese friends. When they do things for me, I will say "thanks" (a lot), and they will get annoyed. In personal relationships excessive expressions of thanks are construed as creating social distance; therefore close friends are not obligated to verbally express thanks. Gratitude is best expressed by doing things for the other person, not just saying words.
It's a tough one because saying 'thank you' is not an easy habit to get rid of, and not one I necessarily want to get rid of either. But I do need to remember that the obligation to express it in Chinese is often not as strong as it is in my own language and culture.
Thanks for reading…oh wait….well, you know what I mean!