Most old cultures: Israelis, Russians, Chinese, and certainly Indians are this way. Don’t know enough about Europe’s old cultures to check if they are this way too. When I say West, I mean America. Would be interesting to check if a Polish or old German grandmother says thanks– or not.
How did the word ‘thank you’ evolve?
My mother dislikes it when I thank her. She is a youthful 76-year-old woman with grey hair and an easy smile. She makes friends easily. She likes to travel. She talks to strangers and is known for her empathy and compassion. Her emotional quotient (EQ), the new measure of a person that is often pitted against the traditional IQ, in other words, is very high.
My mother knows exactly what to say and to whom. Except that she doesn’t accept thanks from the ones she loves. She screws up her face into an expression of distaste. She looks insulted.
“What thanks? I don’t need your thanks,” she will reply when I thank her for buying my groceries or taking my children to school.
This curt response used to disconcert me, particularly after I returned from America, where I learnt – through magazines and advertisements – that we ought to accept thanks with grace. “Because you are worth it,” said one ad. Magazine articles routinely exhorted me to accept gratitude because I deserved it; to express gratitude fulsomely, no matter who the recipient or the circumstance. “It’s never too late to say thank you or sorry,” said one poster. Except with my mother.
“Get out of here. What are you thanking me for?”
Or versions thereof.
This is the difference between the two countries that I have called home. The West views actions as transactions: someone does something for you and you say thanks. The East, particularly India, views actions as extensions of a relationship. It would be insulting for me to thank my grandmother for massaging coconut oil into my hair because such a statement would dilute the intimacy of the act and the relationship.
More important is that you thank someone who is “not you”, who is outside of you. In India, the closer you get to someone, the more you view them as extensions of yourself. Thanking them would be like thanking yourself. Who does that? Hence my mother’s umbrage when I express gratitude verbally. In her world view, you do things for your loved ones without fuss, without much talk. And they do something right back. So, when I thank my parents, I am making them outsiders.
It is a cultural thing; but it is also a generational thing. Most Indians of the previous generation use the word “thanks” sparingly. Offer a seat to the grandmother on a train and she will smile gratefully for sure. Half an hour later, she will open her snack box and offer you the tastiest morsel. It is her way of acknowledging what you did for her.
“Words are cheap,” says my mother. “Why should a daughter thank a mother for doing the things that a mother does?”
I thought it was just my Mom. Recently, I was in Kanpur, a small town in the Hindi heartland of India. The couple that invited me were extraordinarily kind and generous. They also bristled when I tried to stammer out a thanks at the end of my visit. “What are you saying?” the lady interrupted, snuffing out what they deemed was my “angrez” (English) affectation. As I left, in lieu of thanks, she simply said: “Blessings.”
It has taken me seven years to get used to this. Perhaps it has to do with my personality. By nature, I am a somewhat formal person. I thank everyone for everything – including my husband – because I believe words are an extension of how you feel.
When I feel grateful, I know of no other way to express it than to say thanks. My method is unimaginative, according to the Indian way. It is also empty. Saying thanks is quick and lazy. Indians of my mother’s generation do it much more imaginatively. They keep a long tally of scores and come up with creative ways to settle them.
“You know, Reena took me on that trip to that safari park,” my mother will say. “I should just give her this jungle-patterned jewellery set for her next birthday. I am not going to wear it and it will remind her of that trip we took together.”
I have neither time nor imagination to do this sort of mental tally morphed into imaginative return-gifts. So I take the easy way out.
“Thanks, Ma,” I yell as I drive out of the house.
I laugh over her scolding.
Shoba Narayan is the author of the memoir, Return to India