on expressions of gratitude and politeness (or: an Americanism that bothers me)

As a proud Canadian, I’m happy to boast about my home country, and when travelling, it’s always nice to know that saying I’m from Canada usually elicits a positive reaction.  People seem to have, on the whole, a positive image of the Great White North, at least when they have any image at all, but not all of what people perceive is based in reality. 

One of the positive stereotypes of Canadians that I have trouble backing up is the notion that Canadians are “polite.”  If it were a simple dichotomous choice between “Canadians: if polite, yes; if rude, no,” then I’d have an easier time choosing, but what people most often mean by that statement is not that Canadians are or are not polite in absolute terms, but rather that Canadians are allegedly more polite than others, and in particular more polite than their much-maligned neighbours.  Now, I’ve lived in the United States for more than a third of my life, and despite its panoply of flaws, I truly have a deep respect for this country, its history, and its people.  That respect does not preclude me from thinking critically about the country, and even from sharing the gut feeling that Americans are, in fact, less polite on average than the common Canuck.  But what evidence could one even construct to show that?

A linguist would have difficulty arguing that X or Y society is any more “polite” than any other.  I’m not saying that it’s impossible or even untrue, but it would require meeting a very complex set of criteria.  From a language perspective, for a statement to be polite, at least as it’s often conceived in the literature on pragmatics, it would either maximize the positive social value of an utterance or maximally mitigate its negative effects through different uses of language devices.  What language choices are optimal for a given situation depends on the status of the speaker, the interlocutor (or addressee), and the social and linguistic norms of that culture regarding the situation.  Let’s take a look at my personal pet peeve: responses to “Thank you.”

Saying “Thank you” is a rather complex act.  Eisenstein and Bodman (1993) break down the many different ways a person elaborates an expression of gratitude for social purposes.  For example, if someone buys you dinner, you could say, “Thank you.  You’re too kind.”  In linguistics terms, we’d code that as [expression of gratitude] + [complimenting the giver].  We could alternatively express our affection for the giver, or express our own pleasure resulting from the giver’s actions, or any number of different things, each of which would be more or less appropriate in a given situation.  One common theme, though, is that expressions of gratitude often include some level of “deference.”  Deference as a technical term means the appreciation expressed by one person to another.  It is, in one sense, analogous to admitting debt.  Of course, as a speaker I want to maintain dignity and respect, but in expressing gratitude, I have to show deference to another person.  I therefore need to find words that are mutually satisfying–that is, not overly self-effacing, but properly acknowledging the person to whom I am showing gratitude.  That’s a fairly difficult negotiation, given that the means of doing that differ widely between different cultures.

In Japanese, for example, arigatou, which is the standard, dictionary “Thank you,” literally means “there has been (ari) difficulty (gatou).”  In other words, arigatou acknowledges that the addressee was inconvenienced or otherwise pained by doing something for the speaker instead of for him/herself.  It is also common to say sumimasen (“excuse me” or more literally, “this doesn’t settle”) or even gomennasai (“please forgive me” or more colloquially, “sorry”) as an expression of thank you.  Even in very casual speech, a very widespread expression for gratitude is warui/warukatta, which means “that is/was bad (of me).”

It’s pretty easy to see that the threshold for deference in Japanese is probably a lot higher than it is in English.  It’s not that Japanese people are “more polite” per se, but that the social norm for expressing gratitude in that context usually involves the mandatory expression of a higher degree of deference than would be needed in North American English.  Inversely, in English, saying “I’m sorry” or “That was bad, sorry” to someone who passes you the salt shaker wouldn’t be more “polite” by any stretch.  It’d just be weird.  That’s not the optimal match in our context, and so, if we can conceive of politeness as the optimal language form for creating positive feelings between giver and recipient of the act, then if I begged forgiveness when you gave me the salt, I would fail the politeness test.

The key, though, is the response to this.  Imagine a simple scenario with two Japanese guys at a bar.  Hypothetical Speaker A asks for the salt.  Interlocutor B gives A the salt, and A says “warui” (my bad) to express thanks.  What does B say next?  There are a few choices.  Most often, he would defuse the situation, either by saying “ya ya” (meaning “nah” or “no big”) or maybe by a simple hand wave that dismissed the statement (body language is language, after all).  In a more formal setting, the person responding to thank-you might say iie (“No”), nan/ton-demo nai desu (“It’s nothing”), or a similar negator.  Notice there that B wouldn’t be dismissing the expression of gratitude, but rather the deference in it, reaffirming that both speakers are on equal terms, which helps to reaffirm the positive social relationship between the two bar mates.

Imagine instead what would happen if B had said ee or hai (meaning “yeah” or “yes”).  It doesn’t take a genius to see that that would go over pretty poorly.  He would be acknowledging and even affirming the fact that his friend is in debt to him, implying that he is somehow above his friend, and that would be socially inappropriate.  Perhaps because of that, some of the most common responses to “Thank you,” not just in Japanese but in most of the world’s languages, often use negators like “No problem,” or “Think nothing of it,” and so on.

Now, for some reason, American English speakers seem to think that “Yeah,” “Yep,” and “Uh-huh” are appropriate responses to thank-you.  I have, on a very rare occasion heard this from Canadians, usually in Toronto (in all seriousness, actually, haha!), but it’s by far more common to say “No worries” or “No problem” or some other negator.  When I express my annoyance with this to Americans, I most commonly get denial.  “We don’t say that!  You must have heard wrong.”  Frankly, yes, they do say that.  Luckily, they do this so often that I have innumerable opportunities to catch them in the act, so to speak.  If I point out to American friends when someone says “Yeah” to me in response to thank-you, I usually get one or more of the following:

“It’s no big deal.” / “You’re too picky.”  (I’m not saying it’s the end of the world; I’m saying it’s impolite)

“That’s totally fine/cool/normal/acceptable in America.”  (Well, yeah!  That’s the problem.  That’s exactly the problem, in fact.)

“She said it with a friendly face.”  “It’s all about how she said it, and she was friendly enough.” (Uh…. how exactly?  If I smile while saying something rude, it changes what I said very little.  In terms of what speech act she performed, her facial expression doesn’t sway that one way or the other.)

So, is this definitive cross-linguistic proof that Americans are in fact ruder than Canadians?  As much as I do hate that habit, probably not.  The American custom of responding in the affirmative instead of negating the deferment might have another explanation.  In a fairly old but oft-cited study of expressions of thanks, Rubin (1983) revealed that, when we really look at spoken data, American English speakers very rarely just say “Thank you” alone except when the act is very small, and then only just as a “social amenity,” which he called “bald thank-you.”  This “bald thank-you” doesn’t seem to carry any meaning of deferment.  In fact, it seems to be almost entirely semantically void.  This special type of thank-you might have lost its connotation of appreciation in America while still retaining it in most of the rest of the English-speaking world.  If that’s the case, then responding to a bald thank-you with “Yeah” wouldn’t be acknowledging the deferment so much as completing the social expectation of responding, almost as if the original thanker had said “Hello.”  That’s certainly one possible explanation.  Although for me with my own cultural expectations, it’s hard to imagine what semantic role “yeah” or “uh-huh” could be fulfilling, if I try to look at it on its own terms, it could certainly be less rude than it appears on the surface.

To answer the question of which nation is more polite, it would hypothetically be possible to assemble a list of these instances where certain speech acts are realised by Americans in a way that breaks some sort of pragmatic principle while the Canadian version follows the same politeness principles.  If that’s borne out, it would indeed constitute evidence that Canadians are genuinely more polite than their southern neighbours.  As you can see with the above example, though, that’s tough to do.  There may be reasons to suspect that the stereotype might have some minor element of truth to it, but there are always complications that make it hard to pin down.  I would, however, strongly recommend to Americans that interact with anyone other than their compatriots that they abandon their uniquely annoying habit of responding to thank-you in the affirmative.  It genuinely, linguistically speaking, makes you sound rude.

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One thought on “on expressions of gratitude and politeness (or: an Americanism that bothers me)

  1. I have mentioned before that specific scenarios are needed in order to examine factors such as the age of the participants, the gravity of the exchange, etc. Forthwith: Chinese student in his 20s at the counter of a snack shop in the International Center says, “Thank you” to the American male in his early 20s who is the cashier. The cashier replies, “yup.” I felt a sting of inappropriateness at the cashier’s response. The cashier is clearly less than thrilled with his job and is either ignoring or ignorant of appropriate customer service skills. However, I can’t help but wonder if the cashier’s “yup,” didn’t also include a “no big deal” tone that he actually chose to use with someone his age. Sadly, I was not able to see if I could get a different response because the shop’s phone rang just at the moment I could have said, “thank you.” This one goes in the inappropriateness column.

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