Stop with the Thank Yous!


“I just finished sweeping and I’m about to leave for the market,” my helper told me.“Thank you!” I responded. It was one of the busiest times of my life with an infant, a toddler, work responsibilities, and the exhausting realities of small town China life pulling me in many directions. I was incredibly grateful to our helper for the ways she kept us afloat. Without conveniences like a dishwasher, dryer, or a car to haul groceries, our family would not have made it without her assistance. It was natural for me to try to thank her for all the many jobs she did to keep our household running.I didn’t expect her next words.“Ugh, would you stop with the thank yous?” she said, rolling her eyes in mock exasperation. “Did you hire me to help you or not?”I was completely taken off guard. She was frustrated that I was thanking her? Wasn’t I being polite? Wasn’t that treating her more kindly than some Chinese families, who acted like their house helpers were slaves or soulless kitchen appliances? What was wrong with me saying thank you?Of course, this conversation was happening in Mandarin, not English. So, the phrase she was taking offense at wasn’t thank you, but xie xie.Xie xie is one of the first phrases foreigners learn when they get to China. We get taught that xie xie means thank you. And it does. But for English speakers, it’s easy to make the assumption that you can use xie xie in all the bajillion ways that English speakers use thank you. And we say thank you A LOT.We say it when someone hands us a napkin. When someone tells us they’ll put us on hold to transfer our call. When the waitress brings the bill. Even in dramatic moments in movies, when the uniformed man shows up at the door to tell the lady that her husband was killed in warfare, the widow says, “thank you” before collapsing in grief.I’ve heard some people say this means English speakers are really polite. But, if you look closely, our thank you is often just a linguistic device more than an actual expression of gratitude. A way to say, “Got it.” Or, “Okay.” Or, “Cool.”In Chinese, there are devices like that, too, plus lots of different ways to express gratitude, just as there are in English. I eventually learned that xie xie is usually used for situations when you are thanking someone for a gift or favor. Like saying, “That was so kind of you!”So, when a waitress brings your order and sets it down on the table, it would be weird to say to her, “That was so kind of you!” And yet, that’s essentially what I was doing to my helper.

Her: “I just swept.”

Me: “Oh, you shouldn’t have!”

Her: “I’ve finished the dishes.”

Me: “Aw, how sweet!”

Her: “I’m gonna run to the market.”

Me: “That’s so thoughtful of you!”

No wonder she finally had enough!After she clued me in to my bad xie xie habit, I started paying much more attention to how people around me expressed their thanks.

When the cleaning lady mopped the floor of the hospital room my daughter was sharing with other pediatric patients, the grandma of the toddler in the next bed told her, “Xinku ni le.”

When someone was reporting that they’d finished a task, their boss said, “Hao de.”

When my friends wanted to let a restaurant owner know that they loved the food, they did so by returning for dinner the next week with friends in tow.

When a friend had to run into a store to ask for directions, they expressed appreciation to the helpful shop owner by saying, “Mafan ni le.”

You don’t have to speak Mandarin to figure out that not a single one of those was xie xie.It made me more aware of other social conventions, too. How do you apologize appropriately when you’re running late, versus when you bump someone in a crowd, versus when you really messed up? What’s the right thing to say when someone gets promoted? When their parent is sick in the hospital? When they announce a pregnancy?Learning all these phrases beyond the simple versions that are taught in beginner classes help make life a little easier and the foreigner a little less foreign.And of course, it also made my helper a lot happier when I learned to save my xie xie for when I really meant it.What phrases have you used a lot that you later learned were inappropriate? How did you find out you were saying it wrong?