Being polite doesn’t always mean the same thing.
Manners and etiquette differ from culture to culture.
As a language learner, someone new to a culture, you can only be expected to do your best.
You may forget to adapt your table manners for dinner in China or Japan.
You might offer a weak handshake in Europe.
Usually, these things are easily forgivable. People understand that you’re still learning.
What isn’t forgivable is failing to show proper gratitude, which is the easiest thing to do to be polite in most countries.
While there are many ways you can do this, the simplest way to show it is with a sincere “thank you.”
The True Meaning of “Thank You”
In English, the phrase “thank you” has a long history rooted—along with the rest of the language, of course—in several different cultures.
While a lot of things are uncertain, we know that the word “thank” comes from the Old English “thanc,” which means “thought.” The sentiment was that those who were grateful would think plenty of the person to whom they were grateful.
The rest of Europe developed their word for gratitude similarly. The Old High German which influenced English used dank, which isn’t too different from today’s danke.
The Romance languages, such as Spanish and Italian, evolved from Latin. This is why you’ll notice that many of their respective phrases for gratitude are so similar. All The Spanish gracias and the Italian grazie derive from the Latin gratias agere which, if you break it down, essentially meant “I give praises.”
Now, that’s just European languages—and they still have their differences. Imagine how the rest of the world’s diverse languages may differ! This diversity of “thank you” is exactly why it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with the appropriate phrase or word to use wherever you’re living or traveling.
That’s what we’re here for.
We’ll go through the singular expressions of gratitude in each of several different cultures before exploring the actual phrases you should learn to use.
Eager to be more polite? Let’s get started!
How to Express Your Gratitude Anywhere in the World
Learn Gestures, Because Actions Speak Louder
When someone does something, anything, for you, it’s always good to show them that you appreciate the thought behind their action. Even if it’s not a big deal, a little gratitude is just polite.
So, what’s the best way to express gratitude? As we’ve said, there are a lot of acceptable, highly-appreciated ways to do it.
One universally-shared custom is the act of offering gifts. We give them for a variety of reasons on a variety of different occasions like birthdays, Christmas and returning from traveling. Of course, this may not always be simple. There are a lot of things to consider.
After all, think about how difficult it was the last time you tried to find something special for your mother’s birthday! Past the age of nine, pasta artwork just doesn’t cut it!
What we’re trying to say is, you have to consider what is appropriate when giving gifts. For example, money is generally seen as being a relatively thoughtless gift, except in a few rare cases. Flowers can be an appropriate gift depending on the individual and the reason behind it. A students thanking their teachers with flowers is a greatly appreciated gesture, for example. The most important thing is the thought behind a gift.
This custom varies from place to place. For example, if you visit Japan, you should be aware that in their culture, there are different levels of gifts and manners to keep in mind when receiving one. It is customary to bow as you accept a gift using both hands.
Of course, you can’t always give gifts to thank people. That would be impractical. Thankfully, gifts aren’t the only appreciated gesture of gratitude.
If you look at dining etiquette all over the world, you’ll find that showing appreciation for a meal is wildly different from place to place. In most Western cultures, it’s appropriate to thank the host (or chef in some cases) for a lovely meal, while in China and Japan, they’ll see your appreciation when you slurp your meal up or burp at the end as an expression of real satisfaction and gratitude.
Remember: It’s the Thought That Counts
As we said, expressing gratitude is one of the easier aspects of courtesy. It’s certainly a lot easier than trying to acquaint yourself with formal dining etiquette, anyway. However, it’s also the easiest to go overboard with in some cultures.
In China, thanking people for every small gesture of kindness can be taken as a sign that you’re being disingenuous, and disingenuous gestures or expressions are seldom appreciated, for good reason. It can also be taken as a sign that you’re trying to establish the need for formalities, which implies that you’re not interested in being all that friendly. In a way, the less traditionally polite you are, the friendlier you’ll appear.
That applies in India as well, where a simple “thank you” can actually be a bit offensive. The reason for this is that gratitude is expected. That is to say, reciprocation is generally presumed, and therefore there’s no need to actually say “thank you.”
What can you do when you’ve just landed in a new country and you only have the manners you were raised with? Well, when in Rome! Pay close attention to what the locals do and try to ascertain what the courteous customs are. If that doesn’t work for you, befriend a local and ask them about customs directly.
In this day and age, there’s a multitude of easily-available methods to briefly research a place and its culture. You can use that to prepare and save yourself from a few awkward situations you might encounter through misunderstanding. You might also find, as a language learner, that researching a culture will aid you in your language learning experience.
If none of those seem to do the trick, just stick with what you know. Even if you don’t slurp your food at dinner or bow when you accept a gift, show appreciation the way you usually do. Again, the thought behind your gesture is the most important. As long as you show that you’re genuine and that you’re trying, a small faux pas or two will be forgiven.
How to Say Thank You in 20 Different Languages
The surest way to make sure someone knows that you’re grateful is to just say, “thank you.”
If you’re embarking on an international adventure—or if you just want to be prepared to say “thanks” to anyone you meet in life—it’s good to learn how to say “thank you” in different languages.
Or, maybe you’re just curious about what the rest of the world is up to. Learning about these expressions of gratitude will satisfy that multilingual craving.
1. Arabic: شكرا (shukraan)
While this is the more general “thank you” in standard Arabic, you can get a little more specific and say شكرًا لك (shukraan lak) when talking to a male or شكرًا لكي (shukraan laki) when talking to a female. It’s not a necessity to add those words, but it’s a nice touch.
2. Mandarin: 谢谢 (xiéxié)
This is the main way to say “thank you,” but you can also use 多谢 (duōxiè), which is the equivalent of “thanks a lot,” to amplify the gratitude.
3. French: Merci
Short and sweet is the basic French word for thanks, merci. You may hear people thank one another with merci mille fois, which equates to “a thousand thanks.”
4. German: Danke
If someone offers you something, it’s better to use bitte when accepting. Danke, in that context, may give off the impression that you’re declining the offer.
5. Italian: Grazie
You can add emphasis by saying grazie mille, but be warned that this can sometimes be perceived as sarcasm!
6. Japanese: ありがとう (arigatou)
Use this “thank you” with family and friends, but not with someone of a higher social status, like your teacher or your boss. For them, you may use the slightly more polite ありがとうございますいます (arigatou gozaimasu).
7. Korean: 고마워 (gomawo)
Use this informally. To show respect to strangers or those of a higher status, add 요 (yo) to the end. With someone of a higher social status, you’ll be safer using 감사합니다 (gamsahabnida) which is much more respectful.
8. Portuguese: Obrigado
Obrigado is used when spoken by a man, while women use obrigada. Choose the proper word ending according to your own gender!
9. Russian: Cпасибо (spasibo)
You may also use Большое спасибо (bolshoe spasibo) or, when trying to show immense gratitude, огромное спасибо (ogromnoye spasibo).
10. Spanish: Gracias
It seems that most of the world’s inhabitants are already familiar with the Spanish word for “thank you,” gracias. There’s also muchas gracias or muchísimas gracias for even more emphasis.
11. Cantonese: 唔該 (m̀h gōi)
You generally use this when thanking someone for an act or service, while 多謝 (dòjeh) is used to thank someone for a gift or compliment.
12. Dutch: Dank je
If speaking formally, it’s better to use dank u wel.
13. Finnish: Kiitos
This is the most common way of thanking someone, but you can use kiitos paljon in cases where you’re extremely grateful to someone.
14. Greek: ευχαριστώ (efcharistó)
It’s also acceptable to pat your chest with one hand as a small gesture conveying your thanks.
15. Hindi: धन्यवाद (dhanyavaad)
This is quite a formal way of thanking someone. You can use शुक्रिया (shukriya) which is informal. Although as mentioned earlier in our discussion of gratitude in Indian culture, we don’t recommend using either of these liberally.
16. Hawaiian: Mahalo
You may choose to say mahalo nui loa, which means “thank you very much.” This word has a rich an interesting history worth reading about!
17. Icelandic: Takk
This is a common way of saying “thank you,” but you may also use Þakka þér fyrir, which means “thank you very much.”
18. Polish: Dziękuję Ci
You can also use a simple dzięki (thanks) or dziękuję bardzo, the latter of which means, “thank you very much”
19. Romanian: Mulţumesc
This is common, but you can also use îți mulțumesc which is informal.
20. Swedish: Tack
It’s quite common to say tackar (thanking) or tack så mycket (thanks so much), the latter of which is just slightly more formal but still quite casual.
There you have it! You’re now ready to receive all manner of nice things and express your appreciation and gratitude no matter where you where.
Just remember that it’s not always about what you say, but what you do that matters and the intent behind it.
It’s the thought that counts!
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