How 'Thank You' Sounds to Chinese Ears

In America, saying thank you is routine. In China, it can be puzzling.

David Gray / Reuters

In an essay for The Atlantic this week, Deepak Singh described the culture of saying “thank you” in Hindi. His explanation for why many Indians don’t say thanks out loud took me back to my early days in China, when I was struggling to learn Mandarin. Singh wrote:

In India, people—especially when they are your elders, relatives, or close friends—tend to feel that by thanking them, you’re violating your intimacy with them and creating formality and distance that shouldn’t exist.

One of the most jarring yet subtle aspects of my experience with Mandarin Chinese was the counterintuitive use—or lack of use—of thank you (xiexie), please (qing), and other softeners like “would,” “could,” “I’m sorry,” and “excuse me” that liberally season vernacular American English.

Here is what I wrote in my book Dreaming in Chinese about my struggle with this piece of Chinese language and culture:

I often feel like I’m being abrupt and blunt, and even rude, when I’m speaking Chinese. Bu yao (don’t want), bu yong (don’t need), mei yǒu (don’t have), bu shi (is not), bu keyǐ (cannot)—all these are standard forms of declining offers or requests, or saying no. But each time I use them, I fight the urge to pad them with a few niceties like “thank you,” “excuse me,” or “I’m sorry.”

Blunt is what I hear back from the Chinese as well, but from them it does not seem intended as rude. It is just what it is. Here are some classic scenes from my everyday life:

Passengers inside jam-packed subway cars jostle and yell “Xia che!”, “Off the car!” There is no “Excuse me,” “pardon me,” or “sorry” to be heard.

In any public place, a mobile phone rings and some one screams the greeting “Wei!,” a response that reaches the decibel level of a yell of “FIRE!” in a crowded theater.

Fuwuyuan! Fuwuyuan!” or “Waitress! Waitress!” diners cry to demand a glass, a bowl, or a pair of chopsticks. And no “Miss, could you please get me another beer?”

That is the etiquette of the street. On a more intimate level, the grammar of politeness is equally complex. On the one hand, the people in China can be effortlessly gentle and courteous.

Take, for instance, the Beijing tradition of man zǒu. Man means “slowly” and zǒu means “walk,” or colloquially “walk slowly.” Man zǒu is the tender goodbye offered from every small shopkeeper I have visited in Beijing. It is usually spoken in a quiet voice, and somehow sounds so much more sincere than “Have a nice day.” Sometimes I will make the trip to my neighborhood laundry with a single shirt for cleaning, just as an excuse to hear the “man zǒu” when I leave the shop.

At the same time, among good friends, the contrasts between the politesse of what you do and the bluntness of what you say can seem baffling. At a restaurant with friends, a delicate choreography will have one person carefully select a few choice morsels from the common bowl and place them on a neighbor’s plate. It is a small, perfect gesture. Another person will pour tea or beer for everyone else before even considering pouring his own. And then another will announce “Gei wǒ yan!”, literally “Give me salt!”, with no sign of a please or thank you involved. I’m always taken a little aback and bite my tongue to stifle a “Say please!” after so many years of training children in Western table manners.

My Chinese friends say they notice that Westerners use lots of pleases (qǐng) and thank yous (xiexie) when speaking Chinese. And actually, they say, we use way too many of them for Chinese taste. A Chinese linguist, Kaidi Zhan, says that using a please, as in “Please pass the salt,” actually has the opposite effect of politeness here in China. The Chinese way of being polite to each other with words is to shorten the social distance between you. And saying please serves to insert a kind of buffer or space that says, in effect, that we need some formality between us here.

One of my tutors, a young guy named Danny, who straddles the line between being a Chinese nationalist and being an edgy global youth, nodded his head enthusiastically when I asked him about this interpretation: “Good friends are so close, they are like part of you,” Danny said. “Why would you say please or thank you to yourself? It doesn’t make sense.”

The first Mandarin term that Westerners usually learn is ni hǎo, the greeting. The second is probably xiexie, or thank you. It’s a comforting way to become acquainted with a language. But it’s worth keeping in mind how the generous and well-intended use of xiexie sounds to Chinese ears.