Ask and you shall receive—but don’t expect a thank you

May 24, 2018

Common courtesy is not, well, so common anymore. Research findings released on May 23 by the University of Sydney indicate that, worldwide, people often don’t say “thank you’” when someone does a simple favor for them.

The research—conducted across Australia, Ecuador, Ghana, Italy, Laos, Poland, Russia, and the United Kingdom in the native languages of each country—found that in 1,000 instances of informal conversations among friends and families, the words “thank you” were said “in only one out of fifty occurrences.”

At the farthest end of spectrum, Ecuadorians in the study never said “thank you” when someone did them a favor.

Published in Royal Society Open Science, the findings suggest that there is an unspoken willingness by most people to cooperate with others.

“Our findings indicate a widespread assumption that saying ‘thank you’ is not necessary in the everyday contexts of our lives,” said Professor Nick Enfield of the university’s Department of Linguistics, who led the investigation—which  is part of a larger look at language and social interactions.

“When people think of social norms around gratitude, they naturally think about our interactions in formal settings, where it seems standard to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’,” said Enfield. “But in in our homes and villages – where our interactions would seem to matter most – we find people dispense with these niceties almost entirely.”

He says this does not constitute a lack of manners in most cultures—or that we are polite in public but have no manners in our own homes. “Instead,” Enfield explained, “it demonstrates that humans have an unspoken understanding we will cooperate with each other.”

The researchers found significantly higher rates of gratitude expressed among English and Italian speakers. Those whose first language is English or another Western European language were outliers, not representative of the diversity of the world’s languages and cultures.

“Everyday life works because it’s in our nature to ask for help and pay back in kind, rather than just in words,” said Enfield.

Research contact: nick.enfield@sydney.edu.au

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