I have been living in the United States for more than a decade, and I now say thank you about 50 times a day. Most of the time, I do it without thinking. I say thank you to the bus driver who takes me from point A to point B along with 20 other people. He usually can’t even hear me. I say thank you to the cashier at the coffee shop. I say thank you to the stranger who holds the door open for me at a restaurant. I say thank you to my wife and my 5-year-old daughter several times a day for various things: turning the volume of the television down or up, flicking the light switch on or off, asking me if I want to eat something or do something with them.
When I first moved to the United States, all this took some getting used to. I didn’t know I was supposed to thank someone who took my money for something I bought at a store. I didn’t know I was supposed to thank people when they asked how I was doing (and almost everyone who walks by me says “Hyadoin” to me). I had no idea how I was supposed to respond to the police officer who gave me a speeding ticket and then said, “Thanks, and have a good day.”
I grew up in the northern Indian city of Lucknow, in a culture in which saying thank you is not done lightly. I learned to say thank you in English in elementary school, and when I thanked anyone, I said it in English, which was less awkward and more casual than doing so in Hindi. I reserved my thanks for those who had done huge favors for me. And I rarely thanked my friends or classmates. When I did, they either smiled quizzically at me or interpreted the act as a kind of joke—a playful way to practice English. I’ve never thanked my parents for anything. In the Hindi language, in everyday gestures and culture, there is an unspoken understanding of gratitude.
Saying dhanyavaad, or “thank you” in Hindi, would almost be sarcastic. It seems inadequate. When I thank anyone in Hindi, I make sure to look the person in the eye. Saying dhanyavaad to someone without looking at him or her is just as good as not saying it at all. As a kid, I never heard anyone my age say thank you in Hindi. I did hear my father say dhanyavaad to people his age, but he did it as sincerely as possible, with his hands joined in front of his chest in the solemn gesture of namaste. He wasn’t just thanking someone for something, but asking for an opportunity to return the favor. That’s how I came to understand expressions of gratitude.
In America, by contrast, saying thank you often marks an end to the transaction, an end to the conversation, an end to the interaction. It is like a period at the end of a sentence. Only in the United States have people offered thanks for coming to their homes or parties. Initially I was surprised when people thanked me for visiting their house when they were the ones who’d invited me, but then I learned that, “Thank you for coming to my home” actually meant, “It’s time for you to get out of my house.”
Saying thank you in Hindi is more like joining a cycle of exchange, creating the possibility of a new relationship.
After moving to America, it took me several years to say thanks to people without actually meaning it. Putting “thank you” on the tip of my tongue, ready to escape at a moment’s notice, rather than extracting it from the depths of my heart, was one of the hardest language lessons I had to learn in the United States.
Now, when I travel to India, I often offend people by saying thank you to them. On a recent trip home, I was invited to my uncle’s house for dinner. He’s been a father figure to me, teaching me many things and advising me at every step of my life. As a kid, I spent more time at his home, and ate more lunches there, than at my parents’ place. That day, I made the mistake of telling him, in English, “Thank you for inviting me” before leaving his house, realizing the import of my words only after they had left my mouth. He didn’t respond, but I saw his expression turn sour. He was filled with disgust. I couldn’t even apologize for thanking him. The damage was done.
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. They may think that you’re closing off the possibility of relying on each other in the future. Saying dhanyavaad to strangers helps initiate a cycle of exchange and familiarity. But with family and friends, dhanyavaad can instead chill relations because you are already intimate and in a cycle of exchange. And few things can be more painful than ending a relationship.
Thank you for reading this essay. Let me assure you that I really mean it, but also that I mean no offense. Dhanyavaad.