No “Thank You!”

When beginning my fieldwork among the Dorzé of Southern Ethiopia many years ago, I thought that it would be better, at least initially, to be too polite rather than not polite enough.  I would say “Thank you!” as much or more than I did in France, for minor services such as being given food, shown the way, helped to reach an object, and even at the end of a transaction, when buying something at the market for instance. I was soon made to understand that my behaviour was bizarre and indeed inappropriate. It was not that people were less cooperative or mutually helpful than in France, far from it. Nor did I have reason to think that they felt less grateful. It was that “thank you” was not expected, which I found mildly puzzling.

I speculated that it had to do with a linguistic difference: the expression that best translates “thank you” into Dorzé is far from being a perfect synonym. “Ts’os ingo!” is a proper blessing meaning “May God give you!” This blessing is used not only as an expression of gratitude for out-of-the ordinary services or gifts, but also when declining to give to a beggar (whereas saying “thank you” to European beggar when not giving would be, if anything, offensive). It is also commonly used to praise a good deed of somebody who is not present: “May God give to Girma!”

I hadn’t given much more thought to this minor ethnographic observation until now.  Today, however, I have enjoyed reading “Universals and cultural diversity in the expression of gratitude” by Simeon Floyd, Giovanni Rossi, Julija Baranova, Joe Blythe, Mark Dingemanse, Kobin H. Kendrick, Jörg Zinken, and Nick Enfield (in Royal Society Open Science ). Here is the abstract:

“Gratitude is argued to have evolved to motivate and maintain social reciprocity among people, and to be linked to a wide range of positive effects—social, psychological and even physical. But is socially reciprocal behaviour dependent on the expression of gratitude, for example by saying ‘thank you’ as in English? Current research has not included cross-cultural elements, and has tended to conflate gratitude as an emotion with gratitude as a linguistic practice, as might appear to be the case in English. Here, we ask to what extent people express gratitude in different societies by focusing on episodes of everyday life where someone seeks and obtains a good, service or support from another, comparing these episodes across eight languages from five continents. We find that expressions of gratitude in these episodes are remarkably rare, suggesting that social reciprocity in everyday life relies on tacit understandings of rights and duties surrounding mutual assistance and collaboration. At the same time, we also find minor cross-cultural variation, with slightly higher rates in Western European languages English and Italian, showing that universal tendencies of social reciprocity should not be equated with more culturally variable practices of expressing gratitude. Our study complements previous experimental and culture-specific research on gratitude with a systematic comparison of audiovisual corpora of naturally occurring social interaction from different cultures from around the world.”

Excellent work, congratulation to the authors, and thank you (but not “Ts’os ingo!”) for helping me better understand why I had been overpolite.



  • Denis Tatone
    Denis Tatone 25 May 2018 (17:22)

    Thanking whom?
    The findings of the paper fall squarely with what has been long known in anthropology. In many societies, everyday cooperative behaviours within the household simply do not call for people to say “thank you.” Where thanking formulae exist, they are often kept for formal use (deference before strangers and dealings with outsiders, for instance).

    Indeed, in family groups it is actually rude to thank, because there is an expectation that people would spontaneously help each other when in need. Tagging such cooperative acts with an expression of gratitudine would be akin to making them appear supererogatory, thus violating the expectation of tacit support that is otherwise at work within the household (for an easy but detailed analysis of this topic, I’d recommend Margaret Visser’s book “The Gift of Thanks”).

    This said, while it is true that expressions of gratitude are remarkably rare across societies (with some noticeable differences), one should also not forget that the types of social interactions sampled were all confined to within-households cooperative acts.

    Had the authors included also interactions between strangers, members of different groups, or nonkin individuals tied by reciprocal partnerships based on codified exchange norms, I am confident that a different picture would have emerged (of course, this would have represented a major hurdle for data collection, given the paucity of inter-group exchange episodes in everyday live).

    Nonetheless, while somewhat comparable to the others, the English and Italian samples stood out for a relatively higher frequency of expression of gratitude — even in the domain of family interactions. The low frequency in Poland and Russia suggests this not to be a European phenomenon, but — perhaps — a “Western” one.

    Why such difference?

    Here is my tentative conjecture: the progressive reduction of a kin-based social network (that is, the extended family) in favor of service-based assistance with nonkin providers, which is most prevalent in Western societies, lead us to develop a higher social prior towards stranger-appropriate codes of conduit, including expressions of gratitude, which often leak in contexts where no such acknowledgement would be otherwise required.

  • Dan Sperber
    Dan Sperber 25 May 2018 (18:57)

    Thank you Denis!
    You are right, Denis, to focus on the social relationship involved. Yes, expressions of gratitude are less common in the domestic sphere, where mutual help is expected. Another relevant dimension is hierarchy: it is more common for a subordinate to thank a superior than the other way around. Even in the family, children thanking parents is more likely to be expected than the reverse, and so on.
    Note however that my own experience among the Dorzé of being advised not to thank so much only involved interaction with non-kin. The advise probably had something to do with hierarchy. Not having a preset position in the local hierarchy, thanking too much might be interpreted as a failure on my part to claim by my behaviour an appropriately high position.
    Still, I did observe, “anecdotally” but very frequently all the same, that saying “Ts’os ingo!” was used only for relatively important gifts or services, whether among kin or strangers.
    More generally, what the Floyd et al. article made me realise is that I had come with an expectation that thanking would be more or less as common as it is in the society where I grew up, and such an expectation may well be parochial and ethnocentric. After all, thanking is cheap – why should we care so much about it? The real anthropological puzzle may be not why some – may be most – cultural groups don’t seem to care that much, but rather why some cultural groups, West Europeans for instance, do.

  • Denis Tatone
    Denis Tatone 28 May 2018 (09:45)

    Hierarchies indeed!
    Thank you Dan for this comment.

    I completely overlooked hierarchies. Indeed several anthropologists (Lee, Cronk, Graber, to name a few) proposed that declarations of gratitude introduce status differences that members of egalitarian societies otherwise seek to avoid.

    There are two other relevant differences between our thanking practices and those of (some) hunter-gatherers that the paper also did not mention: (1) thanking often precedes, rather than following, a transfer. In this sense, it fulfills the function of a request (Widlok, 2017); and, (2) when it follows a donation, it is often accompanied by a criticism of the gift. According to Cronk (2018), this may be because, given the reciprocal obligations that gratitude-based exchanges entail (for instance, among the Masaai), belittling the value of the gifted resources achieves the goal of negotiating the amount of expected repayment.

    As for the question why some groups care so much about thanking, I don’t have a sound explanation myself. Graeber (2011) suggested that it is “a kind of democratization of what was once a habit of feudal deference: the insistence on treating absolutely everyone the way that one used only to have to treat a lord”. However, this explanation seems itself question-begging: if the aim is to level the social playing field why did we settle for the practice of making expressions of gratitude ubiquitous, instead of making them disappear?

    PS: Curiously, my little armchair anthropological knowledge would have led me to interpret your anecdote in a very different way. My hunch was that you might have been discouraged from expressing gratitude not because thanking did not suit the high status you were tacitly accorded, but rather because it might have impeded treating you as fictive kin.

  • Bahador Bahrami
    Bahador Bahrami 3 June 2018 (13:28)

    a pedantic note
    I had a problem sympathizing with the hypothesis and the way it is implemented. We read that “[t]he objective of this study was to examine the maintenance of social reciprocity by determining the extent to which people overtly express gratitude for the fulfilment of requests made in informal social interaction …”.
    This implies the following hypothesis: Reciprocity is maintained by expression of gratitude.
    Consider the following situations:
    1) A helps B. B expresses gratitude profusely.
    a. Later on, B helps A.
    b. Later on, B does not helps A.
    2) A helps B. B expresses little gratitude.
    a. Later on B helps A.
    b. Later on B does not helps A.
    The proper test of the paper’s hypothesis is to test the following predictions
    Prediction One = 1a is more frequent than 2a.
    Prediction two = 2b is more frequent than 1b.
    Instead, the paper has chosen to measure the prediction that (1) is more frequent than (2). How is this related to maintenance of reciprocity?