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What do Chinese think about Westerners’ ‘thank you’?


In America, saying thank you is routine. In China, it can be puzzling.



In an essay for The Atlantic this week, Deepak Singh described the culture of saying “thank you” in Hindi. His explanation for why many Indians don’t say thanks out loud took me back to my early days in China, when I was struggling to learn Mandarin. Singh wrote:


In India, people—especially when they are your elders, relatives, or close friends—tend to feel that by thanking them, you’re violating your intimacy with them and creating formality and distance that shouldn’t exist.


One of the most jarring yet subtle aspects of my experience with Mandarin Chinese was the counterintuitive use—or lack of use—of thank you (xiexie), please (qing), and other softeners like “would,” “could,” “I’m sorry,” and “excuse me” that liberally season vernacular American English.


Here is what I wrote in my book Dreaming in Chinese about my struggle with this piece of Chinese language and culture:


I often feel like I’m being abrupt and blunt, and even rude, when I’m speaking Chinese. Bu yao (don’t want), bu yong (don’t need), mei yǒu (don’t have), bu shi (is not), bu keyǐ (cannot)—all these are standard forms of declining offers or requests, or saying no. But each time I use them, I fight the urge to pad them with a few niceties like “thank you,” “excuse me,” or “I’m sorry.”


“Fuwuyuan! Fuwuyuan!” or “Waitress! Waitress!” diners cry to demand a glass, a bowl, or a pair of chopsticks. And no “Miss, could you please get me another beer?”


One of my tutors, a young guy named Danny, who straddles the line between being a Chinese nationalist and being an edgy global youth, nodded his head enthusiastically when I asked him about this interpretation: “Good friends are so close, they are like part of you,” Danny said. “Why would you say please or thank you to yourself? It doesn’t make sense.”


The first Mandarin term that Westerners usually learn is ni hǎo, the greeting. The second is probably xiexie, or thank you. It’s a comforting way to become acquainted with a language. But it’s worth keeping in mind how the generous and well-intended use of xiexie sounds to Chinese ears.



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