Feeling and Expressing Thanks

What do you mean when you say “thank you”? That is, what actually goes on in your mind when you thank someone for something?

One helpful way to think about it is to consider your non-verbal language – your facial expressions, posture, tone of voice, and other body language – when you express thanks to someone. Do your eyes open wide, as if in wonder? Do you tend to squinch them a little, as if you were apologizing? Of course, different situations call for different expressions of thanks. That must be the case in just about every language and culture. But what is your default expression?

How about the people around you? Try this. Observe people closely when they say thanks. Watch their facial expressions and body language. Listen to the sound of their voice. If you can, watch and compare people from different countries, backgrounds, ages.

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It’s interesting to consider theories about the origins of “thank you” in different languages. For instance, read this excerpt from David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years (thanks to Brain Pickings for the interesting article and quote) and ask yourself if there’s any hint whatsoever of these senses in your own thanksgiving.

In English, “thank you” derives from “think,” it originally meant, “I will remember what you did for me” — which is usually not true — but in other languages (the Portuguese obrigado is a good example) the standard term follows the form of the English “much obliged” — it actually does mean “I am in your debt.” The French merci is even more graphic: it derives from “mercy,” as in begging for mercy; by saying it you are symbolically placing yourself in your benefactor’s power — since a debtor is, after all, a criminal. Saying “you’re welcome,” or “it’s nothing” (French de rien, Spanish de nada) — the latter has at least the advantage of often being literally true — is a way of reassuring the one to whom one has passed the salt that you are not actually inscribing a debit in your imaginary moral account book. So is saying “my pleasure” — you are saying, “No, actually, it’s a credit, not a debit — you did me a favor because in asking me to pass the salt, you gave me the opportunity to do something I found rewarding in itself!

Or consider Japanese expressions for giving thanks.

Take the word for “thank you” that foreigners usually learn first, “Arigato.” When written with Chinese characters, “Arigato” combines the character for “being, to exist”「有る」(aru) and “difficult”「難」 (kata). In its original sense, the word meant something like “this is a rare thing,” or “this is rare and precious.” According to one common explanationarigato originated in the Middle Ages as a religious expression of gratitude for Buddha’s mercy and other precious things that were difficult to get by oneself.

Also consider the ubiquitous “sumimasen.” This word can be used to say “excuse me” when you bump into someone, to apologize for being late, to call a waiter in a restaurant… and, among other uses, to express your gratitude for all sorts of things. In fact, in everyday interactions, most people use sumimasen more frequently than arigato for saying thanks. How can a single word have so many different meanings, ranging from “I’m sorry” to “thank you”? Once again, it helps to consider its etymology, even if people don’t think exactly in these terms when they say sumimasen today. Several Japanese sites I found give one or both of the following explanations:

  1. Sumimasen is the negative form of 澄む (sumu), which means “to become clear, transparent, serene.” The idea is that your heart is not serene or clear because of what someone else did for you, as if your heart is unsettled by the trouble they went to for you, or because of what you did to them.
  2. Sumimasen is the negative form of 済む (sumu), which means “to finish, to be finished.” Here the basic idea is that you can’t treat the matter as settled when someone does something for you. It’s as if you’re saying, “It can’t end like this; I must do something for you in return” (this comes close to the language of debt we saw above).

Watch an elderly Japanese lady say “thank you” to her neighbor for some kindness. If you didn’t know the circumstances behind the sumimasen’s and arigato’s, and if you were to judge based on her facial expressions, tone of voice, and overall body language, you might think that she is apologizing for something rather than expressing gratitude. 

I certainly do not mean to say that people think explicitly in terms of the word’s etymology when they say arigato or sumimasen. But the non-verbal language that accompanies most sumimasen’s and many arigato’s suggests this about giving thanks in most Japanese contexts: when expressing thanks, it is important to communicate to the other person (especially through non-verbal language) your recognition that he or she has gone to some degree of trouble (or “difficulty”) on your account.

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Again, what do you mean, and how do you feel, when you say “thank you” or give thanks using other expressions?

Do your actual feelings of thankfulness tend to center around (or largely depend upon) the gift you received? Truth be told, I think that for me “thank you” is still partly connected to how happy I am to receive this or that gift. So when a gift or act doesn’t live up to my expectations, it’s easy for me to feel like my “thank you’s” are somehow fake and empty.

Do your feelings of thankfulness tend to center around (or focus upon) some level of wonder and delight over the other person’s generosity toward you (that is, not so much on the gift or act itself as on the fact that they did this or gave that to you)? I believe that this feeling is often behind my thanksgiving, but not as much – and not as genuinely – as I would like for it to be. As for the language to express this sense of wonder, I suppose some variation of “thank you,” “arigato,” or “kansha shimasu” does it best for me. How about you? 

Do your feelings of gratitude tend to center around (or focus upon) the fact that the other person went to some trouble on your account? I imagine that some people view this as a guilt-laden (and therefore inferior) form of thanks — and I suppose it could be taken to unhealthy extremes, as with anything. But I think this heart of thanksgiving that focuses on the cost to the other person is quite beautiful, and I love all the drama that goes into a round of genuine sumimasen’s.

Thank you for reading! 

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