People Thank Close Friends and Family Less Than Strangers (And That's Not a Bad Thing)

We might not express our gratitude to family with our words, but probably do so with our gestures. (Photo: Brian A Jackson/Shutterstock)

I go out of my way to say "thank you" to my partner frequently, and he's the same way. We were both raised by parents who valued politeness, and more than that, I want to do all those little things that psychologists say help couples stay together. Expressed gratitude is one of those things, so a quick "thanks" seems like an easy one.

But according to a recent study, we're not at all typical.

The study published in the journal Royal Society Open Science looked at over 1,000 recordings of casual conversations among families and in local community settings. In only about one out of 20 times were expressions of thanks observed. Phrases that meant "thanks" but weren't a direct translation of the word were counted, including physical gestures of thanks. The researchers looked at a wide variety of people from different places, representing eight languages on five continents: Polish, Russian and Italy in their respective home countries, English in the United Kingdom, Murrinh-patha (an Aboriginal language) in the Australian Northern Territory, Cha’palaa in Ecuador, Lao in Laos and Siwu in Ghana. (And if you need a lesson in how to say thank you in a couple of different languages, the video below can help.)

The biggest thankers

The Brits thanked people close to them the most, about 14.5 percent of the time, and close behind them were the Italians at 13.5 percent. The Murrinh-patha came next at 4.5 percent and following them were the Russians, the Polish, the Laotians and the Siwu speakers.

The lowest? Well, the Cha’palaa speakers of Ecuador don't have a word for "thank you" at all. Theirs is not the only language that doesn't, and this explains why English-language students are often confused by when and how to use "thank you" when they learn the language. In fact, according to the study's authors, "studies of other cultures show that thanking is frequently considered bizarre or rude."

But, as the anthropologists and linguists wrote in their paper, "We need to differentiate gratitude as an emotion from gratitude as a linguistic practice." In other words, expressing thanks, in some cultures, is more of a linguistic tradition than a true expression of feelings. In cultures where thanks is less-often said, it's because social cooperation is taken for granted, and "thank you" isn't really needed or necessary — because helping others when they ask is a function of humanity's interdependence.

"In everyday interaction, cooperation is the rule: social life thrives because it’s in our nature to ask for help and pay back in kind, rather than just in words," Nick Enfield, a lead researcher on the study at the University of Sydney, told The Guardian. "There is literally an unspoken agreement that people will cooperate."

The idea that you don't need to thank others because it's assumed that you're appreciative is kind of beautiful, if a bit hard for me to wrap my head around personally.

So I'll keep saying "thanks" as frequently as I do, both at home and elsewhere. But as a frequent traveler, I'll keep in mind to watch the local custom and follow suit.