Think You Always Say Thank You? Oh, Please

Posted May 22, 2018 10:37 p.m. EDT

It is a staple of language classes and parental lectures: Say thank you.

It is one of the first phrases you learn in a new language, and one whose importance is drummed into children through repeat readings of books like “The Berenstain Bears Say Please and Thank You,” “Richard Scarry’s Please and Thank You Book” and “Thank You, Mr. Panda.”

But as it turns out, human beings say thank you far less often than we might think.

A new study of everyday language use around the world has found that, in informal settings, people almost always complied with requests for an object, service or help. For their efforts, they received expressions of gratitude only rarely — in about 1 of 20 occasions.

This might seem like a damning verdict on human nature, or evidence of a global pandemic of rudeness. But to the researchers, it is good news.

“Our basic stance is one of reciprocity,” said Nick Enfield, a linguist at the University of Sydney, who led the study. “When we ask people to help us, the default is that they will.”

The study, to be published Wednesday in the journal Royal Society Open Science, is part of a broader effort to look at language as a tool grounded primarily in social interaction, rather than as a vehicle for the expression of ideas. In an earlier paper, Enfield and colleagues looked at the word “Huh?” as used to elicit clarification during conversation. They found variants across 31 languages whose phonetic patterns otherwise varied greatly, suggesting that “Huh?” was a rare example of a universal word.

In the new paper, called “Universals and Cultural Diversity in the Expression of Gratitude,” a team looked at interactions in eight languages on five continents: English, Italian, Polish, Russian, Lao, Cha’palaa (spoken in Ecuador), Murrinhpatha (an aboriginal language in Australia) and Siwu (spoken in Ghana).

The researchers did not examine institutional or business settings, where expressions of thanks might be more common, but focused on casual daily interactions among people who knew each other, as captured by unattended cameras set up in homes or community areas. Any verbal expressions of gratitude (including, in English, phrases like “good job” or “sweet”) were counted as expressions of thanks.

People signal the need for assistance frequently: about every minute and a half, according to the researchers’ samples. And they usually get it: Requests were complied with about seven times more often than not.

But those who cooperated were very rarely thanked, nor did they seem to expect it. When no thanks were given, the omission was very rarely commented on. On the other hand, when people did not comply with a request, they usually gave an explanation.

“It’s completely asymmetrical,” Enfield said. “People typically don’t give their reasons when they comply. This just underlines the fact that cooperation is the default mode.”

While the study appears to be the first to gather such extensive cross-cultural data on how often people say thank you (as opposed to how often they think they do), the low frequency of thanks does not come as a big surprise to some researchers who study reciprocal behavior from an evolutionary point of view.

“We expect help from close relationships — family and friends, but especially family,” said Robin Dunbar, an anthropologist at Oxford who was not involved with the study. “That we take that help for granted is indeed interesting, because it risks putting such relationships under strain.”

Enfield and his colleagues did find some variations across languages. Speakers of English and Italian verbalized thanks significantly more often than speakers of the other languages sampled, but still quite infrequently — in only 1 of 7 instances where a request was complied with.

The researchers attribute this to what they call the strong “cultural ideology of politeness” in Western European cultures. This does not mean, however, that English or Italian speakers are actually more grateful.

“Expressing gratitude and feeling gratitude are not the same thing,” Enfield said.

Saying thank you may seem foundational to English speakers, but many languages (including one in the study) lack a direct equivalent of that simple phrase. While no reliable data exist, Enfield said that is probably true of most of the 6,000 to 7,000 languages currently spoken in the world (to say nothing of Dothraki, the “thank you"-free invented language of “Game of Thrones”), most of which are spoken by small communities where speakers are likely to know each other.

“In those languages, you don’t have the kind of institutional, anonymous exchanges, which is where politeness comes into its own,” he said. The social implications of giving thanks also vary across cultures. In some languages, a phrase we might translate as “thank you” is reserved for truly momentous favors, like saving someone’s life. In others, frequent thank yous can seem strange, or even (as in some South Asian languages) insulting.

Enfield, the author of the recent book “How We Talk: The Inner Workings of Conversation,” said the thank you study illuminated the frequent gap between how we think we use language and the ways we actually do. But it does not, he emphasized, mean that we should stop teaching children to say thank you.

In fact, he said, the study specifically excluded exchanges involving children, out of suspicion that including them would give a misleading picture.

“People in the home are often concerned with training their children to be polite when they are out in public,” Enfield said. “So, while parents often require their children to say please and thank you during home life, when the children are absent, adults promptly dispense with all that.”