Saying “Thank You” in China and the West

Saying “Thank You” in China and the West

2013 is history. The holidays are over. A new year has begun.

I have been very thankful for everything that had happened the last year, and especially the past few weeks. So, I got to think about the concept of “thank you”. Not just the word.

Being confronted with different cultures I could observe a huge difference between China and the West (to make it more general) in terms of saying thank you and showing it.

It seems we use the work “thanks” a lot. Not just in impersonal relationships, like with the shopkeeper or the cabdriver. Even with close friends and family, and maybe even more with close people. If you pay attention it the amount of “thank you’s” around us is crazy. When I came back to London yesterday, everyone would answer with a friendly “thank you my love”. And also in Germany, people would be very polite (once in a while haha).

Why I am talking about this? It was the first difference Jin noticed (and had to adapt immediately). When he met my mother for the first time, there were a lot of “thank you’s” going around. And they did not decrease with the days he stayed and the closer we all got together. On the contrary, as closer we all got, as more “thank you’s” were involved. I am used to it, but I remember visiting my Chinese mother-in-law house and it was totally different.

I wouldn’t say Chinese people are not polite, but they rarely say thank you. If a waitress fills up your glass of water, you say thank you in Germany. If someone hands you something you say thank you. Since children we are taught to always say thank you for everything. But in China I experienced a different politeness.

If you are very close to someone you rarely say thank you. And especially in restaurants I almost never see people thanking the waitress for her service. Actually, in places where you would here hundreds of thank you’s in Germany, in China you will rarely hear a “xiexie” (Chinese for thank you). So does that make Chinese people less polite? Of course not.

It’s just very different to what I have learned when growing up. It still is difficult for me. I remember being so polite to my Chinese family-in-law. They hand me food, I automatically respond thank you. My mother-in-law brings up some snacks to my room, or medicine for my cold, I would thank her. Till one day, Jin told me, I shouldn’t do it. Apparently it made her feel weird. They say if you are so polite and say thank you all the time, you are like a stranger, not a close family member. But how do you change that habit? How do you not say thank you if someone walks up all the stairs just to give you fresh fruits he or she just bought?

I learned not to say thank you with words, but with my face expression and with gestures. If she brings you food, helps you, cares about you, than I just do the same. Where there is a hand needed you help. My Chinese mother-in-law would never say thank you if I do the dishes, but I know she is.

While in Germany we hear a proper “Danke schoen” (thank you very much) for every nice thing we did in the house this past holidays, in China we would hear nothing, but might have a bag of fresh strawberries on our table in the evening.

In the end it doesn’t matter. Whether you say it out loud, or you show it with gestures, what matters is the feeling.

So, thank you very much. Danke Schoen. Xiexie.

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Anna Z. is a freelance illustrator and portrait artist in her late 20s, with a passion for Martial Arts and Chinese culture, and is the creator of Lost Panda, a blog to China and Art. Together with her husband, a Chinese national, she writes about daily life in rural China, focusing on cultural and social differences and the joys (and sometimes difficulties) as an intercultural couple. Apart from China related topics, she publishes her artwork, photography, art material reviews and tutorials to help more people discover their creative side. She is fluent in German, English and Mandarin Chinese.

8 thoughts on “Saying “Thank You” in China and the West

  1. And again something I have experienced as well. My wife was in the beginning of our relationship constantly surprised when I said “Thank you” and also in China my parents in law looked at me in a weird way when I said 谢谢 several times a day (to be honest, they still looked at me confused nowadays after all this time…).
    My wife got used to it and actually says it herself more often these days :)

    • Thank you for sharing your experience. It seems to happen to many people.
      I learned to adapt. As the Chinese say 入乡随俗: When in Rome do as the Romans do. Or in my case when in China, follow their customs; when Germany follow the German ones. I find it easier, and everyone feels comfortable. Though my partner and me, we still use the word “thank you” more often than a Chinese would usually do :)

  2. That one was hard to get used to for me too. It might really offend family members, because obviously it creates distance. In the beginning it was hard for me to figure out when you can say thanks and when it’s not appropriate. Many Chinese people have the same problem when speaking a foreign language, they’ll say thank you way too much because it’s just hard to figure out what amount of thank you’s is appropriate. But in more formal situations, saying thank you is okay, even in China. My MIL would say lots of thanks to a doctor and my husband often thanks cab drivers when getting of. It seems he says thank you more often than I do in China now.

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  4. My fiance told me the same thing. I am so used to saying thank you that I sometimes forget the different culture in China. My future mother-in-law thought I was not very close to her son because I would say thank you a lot. Yu had to explain to her that it is different in the West. He says she thinks of me as very polite. Every once in a while Yu has to remind me but I am getting better. Thank you for your post.

    • You are welcome. I have gotten used to not saying thank you to my in-laws anymore. It is easier for me to adapt than for them. They are an old generation and will never understand why we are so polite to people we are close to. However, with my husband it’s a bit different. We try to keep a mix between thank you’s and wordless appreciation :)

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