I’ve written previously about how simple words like “no” and “water” are different in Chinese; today I’m tackling the ways we express politeness. It’s amazing how many of the simple words one relies upon in one’s native language simply don’t exist in other languages – or, at least, not in the form one is accustomed to.
The phrase “mind your Ps and Qs” will always remind me of a book of stories at my grandmother’s house which included a tale reminding children to say please and thankyou – P standing for “please” and Q sounding like the “kyou” of thank you. Most English-speaking children are chided regularly throughout childhood to say “please” and “thank you”. Well, I certainly was. If it is drilled into you to say “please” and “thank you” all the time, when you learn another language, two of the first words you want to learn are “please” and “thank you”. Then, once you’ve learned them, you use them all the time. Chinese deals with politeness very differently to English. This doesn’t mean Chinese are not polite people, but that politeness is expressed in different ways.
The Mandarin word for “thank you” is 谢谢 [xiè xiè]. You can also say 感谢 [gǎn xiè], which expresses deeper gratitude. There’s not much trouble here, other than English speakers’ tendency to overuse the word. Generally speaking, in China it’s uncommon to say 谢谢 when the task performed is part of the person’s job, something they are paid to do. For example, thanking a bus driver when you get off the bus, or thanking a maid for cleaning. (I first learned this concept in a Korean class; the teacher explained it as a common mistake foreigners make speaking Korean.)
I recently chatted with a friend about foreigners’ overuse of 谢谢. She shared a story about communicating with her long time house helper. My friend speaks very little Chinese, and her house helper speaks very little English. My friend is a sweet Texan who is endlessly polite, and says 谢谢 to her house helper all the time. After a few months of this, her house helper tried to set her straight, to tell her not to say 谢谢 so much. It’s a quandary – my friend would feel terrible NOT saying thank you; her house helper felt very uncomfortable being thanked constantly for doing her job. So my friend tried to explain that in her house/culture, gratitude is an important value. They pushed through the discomfort and now her house helper graciously receives my friend’s thanks, and they are close – despite the language divide.
I also say 谢谢 “too much” and it’s generally not a problem. My regular driver (Driver Shi) always brushes off my 谢谢 implying that I’m being silly to thank him as much as I do. What I have often missed (although I’m getting better) is gifts that show appreciation for those who are “just doing their job” – giving food to a driver who is working over a meal time, Chinese new year gifts, bringing back gifts from your home town when you visit, or sharing something with people serving at a special event. This is not always done, I grant you, but regardless of how many people say 谢谢, it is this sort of consideration (or its absence) that is noticed.
I think that in Western society most people don’t expect to be given gifts for doing their job, but expect people to speak politely – and gifts wouldn’t make up for a lack of verbal thanks. But in Chinese society gifts are huge! Gifts are used to say things that aren’t said verbally – including thank you. I recently discovered that when drivers are hired for a wedding, they expect to be given a meal and a gift. Not doing this would make them feel unappreciated. I would never have thought of that, had not the bus driver I use for everything pointed it out to me. As I said – the different use of “thank you” does not mean Chinese are less polite, just that they are polite in different ways.
Understanding the Chinese concept of “thank you” makes the Chinese ways of saying “you’re welcome” much more logical. There’s no one equivalent phrase, but there are several common responses to being thanked, and they all deny the need for thanks: 不谢 [bù xiè] means “don’t thank me”; 不客气 [bù kè qì] means “don’t be polite”; 没事[méi shì] means “it was nothing”; 应该的 [yīng gāi de] means… well, it needs more creative translation. It basically means “it’s just what I ought to do” so in context it might mean “it’s what anyone would do” or perhaps “it’s my job to do it”. Since thank you is only said when someone goes out of their way, the response is to say that you didn’t go out of your way.
The word please is trickier. I think I’d better save that one for next time!
Go to my post on “please” in Chinese