Thanks, but no thanks: Expressions of gratitude in eHRAF World Cultures

During the end-of-year “holiday season” throughout much of the Western world, we are often reminded to be grateful for the things that we have, and even to go out of our way to be gracious and thankful to those around us. Kindness and charity in general are prized as yuletide virtues, with special emphasis put on expression of gratitude. In the US, for example, Thanksgiving is one of the most significant American celebration days that also signals the start of the season for giving and sharing. This festive time of year, including Christmas and Hanukkah, are likewise marked by gift-giving.

Anthropological accounts of generosity, reciprocity and gift-giving have traced the exchange of valuable items from person to person, showing that patterns of gift-giving enable ties of obligation to be formed and strengthened (Mauss 1954; Malinowski 1920). Dentan (1968: 48) explains that in many industrial societies, “Christmas exchanges are just as “economic” as commercial exchanges” although, on the surface, people tend not to recognize them as such: “Here one is supposed not to calculate gains and losses”. Although some people do calculate the value of gifts given and received, ideally, “it’s the thought that counts.”

Thus we are introduced to the complicated cultural facets surrounding giving and receiving as well as measures of expressing gratitude in the formation and strengthening of social and familial bonds. Do the same actions and activities show thanks around the world or are there significant cultural differences? Let’s take a look at some ethnographic case studies found in eHRAF World Cultures.

In Dentan’s ethnography of the Semai Senoi of central Malaysia, the author describes how everyday Semai economic exchanges are more like “Christmas exchanges” than typical commercial exchanges with the example of a hunter killing a pig, which provides food for his settlement:

After several days of fruitless hunting, an east Semai man kills a large pig. He lugs it back through the moist heat to his settlement. Everyone gathers around. Two other men meticulously divide the pig into [exactly equal] portions sufficient to feed two adults each […] The question that immediately occurs to people brought up in a commercial society is, “What does the hunter get out of it?” The answer is that he and his wife get a portion exactly the same size as anyone else gets. No one even says “thanks.” … Moreover, whereas in some societies the hunter would gain prestige, in east Semai society he is treated like everyone else (Dentan 1968: 48-9).

In fact, in Semai society, for the recipients of the hunter’s food to offer “thanks” to him would be considered very rude. Firstly, calculating the worth of a gift is considered taboo or punan. Secondly, all Semai are expected to share whatever one can afford as widely as possible, including with guests or anyone who asks, as not to share freely is also considered punan. And, lastly,

although “generosity” is the mark of a “good heart,” sharing more than one can afford is plain “dumb.” In this context saying thank you is very rude, for it suggests, first, that one has calculated the amount of a gift and, second, that one did not expect the donor to be so generous. In fact, saying thank you is punan (ibid.).

For anthropologists, the verbal expression of gratitude or the giving of thanks in other ways across cultures varies depending on social and economic circumstances as well as types of relationships. How one says or shows gratefulness or when thanks are avoided can be as important as the expression of gratitude itself. It is not uncommon to avoid speaking thanks aloud.

amish couple photo

Amish Country. Photo by CucombreLibre

For instance, in Amish culture, “actions rather than words are typically used to express courtesy”, making spoken kindnesses “conspicuously absent” among Amish family members (Hostetler 1980: 233). This does not mean that courteous actions between individuals do not exist. Instead, non-verbal behavior patterns are “considered more appropriate”:

The dialect words for “please” and “thank you” are not a part of the table manners or a part of everyday conversation. … The wife may brush the husband’s hat on Sunday morning before he gets around to it. The act requires no “thank you.” If the husband is thoughtful, he will carry the toddler, help his wife into the carriage, and tuck the blankets around her (ibid.).

Rather than lessening the communication of gratitude in Amish society, Hostetler argues that it “heightens the power of symbols and gestures in the community” (1980: 234). This example serves to remind us of everyday ways that we show we are thankful to others around us through thoughtfulness and performing small tasks in lieu of saying “thank you”.

Similarly, expressing gratitude for hospitality among the Fox people of North America is another case where actions speak louder than words:

The placing of food before him to eat is one of the first acts of hospitality he meets. It is good etiquette to show that the food is delicious; soup should be sucked from the spoon with much demonstration; and nothing should be left on the plate uneaten, especially if the food was put there by the host. … A tactful guest will show his appreciation and gratitude more by his general manner and behavior than by word of mouth (Jones 1911: 228).

It is therefore possible to return thanks in unspoken ways that also may not require that the recipient of kind behavior feel forever indebted with a burden of reciprocity. Indeed, most of us probably do this every day without considering it. In some cultures, however, not to openly express gratitude for services or favors received is patently unacceptable and can have long-term consequences. In one Greek mountain community described in eHRAF World Cultures,

When a Sarakatsanos receives a favour from another, he must show gratitude. ‘One good turn deserves another’ (ή χάρη θέλει άντίχαρη). Even if only between the acceptance of some service and its later repayment, gratitude must for a while act as a makeweight in the balance. Not to show gratitude for help, which has been freely given, is behaviour open to severe public reproach (Campbell 1964: 95).

At the same time, to be grateful to someone in Sarakatsano society implies that the recipient of help or assistance is obligated to return the favor in the future. This can lead to conflicts surrounding accusations over who has done the most and who remains the most obligated, because for the Greek villagers, “to be grateful is to be ‘obliged’ (□παχρεωμένας); and this is an admission of inequality and even of weakness …  neither side can admit to obligation without losing prestige; and both must attempt to claim the super-ordinate position in a creditor-debtor relationship (ibid. 95-6).”

This example mirrors Appadurai’s findings regarding the expression of gratitude in Tamil society, where, he argues, there is no simple way to express thanks which is free from moral complications (1985: 238). Because “gratitude implies appreciation, appreciation involves acknowledgment, and the only significant form of acknowledgment is return”, receiving a gift or service that requires gratitude leads to a debt of obligation. The act of speaking thanks is thereby imbued with great social power, making such verbal expressions regarded “either as inappropriate or simply as modest promissory notes for the substantial thanks that must take the form of the eventual return gift” (ibid. 240). It appears that “thanks” in these cases are not an easy or fleeting sentiment to convey.

In further contrast to the earlier examples where spoken thanks are avoided, in Saramaka society in Surinam, providing favors or gifts is done boldy and with the expectation of compensation, including between spouses:

In even the most minor transaction, the “client” must offer ostentatious deference and flattery in his solicitation, generous praise of his benefactor to anyone within earshot, and at least token material compensation. The periodic weeding of a man’s yard, for example, which a wife considers a standard conjugal duty, is often solicited by the husband and rewarded with both public praise and material “thanks” — e.g., a pot, a carved comb, or a piece of cloth (Price 1975: 32).

Displays of gratitude are a central facet of Saramaka life. Indeed, a special ceremony of “giving thanks” (dá tangí) follows almost every transaction involving goods or services (ibid).

When people see generosity and thankfulness as part of their culture or moral foundation of their society, whether religious or otherwise, thanking in itself can be sufficiently rewarding. Hart (2007: 301) describes how Islamic culture in a Turkish village is marked by collective “bonds of duty” and spiritual practices that “build similar ties and networks through strategic reciprocation”. As a result,

individuals, who are socialized to reciprocate, express their gratitude for help and assistance from others. For instance, children are expected to assist their elderly parents because the parents raised them and because it is a spiritual duty. Islamic behavior also creates a framework within which individuals can express their return. A couple who enjoys a bountiful yield contributes a part of their olive oil for redistribution to the poor in the village (ibid).

But as Appadurai asks of Hindu Tamils, “if every giver, whether he be god or untouchable, is only doing his duty (dharma), why should the receiver be grateful? … Indeed [thanking] someone who is simply doing his duty is not simply linguistically infelicitous [but] potentially morally inappropriate” (Appadurai 1985: 238).

Whether giving thanks is deemed necessary, irrelevant or just plain “good manners”, when we do something for someone, we often are at pains to insist that “it was no trouble at all” and “don’t mention it” (Appadurai 1985: 244). From what we have learned so far in eHRAF World Cultures, even in situations where people insist that thanks is not required, is this ever really the case?

You’ll need to continue your own cross-cultural study to find out. Get started in eHRAF by searching with these OCM indicators to discover more on exchange, gift-giving, thanks and reciprocity:

  • Etiquette (576)
  • Gift giving (431)
  • Exchange and transfers (430)
  • Transmission of cultural norms (867)
  • Visiting and hospitality (574)

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Appadurai, A. (1985). Gratitude as a social mode in South India. Ethos 13: 236-245.

Campbell, John Kennedy. 1964. “Honour, Family And Patronage: A Study Of Institutions And Moral Values In A Greek Mountain Community.” Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Dentan, Robert Knox. 1968. “Semai: A Nonviolent People Of Malaya.” Case Studies In Cultural Anthropology. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Hart, Kimberley. 2007. “Performing Piety And Islamic Modernity In A Turkish Village.” Ethnology 46 (4). Pittsburgh: 289–304.

Hostetler, John Andrew. 1980. “Amish Society.” Baltimore And London: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Jones, William. 1911. “Notes On The Fox Indians.” Journal Of American Folklore 24. Lancaster, Pa. And New York: 209–37.

Malinowski, Bronislaw. 1920. “Kula: The Circulating Exchange Of Valuables In The Archipelagoes Of Eastern New Guinea.” Man 20 (51). London: 97–105.

Mauss, M. 1954. The Gift: The form and reason for exchange in archaic societies. London: Cohen & West.

Price, Richard. 1975. “Saramaka Social Structure: Analysis Of A Maroon Society In Surinam.” Caribbean Monograph Series. Rio Piedras: Institute of Caribbean Studies, University of Puerto Rico.